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Ex-Ex Cathedra Statements on Relativism

02/12/2014 10:14 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The former pope Benedict emerged recently from retirement to express his anxieties about relativism. This had been the theme of several ex cathedra warnings during his pontificate. The connection this time with inter-religious dialogue is explicit.

Given the non-doctrinal status of his latest warning, it might be taken more lightly. But the notable part of this intervention was his evident fear that inter-faith dialogue held great dangers for the integrity of the Catholic faith. A passage in the Bible says 'the river' has many streams bringing joy to the city. But they seem to bring the former Pope anxiety sufficient to draw him again into the public domain. So, as he sees it, what is the problem?

It may be a fear of where contemporary inter-religious dialogue might be leading, rather than where it is. He seems to see it leading to a unified global religion: at best an Irish stew in which compassion serves as the lumps of lamb and peace as the carrots; at worst a thin gruel with no real nourishment. I suppose both are possible. Just as the descent of the high civilization of his native Germany into the abyss of the Third Reich may have made the Benedict unusually sensitive to ideas taken to their extremes, perhaps we should also always fear the worst.

But is this trajectory likely? Most people who practice interfaith dialogue do not undertake it as an end in itself. They have no intention of cooking up a hybrid faith. Interfaith dialogue is a means to achieve social harmony in religiously pluralist societies, to prevent conflict where the protagonists are identified by religion, or sometimes to reduce violence in failed states. Sometimes it is simply undertaken in pursuit of genuine intellectual enquiry and mutual understanding. Participants often experience their own faith being strengthened and deepened and new insights into the faith of their neighbor, on top of the growth of new friendships and rewarding work together for the common good.

It is paradigmatic for those professing a particular faith that it is true and right. Why else, other than inertia and habit, would anyone persist in membership if not. But it should not follow that the faith of the other is simply considered untrue and wrong. Nor does it follow that a new hybrid faith will inevitably emerge as the result of new insights into the truth and beauty in other faiths.

This should come as no surprise. Dialogue shows the opposite characteristics to religious extremism. It requires an open mind, the ability to respect and listen to the interlocutor, the capacity to hold more than one truth and live with the ambiguities and complexity of the human condition. It has a sense of confidence in one's own skin whilst also being at ease with diversity. It is rewarded by moments of insight that enrich personal faith and illuminate its communal expression.

But interfaith dialogue is also likely to lead to intra-faith dialogue. Some will find the expression of the above characteristics suspect and disloyal. Religious tribalism has a strong pull. Yet it might be said that the art of negotiation and mediation is not to be caught in no-man's land by reaching out too far, with the home constituency left far behind, but rather to engage with those of different views from one's own faith and take them along. Otherwise, there is always the danger of turning round and finding no-one there.

In many societies this may be a matter of life and death, ceasefire or ever-escalating revenge killing, of inter-communal violence or sullen co-existence. Or it may be no more than academic conversations based on religious texts amongst scholars. Or it may be religious leaders joining together to fight endemic disease that recognises no difference between the religious beliefs of their hosts.

A positive statement on inter-religious dialogue from former Pope Benedict would be welcome, but I am not holding my breath. He is, though, a man who knows when it is time to move on. So my hope is that he might allow himself in his closing years the consolation of leaving behind these fears and setting aside the theological terror of relativism.