Benedict XVI’s papacy has been marked by ups and downs. There was more than one colossal “faux pas” (.e.g the Regensburg speech) with regard to Muslims (and the Bishop Williamson affair). Overall, however, Benedict generally kept intact the interreligious thrust of the Catholic Church generated by Vatican II. But he did not do much to advance that thrust beyond his predecessor John Paul II.

If (and that remains a big “if”) the new Pope wishes to move interreligious relations to a new level I see three interrelated challenges before him. The first will be how to handle the strong emphasis on evangelization and dialogue that has been a central of the past several years of Benedict XVI’s time in office. In my mind few Catholic leaders have really struggled with the question, “can you mount an evangelization campaign and still remain committed to interreligious relations?” Doesn’t such an evangelization outreach place “the other” on unequal footing  from the Catholic perspective? And doesn’t authentic dialogue require some affirmation of the coequal status of your dialogue partner?

Cardinal Turan who heads the Congregation for Interreligious Relations within the Vatican has spoken of an equality of religious persons but not an equality of religious traditions. Does this resolve the issue? While I see it as a somewhat positive step in the evolution of Catholic thinking it remains something less than a fully adequate response.

The Vatican, through its Congregations for Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue, released a statement in 1991 trying to address the tension between the two aspects of Catholic religious commitment. This document went through numerous drafts, the final version being somewhat less satisfactory than some of the initial drafts. The late Catholic interreligious pioneer Jacques Dupuis, SJ, as well as the interreligious leader at Georgetown University, Dr. John Porelli, have both found this document as not ultimately resolving the tension between dialogue and proclamation/evangelization. The new Pope will have to decide whether he wants to pursue some further resolution or simply pursue the evangelization card without much regard for the implications for interreligious relations.

With respect to Catholic-Jewish relations, for example, the new Pope will have to decide whether he will take seriously Cardinal Walter Kasper’s contention that Jews have authentic revelation and remain in the covenant, hence not a community that needs to be proselytize. The issue of evangelization remains a continuing source of tension in most of the other relationships the Catholic Church has with other religions.

The second challenge is whether the Catholic Church truly believe it has some new insights to gain for its own religious self-understanding from interreligious dialogue. Dialogue ought to be an experience of faith sharing leading to mutual learning. But the thrust of a document such as DOMINUS IESUS released by the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger seems to deny that Catholicism has anything to learn from interreligious exchanges. It is fully complete as it now stands. Such a perspective, if it dominates, does not create much enthusiasm for dialogue either among Catholic or possible dialogue partners.

A sidebar question is whether a new Pope will emphasize that interreligious dialogue must become an integral part of contemporary Catholic identity and not merely a peripheral exercise undertaken by a select few.

Finally, there is need for the new Pope to continue the process of acknowledging that the Catholic Church over the centuries has treated other Christians as well as people in other faith communities with contempt that has sometimes led to outright suffering and persecution. There must be a clear acknowledgment that the institutional church itself and its leaders were responsible and not merely some wayward individuals. This is not a requirement for authentic dialogue merely for Catholics. But Catholics cannot exempt themselves from this process if a positive culture of dialogue is to emerge.

The statement issued by the French Catholic Bishops some years ago regarding the activities of French Catholicism, including bishops, stands as a marvelous model for how this might be done by Catholics and others.

By John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago
Board Trustee, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

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