Carl E. Olson

Francis X. Clooney, S.J., is a professor of divinity and of comparative theology at Harvard University and author of several books, including Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press), and, as editor, a soon-to-be-published volume, Jesuit Postmodern (Lexington Books). If the titles don’t provide a clear enough idea of where Fr. Clooney is coming from, his recent article in Commonweal, titled “Learning to Listen: Benedict XVI and Interreligious Dialogue,” certainly will. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph:

The controversy over Pope Benedict’s September lecture in Regensburg and his use of the now infamous quote from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus condemning Islam was a perfect storm. But it was not the first time that stern words and brusqueness have been associated with Joseph Ratzinger.

In the course of the 3,280 word article, the words “brusque” and “brusqueness” appear sixteen times, in each occasion describing–directly and indirectly–the style of dialogue supposedly embraced by the Holy Father. It seems that Clooney is from the “I’m OK, You’re OK, The Pope Isn’t OK” school of interreligious dialogue, which finds offensive any “brusqueness” (read: frank, direct talk) or intimation that Catholics think Catholicism is superior to Islam, Hinduism (Clooney’s favorite, being his area of expertise), or ant-worshipping animism. He also appears to be a disciple of the “It’s All Our Fault Approach” of dialogue, a consistent choice among those not so convinced of the uniqueness of the Catholic Church:

Benedict’s sharply honed ideas and blunt speech have given offense in some quarters for years. But in most such instances, the makings of a storm were lacking: sometimes his points were well taken; at other times, critics within the church lacked sufficient status to insist on further conversation; insulted outsiders-Protestant theologians or Hindus or Buddhists-were in the end not concerned enough to pursue any given quarrel with vigor. But the dispute over the pope’s Regensburg speech compounded the right mix: brusque style, relentless logic, a complex issue, an inexplicable citation of a truly offensive five-hundred-year-old text-and all of this happening when unrest and anger pervade the relations of Islam and the West. The storm broke, and we all felt its consequences.

How “we all felt the consequences” of the violent reaction of certain Muslims to the Regensburg address isn’t quite clear, but that’s probably because the feelings involved in such matters tend to be rather vague and subjective. Anyhow, Clooney is apparently concerned that Catholics, no matter how open to dialogue they often are, too often fail to acknowledge the equal value and truthfuless of other religions:

While few sensible Christians would be so brusque today, the question of the meaning of Islam for Christians is still with us, particularly if (by tradition, habit, or conviction) many Christian leaders avoid speaking of the Qur’an as revelation or of Mohammed as a true prophet. More generally, it remains something of an ecclesial mantra for the magisterium to echo Paul VI’s rather vague 1963 judgment on the “gaps, insufficiencies, and errors” apparent in other religions. Dialogue is difficult, and while the Catholic Church is genuinely a leader in fostering it, we have also at times made it harder to carry through. We do well, therefore, to ponder how Benedict’s brusque style and stern theology, however necessary in their own way, trouble those who still hope for something more from the encounter with other faiths. (emphasis added)

If I read this correctly (and heaven knows how hindered I am by a bias toward Truth, Jesus Christ, and Catholicism), Clooney is suggesting that Christians would have a more fruitful dialogue with Islam if they acknowledged that it Islam is true, that Mohammed really was an authentic prophet, and that the Qur’an is actually filled with authentic divine revelation. In other words, Christians would understand Islam far better if they became Muslims. Come to think of it, isn’t that what most Muslims want? Hmmmm.

The pope perhaps considers brusqueness a virtue; plain truths must be stated plainly. He admitted that Emperor Paleologus’s words are “astounding” and of “startling brusqueness,” but the Regensburg speech did nothing to explain why this scholarly theology professor included so offensive a quote when all the world was listening.

In other words, why would anyone speak plainly about difficult and controversial topics, especially when somebody–anybody! somewhere! raise your hand!–might be offended. Indeed, would Jesus have ever considered doing such a thing? Uh, well, of course he would! And did–often, repeatedly, and with a style that Clooney would have to admit was brusque and more than a little offensive at times. When Jesus confronted those disciples offended by His audacious words, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” He didn’t wring his hands, lick his trembling lips, and nervously inquire about their sensitive psychological state. He plainly asked the rhetorical question: “Does this cause you to stumble?” But, as though resonding to the same question, Clooney tries to navigate through the uncomfortable chasm between truth and falsehood:

Moreover, it often requires great subtlety to distinguish the exercise of authority from authoritarianism, and “harshness” from “justified harshness.” In any case, the widespread Muslim displeasure with Benedict’s brusque words at Regensburg was neither surprising nor unjustified, regardless of the larger, valuable point underlying the speech as a whole.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Clooney that sometimes–many times!–the truth does offend, and does need to be stated. Period. This is explained well by another (but far less squishy) Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Fessio, whose analysis of the Regensburg address is a must read:

It is at this point in the lecture that Benedict makes a statement which cannot be avoided or evaded if there is ever to be any dialogue between Christianity and Islam that is more than empty words and diplomatic gestures. For the Emperor, God’s rationality is “self-evident”. But for Muslim teaching, according to the editor of the book from which Benedict has been quoting, “God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality”.

Benedict has struck bedrock. This is the challenge to Islam. This is the issue that lies beneath all the rest. If God is above reason in this way, then it is useless to employ rational arguments against (or for) forced conversion, terrorism, or Sharia law, which calls for the execution of Muslim converts to Christianity. If God wills it, it is beyond discussion.

As Fr. Fessio explains, at the start of his essay, the Holy Father has a consistent approach to addressing controversial topics:

Both before and since his elevation to the papacy, Benedict has taken a consistent approach to controversial issues: he locates the assumptions and fundamental principles underlying the controversy, analyzes their “inner” structure or dynamism, and lays out the consequences of the principles.

Yet Clooney cannot quite comprehend how a Christian can hold to the objective, clear dogmatic teachings of the Church and also dialogue with an open mind with other religions. I quote here at length:

So we–all of us, not just the pope–are in a bind. Reason matters; religious tradition, authority, and doctrine all matter very much; professorial brusqueness is admirable in certain academic cultures; the centrality of Jesus is nonnegotiable for all Christians. But it also matters–it cannot not matter–that dialogue means little unless we are people able to listen and learn within an ongoing conversation that is both intellectual and spiritual, deeper and loftier than the modern tendency to divide faith from reason, or theologies about religions from interreligious learning. A lived commitment to our faith and to sharing it with those who would likewise open their faith to us is required if we are to move beyond the impasse now symbolized by Paleologus’s condemnations, a polemic that is remembered by just one participant in the argument, even if couched as a dialogue. …

The theologian venturing to speak about religions today must know what she or he is talking about, live a life dedicated to this learning, and be vulnerable in the dialogue that should ensue whether we speak in public or academic settings. Our obligation to the church is, in an important and not entirely symmetrical way, balanced by our commitment to the traditions we study. We must be chastened by real regret when our words fall short, failing to gain at least minimal respect from learned practitioners in traditions of which we speak. Ending interreligious violence, learning to understand as God understands, is not simply a matter of relentless logic or amiable words on formal occasions. What is needed more urgently is a Gandhian satyagraha, an intentional and humble opening of hands and heart to the gifts of another tradition. Over time, we have to learn to be persons who notice things that logic and respect for doctrine still have not brought into focus.

What those particular “things” are is not clear. In reality, the Church’s teaching about truth and other religions is not only logical and clear, but rooted in a real charity toward others and interest in dialogue with them, as the Second Vatican Council outlined:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. (Lumen Gentium, 16; also see Dominus Iesus, par. 20ff)

Compare that with the teachings of certain religions/religious groups who insist that if you do not become a visible member, you are damned, dead, or bound for nonexistence. Compared to such groups, is Benedict really so “brusque”?

Finally, Clooney concludes by admitting that Benedict isn’t all that bad and that, well, he (Clooney, not Benedict) doesn’t really have a clear idea of how to handle interreligious dialogues:

I know that I am demanding a lot from myself and fellow Catholics when I suggest that the pope’s legitimate concern for enduring truths will be life-giving only when also related to a mature interreligious learning that is necessarily more open-ended, unpredicted even by the best theology-but I do not at the moment see a better way to make sense of the situation we are in. I would say exactly the same to friends in other religions, hoping to find some who can listen-resistance to dialogue is no special preserve of Roman Catholics!

So, class, let’s see if I understand this correctly:

1). The Pope’s concern for truth is “legimate,” but not if the truth offends somebody. Which begs the question: why even bother?

2). Said concern for truth is only good (“life-giving”) when it is “necessarily open-ended.” Unfortunately, no one knows what that means. But I suspect it means that “truth” has a rather malleable and ambiguous quality to it.

3). Clooney has no idea how to “make sense of the situation we are in,” but is full of ideas about how “brusque” and offensive the Holy Father is when he makes sense of the situation. In sports parlance, he is the classic Monday morning quarterback.

4). Catholics have a resistence to interreligious dialogue, as evidenced by this lengthy article critiquing Benedict’s already numerous efforts to engage in interreligious dialogue. (And we all know how reluctant Pope John Paul II was to engage in such dialogue.) Unfortunately, no comparison is made between the Catholic reluctance to engage  in interreligious dialogue and the eagerness for such dialogue shown by most, if not all, Muslims.

So what is the basis for real interreligious dialogue? Dominus Iesus, which Clooney finds so offensive, quotes from the sixteenth chapter of Lumen Gentium, and then states:

Continuing in this line of thought, the Church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), today also makes use of the practice of interreligious dialogue. Such dialogue certainly does not replace, but rather accompanies the missio ad gentes, directed toward that “mystery of unity”, from which “it follows that all men and women who are saved share, though differently, in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit”. interreligious dialogue, which is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission, requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment, in obedience to the truth and with respect for freedom.

And this, from Cardinal Ratzinger’s invaluable work, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, in addressing “the notion that all religions are ultimately equivalent”:

The Christian has to resist this ideology of equality. Not as if he wanted to make himself out to be superior–no one acheives being a Christian for himself, as we were saying; each is only Christian through “conversion”. But the Christian ceratinly does believe that that in Christ the living God calls us in a unique way, which demands obedience and conversion. This presupposes that the question of truth plays a part in the relation between religions and that truth is a gift for everyone and alienates no one. (p. 105)

Showing respect for another religion does not mean abandoning obedience to the truth, nor should it keep Catholics–whether layman or Pope–from stating the truth. Yes, there can be legitimate debates about tact and style, but there should be no denying, at least for Catholics, that truth ultimately trumps feelings or paralyzing concerns for overly sensitive interlocutors. After all, interreligious dialogue that is not directed toward truth is not “a preparation for the Gospel” (LG 16), nor is it oriented toward what is best for the other. That is, sometimes tough love and strong words are the best basis for a meaningful conversation.