To call the Pope’s meeting at Assisi a betrayal of the faith is an utter absurdity

Pope Benedict XVI speaks at a meeting of religious leaders at St Mary's University College Chapel in Twickenham, London (Toby Melville/PA Wire)

The forthcoming “meeting” (the word is chosen with probably deliberate care) of the Pope with followers of other faiths and none at Assisi has reduced many traditionalists to apoplectic fury at this supposed betrayal of the Catholic religion, according to which it is only in the Church that the fullness of faith is to be found, so everyone else, to the extent they disagree with us, is just wrong. Well, that’s what I think too, about the Church, that is. I yield to nobody in my suspicion of “interfaith dialogue”, if that means negotiating what we might accept in each other’s religions, noting that nobody in other religions (especially Islam) is prepared to accept that we have anything right at all, and that if you deny the Incarnation and the Trinity, you have denied the very basis of everything we believe, so what’s the point? The recent decision of certain “top Muslim scholars” in Egypt to suspend all dialogue with the Vatican in protest against Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of anti-Christian violence in that country, as I wrote at the time, was “depressing”, but only to be expected.

But why was I depressed, I ask myself, if it was so inevitable? I suppose because such “dialogue” at least implies good will: and in the world we are living in, good will is beyond the price of rubies (and sometimes as rare). If we all agreed, of course, we wouldn’t go to war with one another, would we? But actually, good will has far more to do with that than holding the same religion: Colonel Gaddafi and the opposition in Libya, so far as I am aware, hold exactly the same religious beliefs: what’s missing in spades is good will. I am vividly aware, when I look at some of the comments under my blogs, that even towards my co-religionists, and even if theologically you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between us, good will is on occasion notably lacking, for a time at least.

The Pope doesn’t believe that he will be giving an inch towards the beliefs of those he will be meeting in Assisi: nor will he be. Look, he’s even invited atheists – that in a sense proves my contention. When our new nuncio announced that he intends to open dialogue with non-believers, did anyone really suppose that he seriously intends to consider whether they might be right about the non-existence of God? “Dialogue” is just as likely to be a means of proselytising for the faith as a negotiation between systems of belief.

As a convinced schoolboy atheist, it was only when I watched a TV debate between the atheist philosopher Professor Bernard Williams (for whom of course I was rooting) and Cardinal Heenan that it began to occur to me to that there might be something in all this stuff: I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Heenan (what a great apologist he was, how lucidly intelligent; who is there like him today?) was somehow just more convincing, more reasonable, even about original sin and the real presence, both of which I naturally thought were absurdities. Afterwards, I still thought they were untrue; but that first cold little sliver of doubt had been introduced into my certainties. It was many years before I became a Christian (13 years later), let alone a Catholic (30 years later), but that was without any doubt, for me, the beginning. We have to talk to people, for God’s sake (literally; that’s not just an expletive). Because 50 years ago Cardinal Heenan entered into dialogue with the atheist Bernard Williams I am a Catholic today.

The Vatican has this week made it absolutely clear what the parameters of the Assisi meeting will be:

“Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no-one and it commits everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace. These are the elements that the Holy Father wishes to place at the centre of reflection.

“For this reason, as well as representatives of Christian communities and of the principal religious traditions, some figures from the world of culture and science will be invited to share the journey – people who, while not professing to be religious, regard themselves as seekers of the truth and are conscious of a shared responsibility for the cause of justice and peace in this world of ours.”

To assert that that is a betrayal of the Catholic faith is an absurdity hardly worth discussing. So why am I discussing it? Because, I suppose, I feel an irrational fondness (fraternity and peace?) for one or two of those who assert it (you can’t always, thank God, be entirely rational).