Cambridge, MA. As we get closer to the election, there is naturally more discussion of the role of religion in politics, including the responsibilities of Catholics both as candidates and as voters. Much of the discussion has to do with issues such as abortion, genetic engineering, and marriage, and these are obviously very important. But in our increasingly complex global context where religions are meeting all the more intensely, we can also ask: Which candidate knows not only her or his own faith, and remains seriously and intelligently committed to it, but also has studied and thought about other religions? Which candidate goes beyond slogans about Christianity or other religions, and shows that she or he knows something about other religions, is receptive to learning from and with their members, and is not chauvinistic about her or his own? Which candidates steadfastly refuse to pander to religious fear and bias? There are numerous reasons for not voting for someone, and few reasons can be decisive by themselves, but from a Catholic viewpoint, interreligious ignorance and lack of seriousness about mutual learning are good reasons for not voting for someone.
I reminded of this because the Pope has again brought dialogue to the fore. During his recent visit to Lourdes, on September 14th, Benedict addressed the French bishops, and in the course of his remarks, he reminded them — and us — that interreligious dialogue is one of the duties of Catholics in today’s society. It “is a real striving for mutual understanding” which is a real good, since “ignorance destroys more than it builds.” Its purpose is to “seek and deepen a knowledge of the Truth;” even as the Pope goes on to stress that Christ is the Truth, he does not see this confession of faith as short-circuiting a real and honest shared, dialogical search for truth. He advises us to favor interreligious initiatives that “favor reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue,” while avoiding “those which lead to impasses.” One-dimensional claims about other religions get us nowhere and do more harm than good. The final step is “witness and proclamation of the faith,” but this must begin in listening and in dialogue, and then too in “to theological discussion” — both of these precede proclamation. The Pope’s position, by no means liberal, is still basic and strong: we have a duty to seek the truth together, cultivating mutual respect, and working together for mutual understanding in and for our common quest. In a world where ignorance of religions and inexcusable stereotypes are prevalent, the easier options are relativism or a confusion of Christian fidelity with (at best) condescension toward other religions — and such easy options must be put aside, in favor of commitment to the serious work of dialogue. The work of proclaiming Christ does not excuse us from dialogue, but requires us to enter upon dialogue intelligently and with vulnerability, such that we might learn as well as teach.
Perhaps dialogue is not the very first Catholic priority, but neither is it something optional, secondary, or merely polite. It is a real and integral part of Christian work and witness today, and without dialogue, proclamation is deficient. So my question: How would it be if we expected Catholics — including those in politics — to show that they are serious about interreligious respect and mutual learning?
So I at least will be looking for candidates, local and national, who show interreligious sensitivity, who have bothered to learn about other religions, and who do not use their faith as an excuse for ignorance of or disrespect for the faith of others. If I could host a debate, I would love to ask candidates who make an public issue of their religious identities what they think of the Pope’s assertion that our “globalized, multicultural and multireligious society” is “a God-given opportunity to proclaim Truth and practice Love so as to reach out to every human being without distinction, even beyond the limits of the visible Church.”