The Pope Speaks - As If Dialogue is Here to Stay
Cambridge, MA. There are many good things and interesting things to reflect on after the Pope’s visit to the Washington and New York, but here I pick up on only one: Benedict’s April 17th visit with representatives of various religions, at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. Benedict’s remarks to the gathered religious leaders made a multi-layered and firm case for interreligious dialogue, putting to rest, permanently I hope, the notion that this Pope wishes somehow to halt the inexorable move toward dialogue that has characterized the post-Vatican II Church. Here I highlight only a few key elements, first citing the Pope and then adding a brief comment.* First, "...This country has a long history of cooperation between different religions in many spheres of public life. Interreligious prayer services during the national feast of Thanksgiving, joint initiatives in charitable activities, a shared voice on important public issues: these are some ways in which members of different religions come together to enhance mutual understanding and promote the common good. I encourage all religious groups in America to persevere in their collaboration and thus enrich public life with the spiritual values that motivate your action in the world..." Comment: This is a striking first step: interreligious prayer services, along with other virtuous acts in common, are good and should be practiced, regularly, to enrich public life. That is to say, "interreligious prayer services" as practiced in the United States are not ruled out, but are encouraged. Second, "in urban areas, it is common for individuals from different cultural backgrounds and religions to engage with one another daily in commercial, social and educational settings. Today, in classrooms throughout the country, young Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and indeed children of all religions sit side-by-side, learning with one another and from one another. This diversity gives rise to new challenges that spark a deeper reflection on the core principles of a democratic society..." Comment: This collaboration, in daily life, including learning from childhood to learn from another across religious boundaries, is more basic than formal dialogues. This honors a diversity that enhances rather than detracts from the values we most care about. Third, "as we grow in understanding of one another, we see that we share an esteem for ethical values, discernible to human reason, which are revered by all peoples of goodwill. The world begs for a common witness to these values." Comment: Society is helped by dialogue as we learn with one another how to be good; that such values are rooted in nature and reason does not mean that we are somehow excused from learning with our sisters and brothers in other religions. Fourth, there is something more: "Religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace. The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence? Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family." Comment: By this fourth point, the Pope exhorts everyone to embark on a quest for truth; he did not say, "We have the truth, you should seek it," and it would be wrong for us to imagine that he did not include Catholics among those seeking to discover the truth. Fifth, and only in light of this broad exhortation to the truth, Benedict offers explicitly Christian witness: "Confronted with these deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things. It is he whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their minds and hearts in dialogue (cf. Luke 10:25-37 [Good Samaritan]; John 4:7-26 [Samaritan woman at the well])." Comment: It is interesting that this expected confession of faith -- what "we" believe -- is offered as the Christian contribution to the dialogue, without any hint that it is a viewpoint transcending all others, above and apart from dialogue. Implicit is a further expectation, that others too will share in dialogue their religious answers to life’s questions, for all of us likewise to consider. It is instructive that the two New Testament texts offered are not from among those that explicitly and famously speak to evangelization or the uniqueness of the Christian path, but rather passages of more elemental exchange: where a Samaritan reaches out to a man abandoned by the roadside, and where Jesus enters into a simple and unpretentious dialogue with a Samaritan woman; the first is a dialogue of action, the second a forthright exchange that works because it is effective on a human level. Such is the manner of our contribution to the dialogue. Sixth, and in light of all the previous steps, we must be able "to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation." Comment: If we seek peace, we must seek truth; the fruit of truth is peace in our midst. "the truth unveils for us the essential relationship between the world and God. We are able to perceive that peace is a "heavenly gift" that calls us to conform human history to the divine order. Herein lies the ’truth of peace.’" In this reception of the truth, we gain peace. Again, Benedict shares a hope with his listeners, the peace we all seek: "By giving ourselves generously to this sacred task – through dialogue and countless small acts of love, understanding and compassion – we can be instruments of peace for the whole human family." The Buddha, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi would all approve. Some final thoughts. It is easy enough to pick and choose from among the elements I have listed here, but we should feel required to take to heart all of what the Pope said: not just his call to shared prayer, not just his call to cooperation for peace, not just his call to seek the truth together, and not even his confession of Christ as the answer we propose. The Pope was inviting his listeners that day – and we who read his words later on – to take to heart all that he says, not just the parts we like. But might not someone object that this was merely a speech, and merely one given politely to a group of religions leaders? Surely, it might be said, these words count for much less than authoritative pronouncements from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for instance. Technically, that may seem right: but in practice it hardly seems a sign of respect for the Holy Father to imagine that he would say anything to these leaders that he would take back when speaking to Catholics alone, or sitting alone in his office writing notifications. I cannot imagine that his plea that we continue to pray and work together across religious boundaries is only some expression of public sentiment, intended merely for one moment in Washington DC. Better that we honor all these words that the Pope spoke as expressive of the best thinking of our Church today; better that we learn to get on with the dialogue that engages our actions and words, ethics and search for truth, confessions of faith and prayer shared across religious boundaries. There is no turning back. *Note: for the whole address, go to http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080417_other-religions_en.html
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