Just as liberation theology was identified by Ratzinger as one of the "most urgent challenges for the faith of the Church" during the political turmoil of the 80's, in this time he has directed his attention to the Christian encounter with Eastern religions, especially as it occurs in the context of interfaith dialogue and the development of a "theology of pluralism." This was the focus of his famous address on relativism and theology to the bishops of Latin America in 1996. 1
After touching briefly on the diminishing threat of liberation theology with the downfall of Marxist systems of government, Ratzinger focuses on the issue of relativism as the prevailing philosophy of this age. Relativism "[presents itself] as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom." While a certain degree of relativism is certainly acceptable in political affairs ("There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative -- the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people -- cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies") it is dangerous when applied as a method to religion and politics, which often leads to a denial of absolute truth. As the investigations of the Congregation have shown, some of those participating in interfaith dialogue and writing about the Church's encounter with other religions have become increasingly susceptible to relativistic assumptions, which in turn lead to a downplaying or outright dissolution of the claims of Catholic doctrine.
In his address, Ratzinger offers a critique of the "pluralist theology of religion" as expressed in the thought of the movement's founder, Protestant theologian John Hick, who advocates a Copernican Turn from "Christocentrism" to "Theocentrism.". 2
Hick questions (or rather, denies) Christianity's claim on absolute truth, or that absolute truth can be conveyed in limited mediums such as church, dogma and sacrament. To affirm that we can grasp truth in doctrine and the sacraments elevates them to the category of the Absolute, which is reserved exclusively for God. Wrestling with the existence of competing and often-contradictory claims to truth by various religions, Hick resorts to a Kantian distinction between noumena (the "thing in itself" -- never directly knowable) and phenomena, or that which is indirectly perceived by us through our individual subjective and quite limited experience. Humanity's perception of the divine is thus mediated through the "conceptual lens" of our religious traditions. 3 As Hick puts it in a recent essay posted to his website:
"If we accept the distinction between the divine reality as it is in itself and as variously imaged by us, Christian doctrines are about the ultimate divine reality as conceived by us, in distinction from that reality as it is in itself. And the different truth-claims of the different religions are claims about different manifestations of the Ultimate to different human mentalities formed within different human cultures and different streams of religious history. . . . In other words, what are called the conflicting truth-claims of the religions do not in fact conflict, because they are claims about different human awarenesses of the divine, made possible by the fact that, to quote Aquinas again, things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower." 4
Christians, says Hick, can affirm that Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life" for us, while conceding that what may be 'true' for us may not necessarily be true for adherents of another religion, which has "equal validity." The salvific unity of Christ and the Church, indeed any claim to absolute truth by way of divine revelation is nullified, and the Christian call to conversion and mission takes a backseat to dialogue, which assumes a dominant role. Returning to Ratzinger's critique:
In the relativist meaning, to dialogue means to put one's own position, i.e., one's faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of the others. Only if I suppose in principle that the other can be as right, or more right than I, can an authentic dialogue take place. According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank and therefore are mutually relative. Only in this way will the maximum cooperation and integration between the different religions be achieved. The relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus becomes a central commandment of religion.
Ratzinger sees an affinity between the religious relativism of John Hick and the negative theology (i.e., "negative" in terms of metaphysical pressupositions) of the Asian religions, for whom "the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live; it always manifests itself in relative reflections and remains beyond all worlds and notions in an absolute transcendency." Hicks refers to interfaith dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus & Sikhs, and years spent in the heartlands of those religions, as particularly influential in his philosophy of religion. According to Ratzinger, there is a mutual benefit attained from this encounter:
The two philosophies are fundamentally different both for their departure point and for the orientation they imprint on human existence. . . . Nonetheless, they seem to mutually confirm one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism. The areligious and pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can get a kind of religious consecration from India which seems to give its renunciation of dogma the dignity of a greater respect before the mystery of God and of man. . . . In turn, the support of European and American thought to the philosophical and theological vision of India reinforces the relativism of all the religious forms proper to the Indian heritage.
Understood in the context of an encounter between the East and the West, relativism appears to be "the real philosophy of humanity" -- those resisting it are portrayed as not only as enemies of democracy and tolerance, but "cultural imperialists" as well in their prioritization of West.
I could go into further explication of Ratzinger's address, but James V. Schall, S.J., has already written an excellent review of his speech in its entirety: On Understanding Contemporary Intellectual Movements: Cardinal Ratzinger on the Modern Mind. Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCVIII (October, 1997), 6-14, reproduced courtesy of Traditional Catholic Reflections.
Kieth E. Johnson notes that "I am convinced that Hick has put into scholarly language what many people intuitively believe--namely that all religious paths ultimately lead to the same destination." A number of theologians that were investigated by the Congregation are engaged in developing a "theology of religious pluralism" and acknowledge Hick's influence. Earlier this month a conference on pluralist theology was held in Birmingham, England, featuring John Hick and other pluralist theologians, including Paul Knitter of Xavier University, Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight of Weston School of Theology. 5 Understanding Ratzinger's criticisms of John Hick can help us understand his concerns about pluralist theology, and why he believes this issue is critical for the life of the Church today.
Finally, other materials relevant to this discussion:
- Interreligious Dialogue & Jewish Christian Relations Produced for a session of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, Paris. It first appeared in Communio 26 (1997), and was republished in Many Religions, One Covenant. Ratzinger addresses the Christian encounter with the "mystical religions" and the proper goals of interreligious dialogue.
- Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the salvific unity of Christ and the Church.
- Perils of Pluralism, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept 15, 2000. Brief history of Vatican opposition to relativism among world religions. See also the RFC's CDF page for further details on individual theologians.
- "Current Situation in Faith & Theology". Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
- Ratzinger recommends a work by K. H. Menke, Die Einzighei Jesu Christi im Horizont der Sinnfrage (Freiburg 1995) as an excellent introduction to the works of John Hick & Paul Knitter. Unfortunately it is exclusively in German. However, Ratzinger also refers directly to Hick's An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent as representive of their thought on religious pluralism.
- Kieth E. Johnson evaluates Hick's use of the Kantian distinction to resolve this dilemma in John Hick's Pluralistic Hypothesis and the Problem of Conflicting Truth-Claims.
- Is Christianity the only true religion, or one among others?, by John Hick. A talk given to a Theological Society in Norwich, England, and posted to his personal website.
- "Smashing the idol of religious superiority", by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept. 19, 2003. Mr. Allen also covered the pluralist issue in the Sept. 12 and Sept. 5 and recent columns of "Word from Rome".