The Pope, Interreligious Leader

Cambridge, MA. Austen Ivereigh’s most recent blog very helpfully draws our attention to the Pope’s New Year’s Day - World Day of Peace – message, Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace, just as he did a week ago to the Pope’s BBC broadcast and its welcome message.

Given the religious violence that is in the news these days, it is timely that the Pope is speaking out and challenging his peers in other traditions to work together for respect and human rights. And it is good that the Pope uses these public occasions to make broad, general appeals that we live together in peace, and work with our sisters and brothers in other religious traditions to ensure freedom of religion and make religious commitment a source of respect for all people. (In this regard, it is striking that he plans now to honor John Paul II’s bold initiative in gathering religious leaders for prayer in Assisi in 1986, by an anniversary event there this fall.


As readers know, I enjoy teasing out themes of interreligious significance from this Pope’s writings and pronouncements, as I did recently with respect to his book-length interview, The Light of the World.

But in this case, it is easy, and a pleasure, to add this blog in support of Mr. Ivereigh’s, since the Pope's Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace, is rich in statements about the mutual cooperation and mutual respect required today, not just of individual believers, but of religious communities — in all faiths, large and small. See the quotes I highlight at the end of this blog — and of course, go and read the Pope’s entire message.

I close my part of this reflection with just a few further observations. First, again, it really is true that this Pope is now taking the lead in pushing the Church to take religious diversity seriously as a positive reality. Second, it is important to notice that he is not speaking simply of individuals with good faith and sincerity, but of entire traditions, with their own leadership structures, as counterparts to the Church. Nor does  there seem to be any thought in the Pope’s remarks of “the Church plus the great religions” — rather, the Church is one among these religions today, however we understand that fact.

But three harder points also need to be made. First, it is not so easy to mark off the “great religions” as our counterparts. It would not be easy, nor useful, to decide which traditions are great or little, so the door is open to taking seriously many small and more local traditions that don’t fit neatly onto the Judaism-Christianity-Islam-Hinduism-Buddhism-Confucianism-Taoism-Shintoism list. It would be very far from the logic of the Pope’s appeal to ignore small traditions, even if he does not refer to them. Nor, of course, do religions’ most prominent and powerful clerics necessarily speak adequately for their communities, so the conversation on religious liberty envisioned by the Pope cannot be merely a top-down enterprise.

Second, the quotes I selected below from paragraph 11 appeal to Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (and not, for instance, Dominus Iesus) to ground a Catholic openness to other faiths. This is fine, but there is work to be done in dealing with the widespread opinion among people of other faith traditions, after 45 years, that Nostra Aetate offers only a good start, a cautious, limited, partial, even condescending respect for the world’s religions. The Pope and the Vatican very much need to work with theologians and those with long experience in actual interreligious dialogue to bolster with credibility the appeal made in Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace and the new Assis gesture. Unless it is clear that to its deepest core the Church is thoroughly serious about working with people of other traditions and in not predetermining the conversation, it seems unlikely that real cooperation will take place.

Third, it is rather early to ponder the issue, but what kind of spiritual exchange will take place at the proposed Assisi 2011 meeting? It is well known that many, including Joseph Ratzinger, hesitated at the idea that religious leaders could or should pray together at Assisi in 1986. But it seems necessary today that we ambition more: if we do not pray together, can we really work together as religious persons? Speeches and declarations and photo ops will not suffice; dare I say that God will not be satisfied with leaders who insist on praying only separately from one another? In his last book, Christianity and the Religions, Jacques Dupuis, SJ, reflected on Assisi 1986 and discussed the ways in which we can think about praying together with people of other faith traditions. I hope there is still a copy of this good book at the Vatican, since it will be a good reference in the months to come.

Selections from what the Pope said in his New Year's Day address:

7. "How can anyone deny the contribution of the world’s great religions to the development of civilization? The sincere search for God has led to greater respect for human dignity. Christian communities, with their patrimony of values and principles, have contributed much to making individuals and peoples aware of their identity and their dignity, the establishment of democratic institutions and the recognition of human rights and their corresponding duties.

10. "In a globalized world marked by increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, the great religions can serve as an important factor of unity and peace for the human family. On the basis of their religious convictions and their reasoned pursuit of the common good, their followers are called to give responsible expression to their commitment within a context of religious freedom. Amid the variety of religious cultures, there is a need to value those elements which foster civil coexistence, while rejecting whatever is contrary to the dignity of men and women.

"The public space which the international community makes available for the religions and their proposal of what constitutes a “good life” helps to create a measure of agreement about truth and goodness, and a moral consensus; both of these are fundamental to a just and peaceful coexistence. The leaders of the great religions, thanks to their position, their influence and their authority in their respective communities, are the first ones called to mutual respect and dialogue.

11. "For the Church, dialogue between the followers of the different religions represents an important means of cooperating with all religious communities for the common good. The Church herself rejects nothing of what is true and holy in the various religions. “She has a high regard for those ways of life and conduct, precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

"The path to take is not the way of relativism or religious syncretism. The Church, in fact, “proclaims, and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6); in Christ, in whom God reconciled all things to himself, people find the fullness of the religious life”. Yet this in no way excludes dialogue and the common pursuit of truth in different areas of life, since, as Saint Thomas Aquinas would say, “every truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit.”

"The year 2011 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace convened in Assisi in 1986 by Pople John Paul II. On that occasion the leaders of the great world religions testified to the fact that religion is a factor of union and peace, and not of division and conflict. The memory of that experience gives reason to hope for a future in which all believers will see themselves, and will actually be, agents of justice and peace.

12. "Politics and diplomacy should look to the moral and spiritual patrimony offered by the great religions of the world in order to acknowledge and affirm universal truths, principles and values which cannot be denied without denying the dignity of the human person."



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8 years ago
I think Benedict, loking outward, has much of value to say about the globnalization th goes on with its only values seemingly grounded in (free market) economics.
Looking inward towards his own Church, he still seems bent on policies for a "smaller,purer" Church which frequently divides that same Church.
ed gleason
8 years ago
On the level of praxis there need not be any emphasis on belief differences. Feeding the poor, peace making, in fact all the corporal works who cares what the beliefs are for the doers. If we were trying to bring non violence to our city who would insist or want  a religious test?
Andrew Russell
8 years ago
Much of what B16 teaches has to be understood in context.  When speaking about the Church internally - how she sees herself, he speaks about what we believe.  He challenges all Catholics to discover and appreciate that our faith is "true," based on Scripture and Tradition.  When speaking about the Church in the world, he acknowledges that people living other faith traditions see their religion as "true."  Every person, no matter their faith tradition must be free to follow his / her own conscience.  To say that the Catholic Church believes certain things about God, the Trinity, revelation, etc. does not exclude our respect for the truth that exists in other religions.  I do not see how this is contradictory for Benedict or any of us.  I can respect and even love those who disagree with me, especially if there is some common truth that we agree on.  Respect and love do not imply that I deny who I am and what I believe.  In fact if I deny who I am and what I believe, it devalues the love and respect. 
Crystal Watson
8 years ago
I find the pope's stance on other religions and on pluralism really confusing.  On the one hand,  in 2007 ha signed a document, "Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the church" (, which says Protestant churches aren't really churches.   He's ok with the Traditional Mass that contains  a prayer for conversion of the Jews. He began the Anglican Ordinariates.  He's called for a re-evangelization of Europe. Cardinal Kasper had nothing good to say of pluralism when he visited the IK with the pope.  When Benedict speaks of religious freedom I don't think he means the freedom of people to believe whatever they want to religiously, or the right to not believe at all, but instead he means the  ability of the Christian  religion to maintain influence in a secular or a non-Christian society.


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