Pope Questions Path of Interfaith Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI questioned the current direction of interfaith dialogue on Sunday, but maintained that talks between religious groups are still needed albeit it might need some changes.

In a letter to Italian politician and scholar Marcello Pera, who has a soon-to-be-released book Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian, the pope commented that the book "explained with great clarity" that "an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible," according to The New York Times.

Pera's book argues that Europe should recognize its Christian roots, an issue that Benedict has advocated for in an increasingly secular Europe.

The Pontiff noted that "a true dialogue is not possible without putting one's faith in parentheses," in the letter that was printed on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading daily newspaper.

However, he said "intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas" was important and called for discussing "in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions."

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi later explained that the pope's comment was intended to raise interest in Pera's book, not signal a change of heart in the Vatican's interest towards interfaith dialogues.

"He has a papacy known for religious dialogue; he went to a mosque, he's been to synagogues," Lombardi said. "This means that he thinks we can meet and talk to the others and have a positive relationship."

Meanwhile, some scholars contend the pope's comment is a push for interreligious dialogues that are more practical than theoretical.

"He's trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?" said George Weigel, a Catholic scholar and biographer of Pope John Paul II.

In early November the Vatican had hosted a historic interfaith dialogue between top Muslim scholars and Catholic officials. Participants in the Vatican dialogue discussed different understandings of scriptures, shared moral values, mutual respect for foundational figures in respective faiths, religious freedom, and the persecution of minorities in Iraq.

Religious leaders taking part in the first meeting of its kind had hoped to defuse the ongoing and increasing tensions between Islam and Christianity.

Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury also hosted a Muslim-Christian conference this year where both Muslim and Christian leaders denounced the persecution of Christians in Iraq.