The Limits of Interreligious Dialogue

By Catherine Cornille

News of the appointment of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, to papal Nuncio to Egypt has caused considerable concern among Catholics engaged in interreligious dialogue. Another surprise is that no successor was named. This has raised questions about the future of the Pontifical Council, created during the Second Vatican Council to give concrete form and expression to the Church’s commitment to dialogue with other religious traditions.

Through 40 years, the Pontifical Council has organized and participated in innumerable events, bringing together representatives from diverse religious traditions in the pursuit of mutual understanding and collaboration. In addition, it has sought to prevent conflict between religions and to resolve tensions, even those caused, at times, by official Church statements and documents. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has played an invaluable and prophetic role in promoting dialogue, not just between the Catholic Church and other religious groups, but between religions in general.

Although - or because - the importance of interreligious dialogue has become self-evident, we often forget that the very idea of a dialogue between religions is anomalous or counter-intuitive, alien to the self-understanding of most religious traditions and far from a practical or institutional priority. Every religion imagines itself self-sufficient and in possession of the necessary means to salvation or liberation. Thus, dialogue seems extraneous, if not threatening.

The possibility for genuine dialogue depends on a series of conditions that, on the whole, may conflict with the current self-understanding of many religious traditions. Dialogue, first of all, requires an attitude of epistemic humility about one’s own understanding of the truth and openness to the possibility of change and growth. Whereas humility plays a central role in most religious traditions, this humility is an attitude to be adopted toward but not about the truth proclaimed within one’s own tradition. Second, dialogue presupposes, on the one hand, a firm commitment to one’s own tradition and, on the other, genuine openness to that of the other. While commitment certainly does not preclude openness to the possibility of growth and change, such openness is not ordinarily part of the sense of conviction that attends the act of commitment to the truth of a particular religion. Dialogue, thirdly, presupposes interconnection, a certain sense of communality, which would form the ultimate ground and cause for mutual exchange. Efforts to find such common ground within religions, however, have generally been exposed as revealing subtle or overt religious prejudices. Many, therefore, locate common ground outside religions, in shared struggles against injustice, poverty or natural calamities.

Beyond a purely intellectual and historical understanding of the other, dialogue also presupposes a certain capacity for empathy, an ability to relate to and gauge the spiritual meaning and depth of particular beliefs and practices. In addition to postmodern critiques of the possibility of understanding the other from within, religions are also generally suspicious of or reticent about the level of religious immersion and identification with the other that is necessary for such understanding. Finally, genuine dialogue presupposes recognition of the possibility of discovering truth in the other religion. Though few religions would deny the possible existence of truth beyond the confines of one’s own tradition, such truth is generally considered to be dependent on and reducible to the teachings and practices already at hand. As such, dialogue is often regarded as superfluous.

However, the recognition of the religious obstacles or challenges to dialogue does not necessarily imply its impossibility or futility. Though the demands of dialogue will never take precedence (from a religious point of view) over the self-understanding of a particular tradition, confrontation with its own limits may challenge a tradition to search for means and resources which may help to overcome them. Interreligious dialogue is only served when each religion first considers its own limits to open exchange with other religions. Only then can traditions engage in creative efforts to overcome those limits. Most religious traditions contain abundant resources for rethinking teachings and attitudes that have traditionally inhibited the dialogue with other religions. The discovery and recognition of those resources may require time, imagination, debate and discussion within religions. But genuine interreligious dialogue will only be possible if traditions find the impulse and motivation to engage in such dialogue from within.

This is why such institutions like the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue are indispensable. They provide theologians and believers engaged in dialogue with the assurance that the tradition is genuinely committed to the cause of dialogue as something inherently religious, beyond political and social discussions, and to finding the proper means to further that dialogue, both from within and without.

Cornille is a member of the Theology faculty at Boston College. Her book, “Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity,” was published by Orbis Books (2002).


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