EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series. The first two pieces can be read here and here.
How exactly does Pope Benedict XVI view his own role and responsibilities in his dialogue with the Muslim world? What are his overall aims?
Benedict has two aims, one immediate, the other for the longer term. His immediate aim is to ease the plight of hard-pressed Christian minorities in the Muslim world. Simply by calling attention to their suffering, Benedict makes their existence known to a world that would otherwise overlook them. Iraqi Christians in particular regard the pope as their only ally in an otherwise indifferent or hostile world.
One of several means to that end is interreligious dialogue, of which this month’s talks are just one track. But interreligious dialogue is a painfully slow process; its results are mainly indirect and slow to mature. In the Catholic view, it’s above all a search for common ground supporting an ethic of coexistence. Hence the Catholic insistence on an agenda specifically addressing “the dignity of the person and mutual respect,” ethical imperatives that don’t require theological agreement.
Benedict reinforced that point earlier this week in a rare letter to Italy’s newspaper of record, the Corriere della Sera, praising a forthcoming book by his 2006 co-author, Marcello Pera, the noted philosopher and prominent member of the Italian Senate. In his brief letter, Benedict endorsed “intercultural dialogue that thoroughly examines [approfondisce] the cultural [i.e., concrete] consequences of basic religious ideas,” while noting that “inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” This essential qualification simply means that while purely theological agreement between Christians and Muslim is in fact impossible (consider only the Trinity versus the oneness of Allah), practical initiatives aimed at peaceful coexistence and mutual respect are both possible and necessary.
Here’s how Catholics understand interreligious dialogue. It begins with each side giving an authoritative account of its own faith, so that Catholics thus understand from Muslims what Muslims themselves believe and vice versa. The next step is to identify — and hopefully correct — each side’s misperceptions of the other. What follows is the search for common ground by applying agreed principles to concrete concerns. For Catholics, this means above all insisting on all full religious freedom for all religious minorities everywhere, both in principle and increasingly as a matter of reciprocity and justice.
But the final step in this process, as Benedict pointedly remarked in his brief address at the conclusion of the talks, is “to ensure that the reflections and positive developments which emerge from Muslim-Christian dialogue are not limited to a small group of experts and scholars, but are passed on as a precious legacy to be placed at the service of all, to bear fruit in the way we live each day (emphasis added).”
By these measures, the results of the talks were decidedly mixed. In his closing address, Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, the Muslim delegation’s co-leader, deliberately reinforced widespread Muslim misperceptions of “aggressive proselytizing” by Christians in Muslim-majority states: “You and we, we both believe in religious freedom, but we Muslims do not allow an aggressive proselytizing in our midst that would destroy our faith in the name of freedom any more than would Christians if they were in our situation.”
This clumsy effort at moral equivalence is factually incorrect. None of the historic Christian churches in the Middle East — all of which predate Islam — engage in proselytism, rightly understood as taking advantage of the vulnerable through force or fraud. These churches actually discourage or even turn away potential converts, since these individuals inevitably face ostracism or worse, while the churches themselves fear agents-provocateurs seeking to stoke conflict. In fact, these same churches almost always oppose the presence of other Christian denominations without historic local ties (most often Evangelicals), which they regard as unwelcome interlopers offering the answer to a question that nobody’s asking. Mustafa Cherif, a Muslim intellectual, former Algerian government official and Common Word signatory, offers a much more accurate picture:
Our Catholic friends in Algeria, who have been here for fifty years [since Algerian independence], have never tried to convert anyone, although they do have the right to witness to their faith. This, in spite of the fact that the current pope frequently recalls the central nature of the evangelizing mission for the Catholic Church.
Similarly troubling is this blithe assertion: “Certainly we cannot claim that violence is the monopoly of only one religion.” Whatever this claim’s historical or theoretical merits, religiously-inspired violence today is not a Christian phenomenon, nor does holy war play any role whatsoever in modern Christian thought and life.