A press statement from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, posted on the US Department of State page on December 31, 2022, was titled “The Passing of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus”:
The United States mourns the passing of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus – a holy man, witness to faith, and once Shepherd of the Catholic faithful. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a dedicated leader and was committed to interfaith dialogue. He was an advocate for vulnerable persons, including refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants. He supported international legal measures to defend them. He was a renowned theologian within the Catholic Church for decades.
The statement emphasizes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s commitment to interfaith dialogue, which is one of the most debated facets of his pontificate. Think of the misunderstandings, misquotes, or quotes out context of Pope Benedict’s September 13, 2006, Regensburg lecture. The agitation that followed the Regensburg lecture, as Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, Pope Benedict XVI’s spokesperson, states in a recent article, was in the long run overcome thanks to a series of clarifying interventions and, finally, to the December 2006 visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
However, a month after the Regensburg lecture, on October 13, 2006, 38 international Islamic authorities and scholars, from all denominations and Islamic schools of thought, approached Pope Benedicts XVI, wishing to start a genuine inter-religious dialogue. This first approach was followed by an open letter, titled “A Common Word between Us and You”, from 138 Islamic scholars addressed to Pope Benedict XVI in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding, proposing an interreligious dialogue based on the double commandment of love of God and neighbor. The letter was historic, in the words of Cardinal Touran in his October 18, 2007 interview with the French La Croix:
One aspect that particularly struck me is that, perhaps for the first time, a text signed by Muslims presents the Jesus of the Gospel with quotes from the New Testament, and not from quotes from the Koran.
The pope invited a delegation of Muslim scholars to Rome, which started an epochal theological dialogue with Islam. It was the first time in history that Muslim scholars from every branch of Islam, including Sunni and Shi’ites, spoke with one voice about the tenets of Islam. The correspondence between the pope and the Muslim scholars led to the creation of the Catholic-Muslim forum, which met in the Vatican for the first time on November 4-6, 2008. Twenty-four participants and five advisors from each religion took part in the meeting. The theme of the Seminar was “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.” Despite the negative attention it received from the media, the Regensburg lecture opened wide avenues for truth seeking through interfaith dialogue.
Moreover, Blinken’s statement on Pope Benedict XVI’s commitment to interfaith dialogue is a reminder of another landmark in Pope Benedict XVI’s thought on interreligious dialogue that materialized in his 2008 apostolic journey to the United States and his powerful address to the representatives of different religions in the Rotunda Hall of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. In my view, this is one of Benedict’s boldest statements on interreligious dialogue, which can be synthesized as “In Truth, Interreligious Dialogue,” similar to his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace 2006, “In Truth, Peace.” This is what the pontiff stated about interreligious dialogue and truth seeking while answering life’s big questions:
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, for “wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace. We are living in an age when these questions are too often marginalized. Yet they can never be erased from the human heart. Throughout history, men and women have striven to articulate their restlessness with this passing world. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Psalms are full of such expressions: “My spirit is overwhelmed within me”; “why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me?” The response is always one of faith: “Hope in God, I will praise him still; my Savior and my God” Spiritual leaders have a special duty, and we might say competence, to place the deeper questions at the forefront of human consciousness, to reawaken mankind to the mystery of human existence, and to make space in a frenetic world for reflection and prayer.
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.
Why is this address important? Pope Benedict overtly affirms the purpose of interreligious dialogue as a theological and truth-seeking measure, exploring life’s big questions including the origin and destiny of humankind, good and evil, and eternal destiny. The pontiff is promoting a theological dialogue in search of truth, making a convincing argument that although the theologies and the ways of approaching truth might be different for different religions, the process of truth seeking via interfaith, interreligious dialogue, and exploring life’s deeper theological questions from the point of view of one’s own faith tradition, can build a solid foundation for peace and security. Truth and peace are two sides of the same coin; the splendor of truth leads to peace and peaceful coexistence. Benedict XVI argued that peace cannot be reduced to the naive absence of armed conflict; instead, it needs to be understood as the fruit of an order which has been planted in human society by its divine Founder.
It is important to note that Benedict XVI’s model of interreligious dialogue does not shy away from discussing the theological differences among Christianity and Islam. This is how he explains the Christian mystery of Incarnation and Redemption:
The Christian tradition proclaims that God is Love. It was out of love that he created the whole universe, and by his love he becomes present in human history. The love of God became visible, manifested fully and definitively in Jesus Christ. He thus came down to meet man and, while remaining God, took on our nature. He gave himself in order to restore full dignity to each person and to bring us salvation. How could we ever explain the mystery of the incarnation and the redemption except by Love? This infinite and eternal love enables us to respond by giving all our love in return: love for God and love for neighbor. This truth, which we consider foundational, was what I wished to emphasize in my first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, since this is a central teaching of the Christian faith. Our calling and mission is to share freely with others the love which God lavishes upon us without any merit of our own.
Discussing religious differences is a way of approaching truth, or is part of the journey to truth. Benedict XVI recognizes the differences between Muslim and Christians regarding God. But yet, they can unite on the same front promoting respect for the dignity of the human person and fundamental human rights. As Benedict XVI stated:
There is a great and vast field in which we can act together in defending and promoting the moral values which are part of our common heritage. Only by starting with the recognition of the centrality of the person and the dignity of each human being, respecting and defending life which is the gift of God, and is thus sacred for Christians and for Muslims alike – only on the basis of this recognition, can we find a common ground for building a more fraternal world, a world in which confrontations and differences are peacefully settled, and the devastating power of ideologies is neutralized.
The pontiff is mapping a vast area of common ground between Christians and Muslims, promoting moral values – including defense of life – as a gift of God. For Benedict XVI, interreligious dialogue – besides being an inviting, candid, and truth-seeking dialogue – is also a dialogue of understanding. The truth seeking from different religions relieves participants of fear of the risk of losing their religious identity when entering into dialogue. As he states in his 2012 Christmas address to the Roman Curia:
Two rules are generally regarded nowadays as fundamental for interreligious dialogue: 1. Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission; 2. Accordingly, both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.
While these “rules are correct,” Benedict explained, they are also “too superficial”. Why?
True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding – that is correct. But all the same, the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.
Pope Benedict XVI also called upon universities and study centers to take the lead and become places for a candid exchange of religious ideas. For Benedict XVI, the university, has always been the house where one seeks the truth proper to the human person.
In sum, for Benedict XVI, truth is one and truth unites; the piece-by-piece approach to truth seeking leads to finding commonalities among different religions. His approach to proclamation or evangelization is an evangelization by witness, “Come and see!” as Jesus addressed the two seeker-disciples. This is, in a nutshell, Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy: interreligious dialogue where truth seeking, listening, and understanding take absolute priority.
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