A New Supreme Pontiff and What It Means for Interreligious Dialogue

Just before noon on Monday in Rome, Italy, Pope Benedict XVI addressed assembled Cardinals of the Catholic Church. After serving nearly eight years as the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God, Benedict XVI, after careful prayer and contemplation, announced his impending resignation of the post, effective February 28, 2013, citing failing health and the good of the Church.

Many of us here in the United States woke to this rather surprising news. Perhaps it should not be so surprising: the Pope is now 85 years old and has always recognized the possibility of resignation as the end of his reign. Looking back, we could say the writing was on the wall with the successive consistories naming new Cardinals within nine months of each other and the last attempt reaching out to reconcile the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which continues in small increments.

Yet, there has not been a resignation of a Pope in nearly 600 years, not since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. That resignation was due to internal crisis and schism. There is reason for people to be taken by surprise, and with any change so large it is naturally accompanied by apprehension: Who will become the next Pope? What will the Church look like under this new Pope?

Inter-religious relations are one of the particular subjects in flux. Following the pontificate of Pope John Paul II with its many watersheds in dealing with other religious traditions, many saw the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), known as the Vatican’s “Enforcer of the Faith” due to his hardline doctrinal approach as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as a step backwards in terms of inter-religious relations. And while his pontificate did not provide the same momentum in terms of inter-religious dialogue as much of his focus was on repairing internal rifts within the Church, concerns about relations between Catholics and other traditions were largely unfounded. Entering his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI brought with him a deep respect for other traditions and despite some swerves in the road, inter-religious relations continued to progress, especially in the waning months as inter-religious relations came to the fore.

In looking to the future, many are hoping that the next Pope may bring new perspectives on many issues, including the place of inter-religious dialogue in the Church. Speculation over the outcome of the impending conclave has already begun. And the men short-listed as most likely to fill the soon to be sedes vacans (lat. empty chair) of Peter, called the papabile, have quite impressive inter-religious track records (though not all). Despite this, the lingering fear is that in a Church that continues to concern itself evermore with internal building and hot-button issues, the fringe, where dialogue has always been pushing our understanding, is in danger of being forgotten. The eyes of the inter-religious world will be turned on Rome to see the future emerge.

What many people do not realize, however, is that the Pope is not the “ruler” of the Church like an absolute monarch, he is not a law-maker or ultimate judge. If he proclaimed that we must all hop around on one foot for three hours a day, we would probably dismiss this as craziness. As his final title (see the long list above) proclaims, he is a servant of God like us all, and in fact, the servant of the servants. Catholics do not believe the Pope constructs Truth, but works for the Church whose truth is given not by man but by God. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit who stands as first and last in all matters of faith and morals. The Pope, on the other hand, is the prime listener to God and conveyer to the Church. He first receives and then hands on, all in order to safeguard and shepherd. For Catholics, it is not the Pope, but God, who is in charge.

And, for the Catholic Church, God has been clear on His intentions to support constructive inter-religious relations. The Holy Spirit, speaking in the actions of the Second Vatican Council, guided the Church in proclaiming, in a voice made even stronger by the bishops of the world declaring in unison and in concert with the Pope, a commitment to inter-religious dialogue and the improvement of inter-religious relations. Speaking thus, it is an irrevocable pledge. There is no going back on it on the part of the Church. We can have faith that the mission of dialogue for understanding and peace are intended by God, that the Church will continue to recognize this, and that individual Catholics will assent to the riches it provides. The work of dialogue will continue.

With the many questions that now face the Catholic Church in this forgotten territory of a retired Pope, the place of dialogue should not be one of them. The new Pope may or may not be a champion for the goals of dialogue, but he will certainly not be a hindrance. With my fellow Catholics around the world, I thank Pope Benedict XVI for his tireless service that deserves respect, admiration, and our affection, and his witness to humility and truth in this action, and I wait in hope for white smoke and the famous phrase, “Habemus Papam!” to usher in the next chapter of the Church’s life.

Photo by MiguelHermoso, via WikiMedia Commons

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2 thoughts on “A New Supreme Pontiff and What It Means for Interreligious Dialogue

  1. Rebecca,
    I’m struck by your reference to Benedict’s “hardline doctrinal approach” and its relation to interreligious dialogue. Are these mutually exclusive? Can the Catholic Church work for more internal cohesion while still remaining open to engaging with people of other faiths?

  2. Hi Joseph,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    Far from trying to imply that these two impulses are mutually exclusive, in a full view of the theology of the Church, they must be complementary and balanced.

    Benedict XVI, while focusing on internal cohesion, could sometimes lose sight of the external ramifications. Never to the point of truly disregarding people of other faiths and certainly not with malicious intent, but not always endearing the Church either. For example, he pushed forward with the canonization of Pius XII. In itself, this is not problematic, but since Pius XII’s reign was during a rather sensitive time, further study and dialogue could be of use.

    His time as Pope, however, was not marked with the quite the same “hardline” approach as his time as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to which I was referring. During his time as prefect, in an attempt to present a balanced view of dialogue for the Church, the CDF came down rather hard on several theologians in the field. There is still a sense of apprehension, I find, among theologians. Dialogue itself is always pushing the understanding of the Church, and many are hesitant to explore at the moment.

    This is what need not be, there should be open and mutual cooperation and support, and this way both the internal and the external affairs of the Church can match and complement.

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