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If you imagine that multifaith dialogue is easy, this post will change your mind. Continue reading but be warned that you’ll be asked to tease out the intricacies of an argument between the University of Chicago historian, David Nirenberg, a champion of secularism, and His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, the champion par excellence of Roman Catholicism.

Ideally, when we enter into a dialogue about religious beliefs, we do so with a genuine desire for authentic conversation.  We attempt to understand, as much as possible, our interlocutor’s point of view especially when we find his or her point of view offensive.  But, in the present case, even a brilliant scholar like Nirenberg, who’s written insightful books about the three Abrahamic religions, loses his patience and calls on His Holiness to stop speaking like a Roman Catholic.

Nirenberg aired his differences with the Pope in a September 23, 2009, article in The New Republic, “Love and Capitalism,” in which he reviewed Benedict’s book-length encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate:  On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.”

The problem, for Nirenberg, is not the Pope’s claim to the Truth:  “Popes,” Nirenberg writes, “have the right, indeed the obligation, to teach believers the truth as they are given to perceive it, no matter how controversial.”

No, Nirenberg’s disagreement with the Pope centers around the meaning of the term “caritas,” a word that can be loosely translated into English as “charity” or “love.”

For Roman Catholics, however, caritas doesn’t mean plain old love or sympathy or concern or even charity in the way that most of us might use such words over a glass of beer. Caritas, as used by Roman Catholic theologians, including Benedict, is a technical term with a history that dates back to the 3rd Century Church Father, St. Augustine.

Nirenberg gets the Augustine connection (he quotes Augustine several times), but he doesn’t seem to recognize that Augustine’s usage of caritas has been superseded.  In the 13th Century, the theologian and so-called Angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, redefined caritas.  And Aquinas, it turns out, is the key to an accurate understanding of Benedict’s “Caritas in Veritate.”  Why?  Because since the late 19th century (thanks to Pope Leo XIII), Aquinas’s thought has dominated Roman Catholic theology, including its usage of the technical theological term, caritas.

For Aquinas, caritas is a special virtue—a theological virtue, because human beings are incapable of caritas on their own.  The virtue of caritas requires God’s gracious gift.  It is the most important of the three theological virtues (the other two are hope and faith).  Aquinas taught, and the Pope agrees, that only members of the Roman Catholic Church who participate in its sacramental life may receive God’s gift of the theological virtues, including caritas.

The bottom line, then: if you’re not a Roman Catholic, God will pass you over when it comes to granting caritas.  And without God-granted caritas, you may act in what appears to be a virtuous, loving way, but your actions can never be perfectly virtuous since you, a mere human being, are the source of the virtuous acts.

In his encyclical, Benedict claims that only Roman Catholicism offers the possibility of the kind of universal fraternity necessary for authentic community. But he’s following Aquinas here; only Roman Catholicism offers a path to God-given love (caritas), and God-given love (caritas) is required for universal fraternity.  Only with God-given love are we able to love God first (as the first proper object of our love), and then, and only then, out of love for God, are we able to love God’s creatures—i.e. other human beings.

A bit more familiarity with Aquinas’ thought (called Thomism, another technical term!) is necessary to understand the Pope’s encyclical.  Aquinas (unlike Augustine) has a high anthropology.  According to him, there are some capacities all persons enjoy, whether they are Roman Catholic or not.  For example, he maintained that every person is born with the ability to reason.  Thanks to our natural reason, we can come together and solve problems.

With this brief primer on Thomism, we could have anticipated what Benedict did, in fact, say in his encyclical:  “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.  This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.”

Like every good book reviewer, Nirenberg is tasked with picking a fight over some point and so he chooses this one:  “The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism.  Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.”

But Benedict offers general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (including some of no faith) because he believes (following Aquinas) that every human being has reason.  And because we’re blessed with reason, Benedict can issue a global call for us to work together to address global problems.  However (still following Aquinas), fraternal charity, which grows out of caritas or God-given love, is only available to Roman Catholics.  If the rest of the world wants to co-exist in fraternal charity, it must convert and join the Roman Catholic Church.

For Benedict to discuss the global crisis in purely secular terms would be to act without love (in the ordinary sense of that word).  Would it be loving of Benedict to choose silence over sharing with the non-Catholic part of the world the fact (as he perceives it) that there is only one path to fraternal charity?

Nirenberg, however, wants Benedict to set his Roman Catholicism aside and offer global answers “taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them.”  What if Benedict made an analogous demand of Nirenberg?  He’d insist Nirenberg leave his secular commitments aside and offer teachings “taught in a way that seeks” to reflect the Roman Catholic tradition!

Which man has the more loving approach?

At the very least, Benedict engages in authentic multi-faith dialogue.  He doesn’t pretend to set aside his convictions—as if he could!—rather, he shows the full set of cards he’s holding in one hand and extends the other hand in greeting.  We may, like Nirenberg, not like the cards he’s holding, but we can appreciate the fact that he’s showing us what he’s got.

One of the goals of an authentic conversation about religion is to try to understand our conversation partner’s point of view.  For this we must set aside our own religious commitments and adopt a willingness to interpret (i.e. make familiar the unfamiliar) what he or she shares with us.  Nirenberg was tasked with interpreting the Pope’s latest encyclical.  Unfortunately, conversing with an author via his or her book does not offer the possibility of a back-and-forth dialogue.  If he and the Pope had had the opportunity to get together at the local bar and talk over a glass of beer, Nirenberg could simply have asked, “Exactly what do you mean, Your Holiness, by caritas?”  The two could have had a brief discussion about their differing definitions of love.  Then they could have moved on to discuss something more important—the Pope’s central concern of his encyclical—how to solve our global problems.

References:  David Nirenberg, “Love and Capitalism,” The New Republic 240, no. 4868 (23 September 2009): 39-42; Waldo Beach and H. R. Niebuhr, eds, Christian Ethics:  Sources of the Living Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York:  The Ronald Press Company, 1973).

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