The statements by Portuguese Cardinal-designate Américo Aguiar in a July 6 interview with a secular Portuguese TV channel about World Youth Day (WYD) have been the subject of much recent controversy. During the interview, the bishop said, “We don’t want to convert young people to Christ, or the Catholic Church, or whatever.”

As my wife and I recently wrote, as strange as these words may seem, they are actually in continuity with Benedict XVI, who taught in his 2012 Christmas address: “Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission.”

This distinction between dialogue and evangelization led, unfortunately, to the misconception that Bishop Aguiar’s embrace of dialogue constituted a rejection of evangelization. This misconception was then followed by a false dichotomy about World Youth Day— that WYD was always about evangelization and not about interreligious dialogue.

This led many to charge the bishop with fundamentally altering the essential nature of WYD and throwing evangelization out of the window. There would be a certain “epistemological indifferentism,” in which religious truth would be unavailable. Thus, it would be enough to subscribe to certain ethical principles (by which it is meant something shallow as “being a nice person”).

Concerns were also raised due to what Bishop Aguiar said elsewhere in the interview:

“And it’s very important that the young people that come to Lisbon—or even Portugal—meet other young people, from Africa, Asia, America, rich, poor, from the West, Catholics, non-Catholics, with religion, without religion, with faith, without faith. They must first understand that this diversity is enriching. Whatever it is, it’s enriching.”

However, these concerns are only valid if Bishop Aguiar really tried to set dialogue and evangelization against each other, as if we had to choose one over the other. Bishop Aguiar’s words (which clearly reflect Benedict’s approach to interreligious dialogue) are being set against the idea of evangelization as a primary aim of WYD — as if Aguiar thinks there is no place for evangelization in WYD or that WYD isn’t primarily about evangelization.

The misunderstanding stems, as is usually the case, from a dichotomic view of reality. But is there any reason why we must see dialogue and evangelization in terms of a dichotomy? It’s obvious that Benedict viewed dialogue and evangelization as two separate things. But there is no reason to see them as contradictory. only that there is a proper context for each, with its own time and place.

If dialogue and evangelization are not contradictory, then it’s possible to exercise both at the same time, even though there might be a tension between them. As Catholics, we are often called to espouse a “both/and” mentality, not an “either/or” worldview.

Ironically, even though there is a widespread prejudice that Francis is theologically unsavvy, many of these false dichotomies would be solved if people understood his “theology of polar opposition,” which Francis derived from the great 20th century theologian Romano Guardini.

Evangelization and dialogue: a polar opposition

The concept of polar opposition is explained superbly by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium when he describes one of his leading principles: “unity prevails over conflict”:

This requires acknowledging a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society: namely, that unity is greater than conflict. Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides. (EG 228)

The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis. Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a “reconciled diversity” (EG 230).

Essentially, what Pope Francis is saying is that when there is a polar opposition in which the two poles do not contradict, the tensions must not be ignored or concealed, or solved through the imposition of one pole so that it crushes the other. The tensions must be resolved on a higher plane, by preserving what is valid on both sides, in order to achieve what Francis calls a “reconciled diversity.”

“Evangelization” and “interreligious dialogue” are not contradictory — if they were, we would be forced to choose only one. But it is possible to embrace both, as Benedict did.

If we see these two concepts at opposite poles — in tension to each other, but not in contradiction — they can be resolved on a higher plane. Pope Benedict offers a way to do this. Returning to his 2012  Christmas address, after saying that “Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding,” he goes on to explain:

These rules are correct, but in the way they are formulated here I still find them too superficial. True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding – that is correct. But all the same, the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth.

Benedict explains that it is too superficial to merely say that dialogue doesn’t aim at conversion. Mind you, he doesn’t say it’s wrong. He reaffirms it. But he resolves the tension at a higher plane: by placing Catholics and members of other religions side-by-side on a quest in search for the truth.

Benedict acknowledges that an honest search for truth does not necessarily end with the conversion of those of other religions:

Even if the fundamental choices themselves are not under discussion, the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. Thus this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered. If both sides set out from a hermeneutic of justice and peace, the fundamental difference will not disappear, but a deeper closeness will emerge nevertheless.

Note that in Benedict’s vision of interreligious dialogue, fundamental religious differences aren’t under discussion, nor will they disappear. However, through this process, both sides can enrich each other. “Enriching” is the same term employed by Bishop Aguiar.

Of course, if dialogue does not involve a common aim to draw closer to the truth, the statement that “dialogue does not aim at conversion” is very superficial. Some have argued that what Bishop Aguiar proposed is precisely the “superficial” approach, in which fundamental truth is not present and, therefore, all that really matters is to be a “nice person.”

However, this is, in my opinion, a superficial way to read the whole topic and Bishop Aguiar’s words.

Search for the truth doesn’t always mean doctrinal discussions. Benedict teaches that this search for the truth “can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth.” Then, Benedict immediately mentions a “hermeneutic of justice and peace.”

This is what Bishop Aguiar was talking about. As was Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti:

The path to peace does not mean making society blandly uniform, but getting people to work together, side-by-side, in pursuing goals that benefit everyone. A wide variety of practical proposals and diverse experiences can help achieve shared objectives and serve the common good.

In fact, in his controversial answer, Bishop Aguiar was speaking explicitly about applying the principles of Fratelli Tutti. This was not a coincidence.

The cultural polyhedron

I explained in a previous article how Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Querida Amazônia and his encyclical Fratelli Tutti both make use of the concept of “cultural polyhedron” to explain how to resolve the tension between identity and openness. According to this model, “each people, every part, preserves its identity without being ideologically colonized.”

The cultural polyhedron is the perfect expression of Francis’s principle “union is greater than conflict.” Unlike a sphere, in which there is perfect uniformity, the polyhedron is also a three dimensional solid, but its surface is made up of a diverse variety of faces, edges, corners, and vertices. Each face is distinct from the others, but they all belong to the same figure.

It is in the cultural polyhedron where we can solve the false dichotomy between dialogue (openness) and tradition (identity) — on a higher plane. When we adhere to this model, we can alleviate concerns that an emphasis on dialogue comes at the expense of promoting tradition or teaching doctrine.

Sacrificing our tradition or doctrine in order to facilitate dialogue would be wrongheaded. Not just because we would be sacrificing tradition or doctrine — that would be bad in itself, of course. But because we would effectively sacrifice dialogue as well.

For dialogue to exist, two people must exist, each with their own identity. If we impose our identity onto the other person, then there is no true dialogue. But if we hide our own identity for the sake of a false syncretism, we are also removing a participant from this dialogue, so real dialogue doesn’t exist in this situation either. As Francis taught in Fratelli Tutti:

Just as there can be no dialogue with ‘others’ without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots. I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own. I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture.

Only if our own (Catholic) culture is firmly secure in a strong sense of our own identity and tradition, can we allow ourselves to be enriched by other cultures, without being absorbed by them:

A living culture, enriched by elements from other places, does not import a mere carbon copy of those new elements, but integrates them in its own unique way.

This is what Bishop Aguiar meant when he talked about being enriched by other religions. It is also how Benedict felt secure in his own faith when entering dialogue, as he explained in his 2012 Christmas address:

I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him.

Perhaps someone will argue that Francis’s cultural polyhedron doesn’t have anything to do with interreligious dialogue, but only with other cultures, that would then integrate our faith in them. But in Querida Amazônia, Francis discusses interreligious dialogue in these terms:

In an Amazonian region characterized by many religions, we believers need to find occasions to speak to one another and to act together for the common good and the promotion of the poor. This has nothing to do with watering down or concealing our deepest convictions when we encounter others who think differently than ourselves. If we believe that the Holy Spirit can work amid differences, then we will try to let ourselves be enriched by that insight, while embracing it from the core of our own convictions and our own identity. For the deeper, stronger and richer that identity is, the more we will be capable of enriching others with our own proper contribution.

This is another example of the interplay between identity and openness that characterizes Francis’s views on the cultural polyhedron. Francis explains that we can be enriched by the insights of other religions, when we are firm in our own identity and believe in the working of the Holy Spirit. Once again, this enrichment is precisely what Bishop Aguiar meant.

Where does evangelization fit in?

Some might argue that the problem is not a matter of dialogue endangering our Catholic identity, but that dialogue may endanger evangelization. Catholics would be sure and firm in their own traditions, but they would be afraid of trying to propagate the faith out of respect for a misguided dialogue.

But, again, this seems to be a misreading of Bishop Aguiar’s intentions. Never did he say that we shouldn’t evangelize.

Aguiar’s controversial statement was specifically in response to a question by the interviewer about those of other religions participating in WYD. And his response aligned with the views of Francis and Benedict on interreligious dialogue.

He never suggested that WYD would be solely (or even especially) about interreligious dialogue. Again, he was answering a specific question about dialogue with other religions, so he replied accordingly.

If we visit the WYD Lisbon website, we can read: WYD is “a meeting of everyone for everyone,” and is “open to all whether they are nearer or farther from the Church. All young people can participate, regardless of their culture, race, gender, religion or socio-economic situation.” This is precisely what Bishop Aguiar said in this interview.

But on the same website, we see that since “the first edition, which was held in Rome in 1986, World Youth Day has shown itself to be a laboratory of faith, a place where vocations are born and an instrument of evangelisation and transformation of the Church.”

Other parts of the WYD website show how the event’s preparation phase was deeply rooted in catechesis, a deepening of the faith.

There is no question that Bishop Aguiar himself considers evangelization central to the Catholic faith. For one thing, in 2014, he wrote a book entitled, A Priest in the Global Village—Evangelization and the Challenges of New Technologies. And in another recent interview about WYD, Bishop Aguiar said:

World Youth Day Lisbon will certainly be another unforgettable moment in this dimension of everyone being challenged to live as a Church. The evangelization of young people, just like the education of young people, the health of young people, their commitment and their values are the guarantee of a fairer and more solidary society.

And lest we forget, after the recent controversy erupted, Bishop Aguiar clarified his statements. He said:

Since the first edition of WYD, the popes have been inviting all young people to meet each other, to meet with the pope and to experience the living Christ. That is what we want to happen, and that is what I was trying to get across. … But over the past four years we have had one common refrain: to bear witness to the living Christ, that this is an encounter with the living Christ.

It is not Bishop Aguiar, but his critics, who are artificially setting evangelization and dialogue at odds with each other, as if they were irreconcilable.

So how can we solve this apparent tension between interreligious dialogue and evangelization? If interreligious dialogue doesn’t aim at conversion, and evangelization aims at conversion, how do we reconcile these poles on a higher plane?

The answer lies in the distinction between evangelization and proselytism, a distinction initiated by Benedict XVI’s speech at the 2007 General Conference of Aparecida:

The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.

In other words, the Church grows by attraction, when she works in imitation of Our Lord, not only spiritually but also practically. Pope Francis, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, and chair of the drafting committee for the conference’s final document, was present for Benedict’s speech and has emphasized the contrast between proselytism and evangelization many times as pope.

This, of course, was Bishop Aguiar’s point. Young people at WYD, whether Catholic or not, are called to live out the universal call of human fraternity. Bishop Aguiar said that young people “must meet each other and allow themselves to be met. From there, they must take care of each other, love each other, to like each other’s presence.”

On what it means to take part in interreligious dialogue, Aguiar explains: “I think differently, I feel differently, I organize my life in a different way, but we are brothers and we are going to build the future together.” Here, we do not aim at conversion, as Benedict himself admits. Rather we aim at letting our fellow young people to feel at ease, even if they profess other faiths, or no faith at all.

There is no doubt that by letting these young people experience WYD (and I can personally testify, that WYD does have a strong impact on one’s life and faith) in the context of building a more fraternal future together, non-Catholic youth will certainly sense this “attraction” through which the Church grows.

Once they have felt this attraction, they may become curious and start questioning. With their hearts opened, thanks to the encounter with Christ and others, interreligious dialogue turns into evangelization. This is when it becomes possible to propose (but not impose) the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, it is not we who “convert” others. Conversion is a personal response to the call of Jesus Christ.

There’s no reason why both evangelization and dialogue can’t happen simultaneously at WYD. Again, they are not contradictory. The Church can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.

We know that this is what Bishop Aguiar meant, and he made it clear in his explanation: “I don’t see WYD as an opportunity for active proselytism.” This is the key to solving the entire kerfuffle.

Let us pray that this World Youth Day will be a time where the cultural polyhedron will shine through all the youth present there, a time of intense evangelization and interreligious dialogue. It is a time when we, as Catholics, firm in our traditions and identity and avoiding all undue proselytism, can be confident in the guiding hand of Christ and the Holy Spirit. World Youth Day is an event that provides an opportunity to be enriched by others, while also witnessing to our own faith.

[Photo credits: COD Aveiro, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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