Downplaying Theology in Interfaith Relations

Critics of ecumenism and interfaith relations often highlight the tendency to downplay theological issues. Who would have thought that Joseph Ratzinger would do the same thing? As John Allen reports, he’s joined the ranks of those who would rather act in unity than talk about substantial differences.

In 2008, Benedict penned an introduction to a book by his old friend, Italian politician and philosopher Marcello Pera, in which the pope wrote: “Interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible without putting one’s own faith into parentheses, while intercultural dialogue that develops the cultural consequences of the religious option … is both possible and urgent.”

Put in layman’s terms, what Benedict is saying is that trying to find a lowest common denominator of theology upon which Christians and Jews can agree — or, for that matter, Christians and Muslims, Christians and Hindus, etc. — will inevitably result in a loss of identity on both sides. Given that bolstering Catholic identity is the stated priority of his pontificate, that’s a no-go. The more profitable enterprise, in Benedict’s eyes, is to elaborate a set of shared values, and then to pool resources to apply those values in social and political debates.

“On this path we can walk together,” the pope said, “aware of the differences that exist between us, but also aware of the fact that when we succeed in uniting our hearts and our hands in response to the Lord’s call, his light comes and shines on all the peoples of the world.”

That effort to unite hearts and hands, not to blaze new theological trails, will likely be the “Benedictine legacy” in inter-religious affairs.