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Pope Says No to Inter-Religious Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI is at it again – making fine distinctions which create gross problems. He declared to the world that “inter-religious dialogue is not possible in the strict sense of the word…that a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parenthesis.”
As in previous declarations about Islam and secularism, to name just two examples, the Pope uses language that may be helpful in a philosophy seminar, but actually causes real harm to human relations around the world. And that is the generous interpretation of his remarks.
Perhaps Benedict has created a “strict definition” which precludes such conversation because his understanding of dialogue requires a level of spiritual connection/agreement between the conversants, which may not be possible for people who follow different faiths. That might be what he means when telling us that one must “put one’s faith in parenthesis” in order to speak with those of other faiths. But that is an odd kind of faith which can only be present among those who share the faith.
The alternative understanding of the Pope’s most recent comments is that he actually finds all other belief systems defective and their members best served by only a single outcome i.e. conversion to the Catholic faith.


Can it be that he finds real inter-religious dialogue impossible because at all costs any conversation which accords full and equal dignity to other’s faith is impossible for him? That’s a pretty scary thought from the leader of a billion human beings backed by real financial and political power.
Admittedly, most of what passes for inter-religious dialogue in our world is neither deeply religious nor genuinely dialogic. Too often it is people of different faiths deciding to bracket the particulars of their faith in order to gather for a few moments of kum-ba-yah. In that sense, the Pope is on to something, but he has it exactly backwards. Real interfaith dialogue IS possible, but only when we DO Not bracket that which we believe.
And real dialogue is only possible when there is more than one view in the room. Dialogue demands difference, but it demands difference without denigration. And it is this criterion which Benedict claims is not possible. If he thought otherwise, he would champion the kind of challenging inter-religious conversations which the world needs right now – conversations which encourage us to bring all of who we are and all that we believe while demanding that we do so in a way that encourages others to do the exact same thing.
Do we trust each other enough to do that? Do we even trust ourselves enough to do that? Can the faiths we follow guide us on that path or will they simply give us tools to negotiate with other faiths that we really wish would simply go away?

  • Cully

    the pope is just a man – he has a past and he has interpreted this world using his past and what he knows. We all do this… the trick is to do it with Hope and Love. Look at the financial problems the world is experiencing right now. All kinds of people (from all kinds of cultures, life styles, religions, colors etc.) are working together either to shore up the financial markets or to support their neighbors and communities. Why are people doing this? Hope for the future and compassion for their fellow human beings who are suffering and struggling with a common problem. The root of that common problem is Money. We need it to simply survive physically. Inter-religious dialogue IS possible and can be successful if we do the same thing – remember the root of what we are talking about. The root of religion is G-d. No matter how we perceive G-d or what name we may attribute to G-d, G-d is G-d and “inter-religious dialogue” is about G-d (and btw, G-d does not have a religion).
    Blessings to all and have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow! Cully

  • Bill

    From the CDF document “Dominus Iesus” from 2000, when Cardinal Ratzinger was the prefect: “Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, …” (which in turn is quoting from a Vatican II decree).
    So, your “alternative understanding” might not be that far off — and not just for the Pope’s thinking, but for the Church’s teaching.

  • Solomon2

    “The alternative understanding of the Pope’s most recent comments is that he actually finds all other belief systems defective and their members best served by only a single outcome i.e. conversion to the Catholic faith.”
    I think you know better than that, Rabbi. What is the reason Jews can permit Christians to study Torah with them but not Muslims? Because Christians accept the Torah as holy and can interpret it on that basis and Muslims can not, isn’t that so? Inter-religious dialogue concerning Torah thus is of an entirely different character between Muslims and Jews or Christians. Indeed it can even be difficult for the two sides to make themselves understood.
    So I think the Pope had a point – a constructive one. I will go a bit further and offer my opinion: if one’s faith doesn’t get put “in parenthesis” for an inter-religious dialogue, words and deeds at least need to be set in theological frameworks understood by ALL the participants. That can be a real mind-stretcher.

  • jerome

    every time a pope travels, especially when he came here to the united states, i cant help but marvel at the fact that my pope is the only religious leader who is also entitled to treatments given only to heads of states. also when the pope went to cuba, i was emotional and at the same time proud to see that this socialist state gave the pope that knd of welcome.. this makes me proud to be called a catholic bec of the recognition my pope gets wherever he goes, even in a muslim or jewish state. not too many… let me change that, no one at all gets the same treatment that my pope gets. this makes me feel good about my religion, regardless how people may want to paint it.

  • chaim baruch-chaim

    Your pope gets treated as a head of state because, as an accident of Italian history, the pope is a head of state.
    He gets more respect than is his due because his is the largest branch of the largest branch of the enormous religion of Christianity and his branch alone has a single man sitting at its head.
    If that makes you feel proud, then that makes you feel proud. But the US and many other nations have rightfully deposed their monarchs in favor of democracy of various sorts. The fact that the Vatican and Roman Catholicism still has a reigning monarch is not worthy of celebration.

  • Your Name

    The pope is a right wing war monger who follows the history of his church in causing more damage and less salvation then you would think possible the Catholic church has clearly strayed furher from the teaching of their 3-1 God. Take a clear historical look at the pope’s church and the actual teachings of Jesus and try to reconcile them–not possible

  • Brigit

    Rabbi Hirschfeld,
    Greetings from Brigit. I receive all the religious quotations in my email daily and I always read your views with interest, if not always with agreement due to my own spiritual leanings.
    The following part of your blog on interreligious dialogue caught my attention:
    “And real dialogue is only possible when there is more than one view in the room. Dialogue demands difference, but it demands difference without denigration. And it is this criterion which Benedict claims is not possible. If he thought otherwise, he would champion the kind of challenging inter-religious conversations which the world needs right now – conversations which encourage us to bring all of who we are and all that we believe while demanding that we do so in a way that encourages others to do the exact same thing.
    Do we trust each other enough to do that? Do we even trust ourselves enough to do that? Can the faiths we follow guide us on that path or will they simply give us tools to negotiate with other faiths that we really wish would simply go away? ”
    And I was wondering–and I mean this with no disrespect nor yet demeaning of you or your faith acceptations–whether you yourself would have broad enough of a heart–and open enough of an intellect–to exchange dialogue with someone whose faith was in some respects the complete reverse of your worldview–say, a Wiccan or other Neo-Pagan or eclectic pathwalker? I know that all
    Jewish paths adhere firmly to belief in one Source/God of all creation–this much it shares in common with the other two Abrahamic faiths however different its takes on the details might be.
    But would you be able to exchange views–kindly and without judgment in your heart or mind–with a Pagan, given organized Judaism’s strict monotheism and at times outright hatred of Paganism in its past?
    If you could not, perhaps then you might be able to appreciate Pope Benedict’s remarks from what may be his angle. I cannot say if it truly is or not–I am not (Thank God/dess) Poppe Benedict, and
    I can also honestly say I’m not Roman Catholic though I have had exposure to said faith in my lifetime and feel comfortable with aspects of it enough to draw inspiration from it.
    If you believe you could, I would be interested to hear from you. I am pretty much a Love-based eclectic mystic myself and I do my very best to be accepting of everyone no matter what their faith acceptations, as well as to appreciate what I can of what I know and/or learn of the various faith walks in this beautiful Universe.
    My comment is meant, not to demean you or yours, but to give you a possible insight into what the Pope might have meant–and to offer you, if you will forgive me, a chance to soul-search as to whether or not you have the broadness of heart and mind that you encourage in other monotheists.
    Regardless of what your answer is, you are loved and accepted just the way you are, and I bear you no ill will. As they say in your faith, Shalom to you.
    Loving blessings,
    Brigit Sunflame, a curious Gemini reader and poster. Bows respectfully before s/he exits

  • David

    The Catholic Church has gained nothing from nearly half a century of inter-religious dialog, excepting nearly half a century of completely failed results and complete disappointment for the Roman Catholic Church.
    Those who have demanded the Roman Catholic Church submit to ‘dialog’ only want concessions and surrender.
    Catholics who embrace the orthodox Faith believe with all their hearts that the Roman Catholic Church is the one, true Church and the Roman Catholic Faith, the one true Faith.
    Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, Moslems, Eastern Orthodox, etc. hold similar beliefs regarding their respective faith traditions.
    We need to give each other the space to believe as we choose to believe and the freedom to go our own ways. That is the end lesson of dialog.

  • J Peterman

    The first thing I’m required to do as a Catholic when I engage in “inter religious” dialogue is set aside all the TRUTH that is my faith so that I might better understand the non truths from another. No thanks, I choose to believe in the model of St Paul when he said “I count all else rubbish”

  • A.W. Bowman

    What does, “inter-religious dialogue is not possible in the strict sense of the word…that a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parenthesis.” mean? Here are a few definitions:
    Parenthesis: a word, clause, or sentence inserted as an explanation or afterthought into a passage that is grammatically complete without it, used to enclose an additional inserted word or comment and distinguish it from the sentence in which it is found, a word or phrase that comments on or qualifies part of the sentence in which it is found and is isolated from it by parentheses or dashes, a piece of speech or writing that wanders off from the main topic
    So, which part(s) do we take and how do we utilize it (them)?
    Of course, the real question is “why do we wish to engage in an “inter-religious dialogue”, what is the purpose of such an exercise and what are the desired goals? Or, is the real purpose to: “But Benedict added that ‘intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas’ was important. He called for confronting ‘in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions.’”
    Yet, even here, how does one confront the question on how to accommodate intercultural differences, especially within a bounded society (local culture) where these are two or more diverse and competing belief systems exists, if one’s faith is marginalized within a set of parenthesis?
    With all of the high-sounding terms and phrases and spiritual mush aside, what is the actual agenda of the proponents of “inter-faith dialogue”? Are any of the desired goals achievable without a radical alteration (transformation) in the world-view of the various worlds’ religions? Judaism and Christianity are currently expected to be tolerant and accommodating of all world religions, while no other world religion is “required” to return the favor. Now, what is wrong with that picture?

  • Ruvain

    There is a basic difference between Roman Catholics and Jews. Roman Catholics like most Christians believe that their way is the sole and only way to Salvation (a rather bigoted and arrogant notion), while Jews not only see no need for salvation, but they see no need for non-Jews to follow Jewish customs and practices. Thus, we can have discussions with people with different beliefs as equals — because all men are equal.
    As for pagans, Christians are pagans and they are not monotheists due to their like gods (father and son) and goddess (the Virgin Mary) and the extended family of patron saints. Even the concepts of priests who intercede infringes on monotheism. However, it is OK with Jews if Xians want to believe in their pantheon of gods. Those beliefs do not diminish their humanity nor their good works.
    What we Jews do wish to avoid is for Jews to adopt harmful pagan ways — but we do wish for pagans to cease and desist from trying to murder and maim innocent people as is occurring in India right now.
    History has shown that the Church during the Inquisition and Islamofascists at this time are not open to meaningful discussion with other people on how to stop murder, violence and terrorism. The fact that the Pope has endorsed the current Islamofascist idea that one group may hold itself as superior to all other groups is not a step forward for mankind.

  • Your Name

    Isn’t the purpose of a dialogue to identify not just points of disagreement, but to also point out similarities of goals and beliefs, and perhaps augment on them for the benefit of those involved? Perhaps that is why the Pope refuses to participate in such a venture, regardless of the topic discussed. It must be very infuriating to his Excellency that his world view is so cluttered with dogma and prejudice that no light from an outside source can penetrate them. He might have to share the cookies.

  • Rabbi Brad

    Dear Bridgit,
    Thanks for your thoughtful question. You clearly meant no disrespect, and none was taken.
    The short answer to your questions is yes, I can (and do) particpate in ongoing conversation with people whose views are diametrically opposed to my own. The basis of those conversations is pretty simple. I believe that I have much to learn even from those with whom I may continue to have real disagreements. The rest is commentary.
    As you can see from many of the comments here, we have much work to do.

  • Obiora

    Am sorry to defer with your views. Pope Benedict in no way created any problem with his statement. Your write up threw up quite a few conjectures and sought to conclude on his behalf in interpretation of his statement. I sincerely do not think the statement was made to the effect you infer. Inter faith dialogue actually requires that you do one of two things – first, hold your belief and seek thereon to convince/convert, or second, drop all specific belief and seek to reach agreement in any which way logic takes the discussants. Faith is not logic to the point of conviction. As a result the second option as you propose may not necessarily be applicable.

  • Scott

    how nice. One writes a post and then it gets erased because the capakka or whatever needs to be reloaded and then the comments have been erased.

  • SocietyVs

    I recently had a chance to read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s treatise called ‘No Religion is an Island (published Jan 1966)…and it speaks to this convo.
    ““Perhaps it is the will of God that in this aeon there should be diversity in our forms of devotion and commitment to Him. In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God…It seems that the prophet proclaims that men all over the world, though they confess different conceptions of God, are really worshipping One God, the Father of all men, though they may not be aware of it” (Heschel)
    I think religious inter-faith dialogue is not only possible – but something that may very well be the will of God (for this age and time). I do not think we have to put our faith on the back-burner to accept someone of another faith – we just need to start realizing we all want the same thing in this world – guidance from God dedicated to the importance of humanity.
    I was very saddened to read Hirschfield’s blog on the massacre in India – now the Pope doesn’t back inter-faith dialogue – these are setbacks but point to the real problem to true dialogue – people holding their beliefs above the value of the human race.
    I have no problem with what many of the big world religions across the world believe as their ‘statements of faith’ – there is very little problem with those things. However, they do become problematic when people start to idolize their religion – put their statement of beliefs above human importance.
    I have friends from a variety of faith backgrounds (and even non-faiths) and we all understand a very simple thing – what is important in human relations. Respect, treat others how you want to be treated, love people as yourself, etc…the essence of faith is captured in one’s treatment of other people (not in religious statements). I am not saying we all need to be alike – we in some ways – already are…it starts with being human.
    Think about those global faiths and what they truly want – divine connection with humanity in some way, shape, or form. Aren’t they all seeking kind of the same thing – the best life for humanity via their religious teachings? The true concern I see in most faiths is for the betterment of the human individual – and this is attested to by each faith’s connection to God…God wants that also.
    So, why can’t we start talking about humanity and it’s betterment through our faiths? If we learn to focus on how we treat one another and seeking avenues that better humanity (which I think is most faith’s pivotal role and mission) – we will also learn that we can talk and befriend each other – as friends and equals. We have sooooo much in common but have such closed eyelids.
    I think the Pope and these extremist Muslims in the 2 cases serve as a warning to all faiths – no faith is an island anymore – what happens with them will effect all of us now (as global representatives of faith movements). The world got smaller in the last 10 years – thanks to the internet and media. People attacking faith are no longer attacking specific faith systems – but faith in general. The more divisive we remain – the more chance we have of seeing faiths becoming ‘empty’ or ‘meaningless’.
    Maybe it is God’s will we all speak with one another and that we each start learning one another’s story – to prevent close mindedness in our faiths (or worse violence leading to division) and start showing faith does have a prominent place in the human society.

  • Your Name

    The definition of Dialog is all important. If it is an exchange of ideas, that can be a good thing. We want others to understand where we are coming from, so we should listen to what others believe.
    Where things get dangerous is when all are expected to abdicate their core beliefs (sell their souls) to find a lowest common denominator consensus with all peoples. This is a guarantee of anarchy.

  • Dorothy Skadsheim

    Listening to other points of view can be a definition of Dialog. It has come to mean something more.
    Abandoning one’s core beliefs and adopting a lowest common denominator is selling out ones soul, and will end in anarchy.

  • Your Name

    Benedict is no idiot and his statement that “inter-religious dialogue is impossible” and that “true dialogue” requires one’s faith to be parenthetical is no accicdent. He’s preaching to the old school choir.
    John Paul II’s assertion that all redemption comes as an expression of the Will of G-d showed respect and deference to those who may see that as something brought about through means other than that of human sacrifice.
    Benedict is a step backward. We all take them, on occasion. They are not permanent.

  • new beginning

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if G-d made us all, and we are of different views and languages (since at least Babel, biblically), shouldn’t that mean that different is not wrong or bad, just different. And, if so, how can anybody propose the idea of ONLY ONE WAY to be as correct? This is the crux of the problem. That some faiths must state they are supreme leaves no room for others’ ideas to be considered.
    Dialogue includes the idea of agreeing to disagree, but listening to the words and ideas of others to understand them better; to avoid causing others pain and suffering unintentionally.
    If the Pope’s refusal is based on not giving up the idea of the church’s supremacy, he cannot even agree to disagree, without making his faith fallible. And we all know the Pope is infallible.
    Personally, if G-d wants to tell me I’m wrong, it’s His job to do so face to face. I don’t want any self-appointed emissary on this plane to do so.

  • Tovanipo

    The Prophet Isaiah said “Come Let Us Reason Together”. Jesus instructed his disciples to leave those who were not part of their group but were preaching Salvation through Jesus.
    Now most other groups I know of when discussing the Bible agree to disagree.
    My concern is that he is trying to hide other things…things the Catholic Church instituted that was not commanded by God in the Bible.
    In Revelation it says that anyone who adds to the Bible will have the plagues in the book of Revelation added to them. It also says if they take away anything out of the Bible, then God will take away their name out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and they shall not have any part in the rewards.
    Now, I know I’m going to rile some Catholics, but there is no where in the Bible that tells you to pray to Mary, or any of the saints.
    When you say “Hail Mary Mother of God” you are incorrect. Jesus came to earth as a man. It says in Hebrews he made himself a little lower than the angels.
    God wants our prayers. He desires to have fellowship with us. It says in Hebrews that we can come boldly before the throne and that we don’t need a priest for Jesus is our Priest.
    I could go on and on with the things in the Catholic Church that don’t line up with God. The point is…if you are in any religion
    that tells you to do something that is not in line with the word…and they don’t want you to reason with other Christians…there’s definitely something wrong with them

  • chaim baruch-chaim

    [Your Name] (whatever that might be) wrote:
    “Isn’t the purpose of a dialogue to identify not just points of disagreement, but to also point out similarities of goals and beliefs, and perhaps augment on them for the benefit of those involved?”
    Both seeking similarities and seeking differences are, in the end, equally shallow aims for dialog. Leave them to beginning students of comparative religion. More worthwhile aims of dialog are at least two:
    1) To rediscover that any similarities do not erase the differences, and any differences to not erase the similarities;
    2) To realize that similarities and differences of belief don’t really amount to much since they are ultimately all in the mind, but the world people in dialog share is something bigger than the mind-world of either dialogist. In the shared world, motivating ideas aren’t worth a hill of beans unless addressed to some shared real-world situation. Dialog seeks to find issues outside the parties’ mental worlds that they can address and perhaps solve together by each party following his own lights without compromise.
    That is, beliefs are meaningless except as informers of values that lead to action that can survive the test of the encounter with people whose beliefs differ.

  • Glorin

    I would like to remind you of the Inquisition Files and this Pope relates very well to this era. It seems this Pope would like to use the heartless methods of that time. Unfortunately, he can’t the people won’t let it happen.
    Thank You!

  • Solomon2

    The Islamic Preparatory Meeting on Inter-Religious Dialogue defined “dialogue” in the link above. I hope that definition is ignored in practice, and a wider latitude permitted instead.

  • D. Thomas

    Hello Rabbi Hirschfield,
    I am a fan of your writings and eagerly look forward to each new installment.
    I can tell you are new to philosophy in general and theology in particular so I will try to explain what they Pope was trying to get at in his letter.
    In order to have a serious and fruitful ecumenical discussion, two postulates must be agreed upon.
    The first postulate that should be agreed upon is that there are fundamental differences between the religions of the world. Although the major religions of the world share many commonalties there are also wide chasms of difference that are founded upon articles of faith and not reasoning. The second postulate should be that all participants in any philosophical discussion state their beliefs, arguments and positions. Failure to disclose what philosophical or religious background the discussion participant has results in an intellectual game of ’’I’ve Got a Secret’’, and anything else would just be a broad discussion full of ‘Glittering Generalities.’ This is only scratching the surface of theological discourse. What the Pope said is certainly not politically correct but it is a matter of philosophical, intellectual and theological truth. As an educator, I would humbly suggest that you read ‘The Art of Thinking’ by Ernest Dimnet to help you on your road to intellectual prowess. Good luck and Shalom.
    Yours Truly D. Thomas

  • Your Name

    The pope has a point, but because he proceeds from the assumption that he is infallible, he is unable to dialogue even with the leaders of other major Christian faiths. The history of the Catholic Church is one of effrontery, and this pope seems determined to continue the tradition.

  • Your Name

    You have it wrong with Judaism. We believe our faith works for us, but we also believe there are multiple paths to G-d and to Heaven. Our rules and laws apply to us; the Noahide laws to everyone else.
    Further – you also have it backward with regard to so-called “religious dialogue” having taken place between the RCC and any other religion. It is indeed the RCC that demands the world operate as it sees fit and demands concessions from others; not the other way around. Tell me one “concession” the RCC has made in the last 50-60 years at the demands of “other” religions.
    Oh, yeah, I know one – Vatican II, where the RCC supposedly finally admitted that Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus’s death.
    Yeah, that’s a big one, all right.

  • eastcoastlady

    Sorry, the previous post addressed to David is mine – the “whatits” expired and the text refreshed, but not with my screen name.

  • Your Name

    Just the fact that there are so many religions and denominations shows that deep rooted spiritual dialog only goes so far toward a consensus of understanding. Spiritual dialog will eventually break down to disagreement if a person holds true to what they believe. I wish different religions could be happily blended, but that is an unrealistic utopia. Belief can be deep rooted and is bound to separate people. The best we can do is agree to live together respecting our differences enough without killing each other.

  • Solomon2

    I disagree that religious differences necessarily need to be “resolved”. Agreement between the parties of root disagreements would itself be a valuable service.
    For another perspective, a Muslim recently converted to Catholicism considers that inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims is possible only “if we are authentically Christian in love, including toward Muslims. If we make dialogue relative, we will instigate our questioners to see us as infidels, and therefore as land to be conquered.”

  • Tony

    I just returned from India where extremist Hindus are attacking Catholic clergy and burning churches, and some Indian officials are turning a blind eye to this. The reason is that the Catholics go about their mission of attempting to convert the people around them despite how offensive this is to other faiths. It is my understanding that this is a mindset that has been part of Christianity from the beginning. You be the judge of who is causing the problems between the Catholics and other faiths.

  • Enrique vega

    People are you serious……He is the pope of course he believes his religion is the only true path as does the dalai lama with Tibetan Buddhism they are the spiritual heads of there religions….so if incorporating other belief systems into your own degrades the dogma of your own faith than you would refrain from this incorporation if you were true believer by acceptingaspects of islam he dismisses the unique nature of Jesus as gods physical human godhead and son and the lack of need for more prophecy for the new covenant is complete..according to Catholicism … which totally derided by mouhamned being the final a true dialogue with Judaism
    Jesus is not the messiah not even a prophet according to the Talmud Jesus was a sorcerer and the blessed virgin was a prostitute that slept with carpenters……so I for one agree that there cannot be a true dialogue betweenthe big 3 monotheistic religions ……
    And …Tony you may have your religions mixed up catholic evangelism has been dead for centuries
    No one wants to be catholic not even most catholic visit any church on a Sunday they’re all empty ignorant people equate all Christianity with Catholicism ….there are Anglicans Methodists Unitarians all who despise Catholicism that try to “convert” everyone…I don’t think we should be able to murder hare krshnas or jehovah witnesses they ttry to convert many people here in NYC
    Catholics just want protection for the people who do choose to be catholic on there own accord Muslims in india and Pakistan who do convert are often murdered by family members who are not brought up on charges

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