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Ratzinger on the Dialogue of Religions

Many of us have been eager to forget the video where Pope Francis urges a dialogue [1] among the religions present – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist. That video leaves the impression of a leveling out of the fundamental differences between these religions, suggesting a muting of the primary call to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel. Still, I think we can honor the pope’s motives here for dialogue, namely, encouraging the “maintaining of good fellowship among the nations.” (1 Pet 2:12) And, if possible, “as far as depends on one, to live at peace with all men.” (Rom 12:18)

Joseph Ratzinger takes a very different stance regarding the question: “What, in concrete terms, is Christianity’s position in the dialogue of religions?” In a gem of an essay, “The Dialogue of the Religions and the Relationship between Judaism and Christianity” (Many Religions—One Covenant [2]), an abridged version that is more fully worked out in Truth and Tolerance [3], Ratzinger denies that dialogue should supplant evangelization.

The claim that missionary activity should cease entails the denial of truth. This leaves us, Ratzinger says, with the idea that dialogue is a matter “of making one another better Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, or Buddhists.” He pronounces an emphatic “No” to that claim: “For this would be nothing other than total lack of conviction; under the pretext of affirming one another in our best points, we would, in fact, be failing to take ourselves (or others) seriously; we would be finally renouncing truth.”

So how does Ratzinger account for what not only unites us, more or less, but also makes possible a genuinely dialogical, but also critical, encounter, given the separation and contradictory affirmations between the religions, “On what basis can one even begin to look for this unity?”


He delineates three approaches to the question of unity in diversity: mystical, theistic, and pragmatic.

The pragmatic approach, which affirms the primacy of orthopraxy (“right practice”) over orthodoxy, arises from a skepticism engendered by endless disputes about rational justification and the truth of religion. Renouncing truth and conviction, unity in religious diversity is sought in orthopraxis serving peace, justice, and the protection of creation. Ratzinger affirms these ends but opposes cutting short the rational debate about the truth of religion. He also opposes advancing a “religiously motivated moralism” about the goals that best serve these ends. Why?

Pope Benedict XVI in Assisi, 2011

He says the “religions have no a priori knowledge” of the means to attain these ends. There is a “pluralism of paths” here rather than only one right path. Argument is needed to select and support which is the best path. Ratzinger, then, argues that the pragmatic approach to unity in religious diversity perverts religion “into an ideological dictatorship with a totalitarian passion.” Think here of the religiously motivated moralism of some global warming advocates. Thus: “Religion cannot be forced into the service of practical-political objectives; the latter would become an idol; man, making God the slave of his plans, would degrade both God and himself.” Unity cannot be found in orthopraxy.

The mystical approach hopes to find unity in religious diversity at the level of mystical experience. An absolute value is attributed to an unnamable experience that is also ineffable and beyond all concepts. Unity is promoted here “by withdrawing all affirmative propositions (which means those claiming to be composed of truths).” A strongly negative or apophatic theology drives this approach so “no [determinate] claims are made as to knowledge of the divine.” On this view, the claims of diverse religions are penultimate, and hence it “does not matter whether the divine is conceived in personal or non-personal terms.” Adds Ratzinger, “The God who speaks [and hears] and the silent depth of being are, it is suggested, only two different ways of conceiving the ineffable that lies beyond all concepts.”

The central problem with this is that it does not stand up to reality, and hence the question of unity cannot be resolved here. The variety of religions makes profoundly contradictory and irreconcilable claims. Hence, they cannot be saying the same thing; so the question concerning truth is unavoidable.

This brings us to the Christian theistic approach (I leave Judaism aside). God is there and He is not silent. God’s self-revelation in the history of salvation is realized in words and deeds. For instance, “Christ died is the deed; Christ died for our sins is the divinely given word of interpretation that makes the act revelatory,” as G.E. Ladd puts it. Hence: “faith in God cannot dispense with a [revealed] truth whose [determinate] substance can be articulated.” Yes, the Christian faith has a mystical and apophatic and even an eschatological aspect such that, e.g., the dogmas of Trinity and the person of Christ are determinately true but also “invite us to an infinite journey to a God who is always infinitely greater.”

Thus: “God becomes concrete, tangible in history [in the Incarnation]. He approaches men in bodily form. But this very God, become graspable, is utterly mysterious.” So, the revealed truth regarding the mystery of the Incarnation, although determinate, “both conceals and reveals himself,” the God-Logos.

How, then, does the proclamation of the Gospel involve dialogue? In Ratzinger’s view, the “theistic, incarnational model brings us farther than the mystical and the pragmatic.” On the one hand, revealed truth is accessible in faith. Still, God has not left himself without witness through general revelation, elements of which are found in the variety of religions (Rom 1: 20; 2: 14-16; Acts 14:17), albeit distorted, misinterpreted, and rejected. On the other hand, general revelation not only reveals common ground, a unity we already share in varying degrees, among the religions, but also these fragments may deepen our understanding of the Christian faith “through dialogue, allowing us to acknowledge its mystery and infinity.”

But dialogue per se is worthless, says Ratzinger, without “aiming at conviction, at finding the truth.”

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (2015) and Divine Election: A Catholic Orientation in Dogmatic and Ecumenical Perspective (2016).