Benedict XVI lauds religious freedom, interreligious dialogue

Benedict greeting the crowds at Catholic University of America
Benedict greeting the crowds at Catholic University of America


In a meeting with interfaith leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C on Thursday evening, Pope Benedict XVI praised American traditions of religious freedom and religious involvement in public life.  He also encouraged inter-faith cooperation and dialogue as a way of both building mutual understanding and the strengthening society. However, the Pope also said that such cooperation and dialogue should not obscure the real differences between religious faiths. 

In his address, Pope Benedict lauded what he called the United States’ “long history of cooperation” between religious faiths.  As examples of such cooperation, he cited interreligious prayer services at Thanksgiving, joint charitable action, and speaking with a “shared voice” on public issues.  These activities, the Pope said, brought members of different religions together to “enhance mutual understanding and promote the common good.” 

“I encourage all religious groups in America to persevere in their collaboration and thus enrich public life with the spiritual values that motivate your action in the world,” Pope Benedict said.

The Holy Father cited the mission statement of the meeting’s venue, the Pope John Paul II Center, which offers a Christian voice in the “human search for meaning and purpose in life.”  He said the center’s mission recalls the American conviction that “all people should be free to pursue happiness in a way consonant with their nature as creatures endowed with reason and free will.”

Pope Benedict referenced the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose nineteenth century writings argued that, in American life, religion and freedom are “intimately linked” in upholding democracy.  The Pope expressed hope that other countries could learn from the United States that “a united society can indeed arise from a plurality of peoples provided that all recognize religious liberty as a basic civil right.” 

He also quoted approvingly one of the country’s Latin mottoes, "E pluribus unum," which means "out of many, one."

Noting that religious freedom could not be protected only within the law, the Pope said that protecting people, especially minorities, from unjust discrimination and prejudice “requires constant effort on the part of all members of society to ensure that citizens are afforded the opportunity to worship peaceably and to pass on their religious heritage to their children.”

Pope Benedict said that interreligious dialogue enriches both its participants and the surrounding society.  This dialogue reveals a shared esteem for “ethical values, discernable to human reason, which are revered by all peoples of goodwill.”  He urged all religious people to bear common witness to these values as a way of serving society as a whole.  He cited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said, “No greater thing could come to our land today than a revival of the spirit of faith.”

The Pope listed the “enormous” responsibilities of religious leaders:  “to imbue society with a profound awe and respect for human life and freedom; to ensure that human dignity is recognized and cherished; to facilitate peace and justice; to teach children what is right, good and reasonable!”

While praising various governments’ sponsorship of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, Pope Benedict said that such dialogues, along with religious freedom and faith-based education, “aim at something more than a consensus” about strategies for advancing peace. 

“The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth,” he said.

The truth, the Pope said, involved questions like “What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence?”

Addressing these deeper questions, the Pope said, was the only solid basis of peace and security for human family.  “Wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace," the Pope said, citing the Message for the 2006 World Day of Peace.

Pope Benedict said these deeper questions are “too often marginalized,” but “can never be erased from the human heart.”  Citing several Psalms reflecting human restlessness with the passing world, he emphasized the special duty, even competence, of religious leaders to place deeper questions at the forefront of life.  Such leaders must also “reawaken mankind to the mystery of human existence” and make room for reflection and prayer in a busy world.

The Pope then proposed the Christian answer to such deep questions:

“Confronted with these deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things. It is he whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their minds and hearts in dialogue.”

Pope Benedict also suggested that in attempts to discover common ground in interreligious dialogue, “perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity.  While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth.”

Religious dialogue must not stop at identifying common values, but must also ask about their “ultimate foundation.”  The truth, Pope Benedict said, reveals to man “the essential relationship” between the world and God.  He also said the “heavenly gift” of peace calls mankind to conform human history to the divine order.

“May the followers of all religions stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere,” the Pope concluded.  Generous engagement in interreligious dialogue and “countless small acts of love, understanding and compassion,” the Pope said, lets us be “instruments of peace for the whole human family.”

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