By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, announced this week that Pope Benedict XVI intends to restore the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as an independent office within the Roman Curia. In March 2006, Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, was also named President of the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, suggesting a sort of “merger” between the two offices.
That move, Bertone said, will shortly be reversed.
“The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue will be newly instituted as a self-standing dicastery,” Bertone told the Italian newspaper La Stampa, “while before it was consolidated into the Pontifical Council for Culture.” The apparent thrust of Bertone’s remark is that a new president will be named for the dialogue agency, since the council has remained structurally independent, retaining its own staff and offices.
The BBC headlined its story on Bertone's remarks “Pope Reinstates Islam Department.” Technically that’s not accurate, since the Council for Interreligious Dialogue is responsible for relations with all non-Christian faiths except Judaism, not just Islam.
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Nonetheless, it does capture the post-Regensburg focus on Islam within Catholicism. There's wide recognition that, for good or ill, relations between the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics and 1.6 billion Muslims – representing just under half of the entire human race – will have important consequences for the history of our times.
In March 2006, Benedict’s decision to combine the Council for Interreligious Dialogue with the Council for Culture was read as a statement about his vision of inter-faith relations. According to this theory, Benedict had long worried that too many people understood inter-faith dialogue on the model of ecumenical dialogue, as if the point were to reach common theological ground leading to a kind of united global religion. In fact, Benedict believes, theological agreement on the essentials between Christians and non-Christians is impossible; a Muslim will not recognize Jesus Christ as the lone Savior of the world, and a Christian will not recognize the Koran as the literal speech of God. Instead, Benedict prefers to emphasize areas of cultural, social and political cooperation among the faiths in defense of shared values, such as the family, social justice, and the role of religion in public life.
While that reading of last March’s merger may well be correct, it’s equally clear that at the level of symbolism, it was taken as a “down-grading” of the Vatican’s commitment to inter-faith dialogue – a perception that became especially troubling in light of the Regensburg lecture. (In fact, reporting on Regensburg often cited the change in the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, as well as the reassignment of its former President, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, as evidence of Benedict’s lukewarm commitment to relations with other religions.)
Especially in that light, Benedict’s choice of the new President of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue should be revealing in terms of the future direction of inter-faith relations under this pontificate. Bertone did not give any indication of when that appointment might be made.