The limits of interfaith dialogue

For the past several months I’ve had the distinct pleasure of witnessing a close friend rediscover the beauty of the Catholic Church. At one time he described himself as a mix between an agnostic and an atheist, so his reversion to the Church in December of 2011 is nothing less than a miracle. We’ve had many conversations over those six months but the topic we’ve grappled with the most in recent weeks is the issue of interfaith dialogue.

Nowadays, almost every university, publically owned company and nonprofit organization has some type of mission statement that includes the words “diversity,” “tolerance,” and “inclusion.” These are not inherently troublesome ideas, but, as Allan Bloom notes in “The Closing of the American Mind,” when these values become the pre-eminent virtues of society, we’ve reached a very dangerous point in human history.

Take President Obama’s decision to support same sex marriage. Although his progressive values ostensibly restrict him from actuating public policy based on the teachings of his Christian faith, he came to the conclusion that gay Americans should be able to marry because the Golden Rule compels us to love thy neighbor as thyself.

There’s been a tidal wave of commentary devoted to demonstrating how the president’s understanding of the Golden Rule is philosophically incoherent, but Carson Holloway, in a post for Catholic Vote not long ago, debunked his position better than most. He writes:

To be of any use as a moral guide, the Golden Rule must presuppose some known, objective standard of morality…If it does not, then it would lead to obviously ridiculous outcomes.  In the absence of such a moral standard, the Golden Rule would require me to help the depressed person commit suicide.  After all, I’m supposed to do to others what I would want them to do to me.

Holloway adds:

The President wants to “do unto others” with regard to gays who want to marry.  But what about all the other people — equally human beings — who oppose same-sex marriage?  Doesn’t the Golden Rule require the President to treat them as they would wish to be treated, and to join with them in rejecting same-sex marriage?

As my born again Catholic friend mentioned to me not long ago, it seems that we now elevate our love for our neighbor above our love for God. In other words, we value interfaith dialogue more than intra-faith dialogue.

Marcello Pera, an Italian philosopher and President of the Italian Senate from 2001 to 2006, wrote about the purpose of interfaith dialogue in a 2006 book called “Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Islam.” “In the Christian religion,” Pera writes, “dialogue cannot be an instrument for the discovery of truth, because Revelation plays that role.” However religious dialogue does have two important functions: it allows “for believers of various faiths to communicate and foster understanding; and to preach, spread, and advance the [Gospel].”

To be sure, Pera adds, dialogue can promote brotherhood, tolerance and peace, but these “’are secularizing values,” and “Christian evangelism does not preach secularism.” It preaches transcendence, “the unique, sole, true transcendence.”

Pera’s views are important to understand, and they invite a larger question: how much should the Church be willing to collaborate with other religions? After all, Pope Benedict has already written that interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.

Stephen Kokx is an adjunct professor of political science and a featured columnist at Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx



  • LLB

    How about Peter Kreeft’s “What I learned From a Muslim about Eucharistic Adoration”

  • B. Gnotta Freude

    I guess you didn’t care for it too much when Pope John Paul II dialogued with Fidel Castro about a decade ago. Or did you miss that?

  • bpeters1

    @Stephen: you wrote, “Pera writes, ‘dialogue cannot be an instrument for the discovery of truth, because Revelation plays that role.’ However religious dialogue does have two important functions: it allows ‘for believers of various faiths to communicate and foster understanding; and to preach, spread, and advance the [Gospel].‘” While it is certainly the case that Jesus Christ is himself the fullness of God’s self-revelation (cf. “I am…the Truth,” Jn 14:6), and that the Church is the sacrament (cf. Lumen Gentium n. 1) of Christ on earth, it is not the case that the Church can’t gain or “learn” anything through inter-religious dialogue. In fact, Dominus Iesus, which is anything but “liberal” with respect to this issue, explicitly teaches that inter-religious dialogue “requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment, in obedience to the truth and with respect for freedom” (n. 2). At the very least, since we share a great deal with many of the great religious traditions (cf. Nostra Aetate throughout), dialogue with members of those traditions can direct us toward unattended and un(der)developed elements of our own Catholic Chrisitan tradition, and in this way, can lead us to a fuller and richer understanding of ourselves and of the God who is the source of truth. In this way, at the very least, inter-religious dialogue can have a function other than as a pretext for proselytizing members of other faiths.

    • Stephen Kokx

      @bpeters1: Thank you for your insight on Dominus Iesus and Nostra Aetate. I’m sure not all Catholics are familiar with them. But realize that I never advocated for a “closed” church or the belief that “the Church can’t gain or ‘learn’ anything through inter-religious dialogue.” I left an open ended question at the end of the post.

      • bpeters1

        On first read, I had the impression that you were sympathetic toward the position of Pera which you cited (namely, that truth cannot be discovered via dialogue, at least by Christians). On second reading, I see that you did indeed leave the matter open at the end. Please consider my post above as a rejoinder to Pera’s position, rather than toward whatever your own might be.

  • Bruce

    Well, if we Catholics really believe we have the fullness of truth, interfaith dialogue will ultimate lead us to ask our interlocutors: “So, are you joining the true Church or not?”

    • Randall

      Agreed, Bruce. And if that is the only ultimate (positive) end, why not use it as a beginning point? If the answer is “yes,” it is no longer interfaith per se but the conversation now turns to conversion into the one True Church. If the answer is “maybe,” we have the opportunity to enlighten them why our faith is correct and theirs is inherently flawed. If the answer is “no,” then they are lost and time should not be wasted on “dialogue” as it will be pointless. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Moreover, I resent the use of the term “dialogue” as it means we should actually listen to and respect what those of other faiths have to say. Unless it is to correct them, I see no point in listening to empty words describing empty faiths.

      • bpeters1

        Randall: your refusal to “actually listen to and respect what other faiths have to say” since they are, allegedly, “empty,” demonstrates a lack of charity which doesn’t reflect the Church’s current teaching on the matter. The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue’s “Dialogue and Proclamation” (1991, n. 29) states that “all men and women who are saved, share, though differently, in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit. Christians know this through their faith, while others remain unaware that Jesus Christ is the source of their salvation. The mystery of salvation reaches out to them, in a way known to God, through the invisible action of the Spirit of Christ. Concretely, it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious tradition and by following the dictates of their conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their Savior (cf. AG 3, 9, 11).” According to this document, other religious traditions hardly come across as “empty.” Recall also that JPII taught that “The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions” (Redemptoris Missio n. 28).



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