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Two criteria for interreligious dialogue. Introductory paper by Card. Scola at the Intercultural Forum for Studies in Faith and Culture, Washington DC

On the occasion of his encounter with representatives of Muslim communities in Germany on 20 August 2005, Pope Benedict XVI re-emphasised that “interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an occasional option. It is in fact a vital necessity, and our future depends to a great extent upon it”.
Here the Pope was re-stating a personal conviction about interreligious dialogue which he had espoused some years before in his celebrated volume entitled Das neue Volk Gottes. Entwürfe zur Ekklesiologie (The new people of God). In this work the theologian Joseph Ratzinger had maintained: “[] it has become an integral part of our faith today that Christianity should have relations with the religions of the world: this is far from being a matter of a mere curiosity that is solely interested in constructing some theory of its own about the destiny of others this destiny is decided by God alone, who does not need our theories (…) But today there is more at stake: the sense of our being able and obliged to believe. The religions of the world have become a question mark for Christianity; faced with them it must start to think afresh about its claims, [] how it can understand them as playing a necessary role in the history of salvation”1.

Having acknowledged the centrality of interreligious dialogue, we next need to determine the few basic criteria to which Benedict XVI refers. They can then be the object of discussion and study in our dialogue. It is not possible in this brief introduction to offer a systematic presentation of these criteria. I will limit myself therefore to stating two; I cannot even hope to be able to offer an organic analysis of them.

a) Religions and good life
The first of these criteria – not in order of importance but because it is the most pacific was particularly and significantly emphasised by the Holy Father in his addresses to Muslim believers. This asserts that dialogue is proper to every believer as a member of the people of God or of the Muslim communities. It derives above all from the fact that every person is de facto a member of a society, and is thereby called to contribute to the good life of the society in which he or she lives. Here the Pope strongly emphasises the need for adhérents of religions to take the same path: “Certainly, recognition of the positive role of religions at the heart of the social body can and must impel our societies to explore more and more deeply their knowledge of the human person and to respect human dignity by placing the person at the centre of political, economic, cultural, and social activity. Our world must come to realise more and more that all peoples are linked by profound solidarity with one another, and they must be encouraged to assert their historical and cultural differences not for the sake of confrontation but in order to foster mutual respect.” (Pope’s speech to the diplomatic corps in the Apostolic Nunciature at Ankara, 28 november 2006).

b) Faith, reason, and religions
The second and more demanding criterion is the one emphasised particularly in the celebrated lecture at the University of Regensburg. It deals with the nexus of faith, reason, and religion and the capacity of human reason to grasp this nexus. In this connection the Holy Father affirmed at Regensburg: “theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences (…) precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith. Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. (…) A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. (…) For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity (…) is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. (…) The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.” [Official translation from Vatican website]
This long quotation from the Regensburg lecture can help us to determine a few essential elements which can be the object of our dialogue.
The correct relationship between faith, reason, and religions, perfectly comprehensible to human reason when not enslaved to reductionisms, involves a recognition of the two inseparable sides to dialogue, neither of which can be dispensed with.

c) The principle of integration
The first of the above criteria can be identified as the principle of integration. What does it consist in? It can best be described in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Basle theologian acknowledges the necessity of a comparison of the actual contents of religions at all levels. In this way “something like a scale of recognisable truths will be born, which can be co-ordinated according to the principle: “The one who has more truth is more right and has more rights on his side” (…) The one who turns out to be in a position to integrate the maximum of truth into his vision would have the presumption of a maximally true truth”2. From this point of view it is possible to grasp why the Holy Father proposes to understand interreligious and intercultural dialogue in a unitary fashion. A definition of culture which does not take into consideration the religious dimension constitutive of the ultimate requirements of reason is reductive (Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?)

d) Truth and freedom
The second indispensable aspect of dialogue concerns the truth-freedom nexus. While it is true that the principle of integration is essential, because required by the quest for truth proper to religions, at the same time it does not manage to encompass all of the horizon of truth on its own. By its very nature truth requires the act of a freedom which is ready to give active assent.
The principle of integration cannot but bow to the “freedom of God in His Self-revelation”3, proposing a kind of absolute knowledge of hegelian stamp. The same principle must also respect the truth of the finite freedom of man, which is called actively to welcome the statement of truth rather than merely enduring it! That is why Balthasar himself speaks of truth in terms of “love that gives itself in freedom (“only love is credible”)”4. Pope Benedict also fully took on board this crucial aspect of interreligious dialogue when, in his Message on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Interreligious Encounter of Prayer for Peace (the second of September 2006), he opted to speak expressly of the «language of testimony».Christians and Muslims in particular must bear testimony, in reciprocal dialogue, to their faith in the one God and in the ineradicable distance constantly present in the Islamic faith between Creator and creatures. They must not however undervalue the differences – beginning with the trinitarian monotheism central to Christianity. Defending in continuous open dialogue the freedom of religion in every civil society, Christianity and Islam are then called to testify that every form of violence is by its nature alien to the authentic raison d’être of religion as such.


1. J. RATZINGER, Il nuovo popolo di Dio, Queriniana, Brescia 1971, 391-392. [Das neue Volk Gottes. Entwürfe zur Ekklesiologie, 1972]

2. H. U. VON BALTHASAR, La mia opera ed epilogo, Jaca Book, Milano 1994, 97-98. [My Work: in Retrospect, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993]

3. Ibid., 98.

4. Ibidem.

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