Interreligious dialogue impossible, pope says, but intercultural dialogue good

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Marcello Pera is the former president of the Italian Senate and also a professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa. Intellectually, Pera is a disciple of Karl Popper. He’s perhaps the leading example of a peculiar phenomenon on the cultural right in today’s Europe – self-professed atheists and secularists who nevertheless support a revival of the Christian roots of the Old Continent. In 2004, he co-authored a book on Europe with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called Without Roots. Pera’s new book, which comes out tomorrow and is called Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians, travels much the same ground.

What makes the book remarkable is that, apparently for the first time, it carries a brief introduction written by a sitting pope. Benedict’s letter to Pera has made a stir in the global media, in part because the pope repeats his well-known conviction that dialogue among religions in the strict sense is logically impossible, because it implies a suspension of one’s own faith commitments, but that dialogue among cultures shaped by those religions is not only possible but urgently necessary.

The following is the full text of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter about Pera’s book, in an NCR translation from the Italian original.

Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Senator Marcello Pera

Dear Senator Pera:

Recently I was able to read your new book Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians. It was for me a fascinating experience. With a stupendous knowledge of the sources and a cogent logic, you analyze the essence of liberalism beginning with its foundations, demonstrating its roots in the Christian image of God that belongs to the essence of liberalism: the relationship with God of which man is the image, and from which we have received the gift of liberty. With incontestable logic, you show that liberalism loses its basis and destroys itself if it abandons this foundation.

No less impressive are your analyses of liberty and of ‘multi-culturalism,’ in which you illustrate the self-contradictory nature of this concept and hence its political and cultural impossibility. Of fundamental importance is your analysis of what Europe can be, and of a European constitution in which Europe does not transform itself into a cosmopolitan reality, but rather finds its identity in its Christian-liberal foundation.

Particularly meaningful for me too is your analysis of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. You explain with great clarity that an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible, while you urge intercultural dialogue that develops the cultural consequences of the religious option which lies beneath. While a true dialogue is not possible about this basic option without putting one’s own faith into parentheses, it’s important in public exchange to explore the cultural consequences of these religious options. Here, dialogue and mutual correction and enrichment are both possible and necessary.

With regard to the importance of all this for the contemporary crisis in ethics, I find what you say about the trajectory of liberal ethics important. You demonstrate that liberalism – without ceasing to be liberalism, but, on the contrary, in order to be faithful to itself – can link itself to a doctrine of the good, in particular that of Christianity, which is in fact genetically linked to liberalism. You thereby offer a true contribution to overcoming the crisis.

With its sober rationality, its ample philosophical information and the force of its argument, the present book, in my opinion, is of fundamental importance in this hour for Europe and for the world. I hope that it finds a large audience, and that it can give to political debate, beyond the most urgent problems, that depth without which we cannot overcome the challenge of our historical moment.

With gratitude for your work, I heartily offer God’s blessings.

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