Monday, February 14, 2005

John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger and the Lessons of Assisi 1986/2002 

An interesting discussion going on between Shawn Landres (Religion & Society) and Bill Cork (Ut Unum Sint) this weekend.

Playing on Sandro Magister's belief that "interreligious meetings such as the ones in Assisi and the 'meal culpas'" are destined to "slip into the shadows" with the passing of John Paul II's papacy, Shawn states that:

My colleague Michael Berenbaum has been making the case that "American Jews are not prepared for the shift in Roman Catholic-Jewish relations that may occur after John Paul II's papacy." If Sandro Magister is right (and I, for one, hope he is not), then the shift may be of seismic proportions.

Bill Cork responds with a different reading of Magister:

I personally don't think there is anything for them to be nervous about. We will not have a pope that will undo Nostra Aetate. And Magister is quite clear what he thinks will be different. He specifies what kinds of meetings are likely to find less support: the interreligious gatherings at Assisi that included people of all religions, not just the Abrahamic faiths but pagans as well. . . .

I think Magister is merely suggesting that a future pope might not want to tread the path of having to explain his actions. This would hold true for the "mea culpas," as well. John Paul attempted to distinguish between the Church apologizing for its own actions and apologizing for the sins of individual members. This is a nuance that was also lost on many.

Magister, therefore, is not saying that there will be a reversal -- only a reluctance to get into situations that require such nuanced explanation.

There have been memorable occasions during the papacy of Pope John Paul II which can be said to have fostered confusion among the laity regarding the truth of the Catholic faith, especially concerning the Church's relationship to other religions. Events include the Pope's receiving a mark on his forehead during a meeting with Hindus; the Pope's kissing of the Koran upon recieving it as a gift, and perhaps the most controversial and oft-mentioned 'Day of World Prayer for Peace' at Assisi -- first in 1986, the second in January 2002, following the 9/11 attacks and a time of high tension between Islam and Christianity. It is the latter which I would like to discuss here.

While the interfaith gatherings in Assisi were conceived and carried out with the most orthodox of intentions, and can certainly be defended as such, I would also concede their potential for promoting confusion among the laity regarding the salvific truth of the Catholic faith. As Sandro Magister noted:

Even though the idea was far from John Paul II's intention, the message that came out of this meeting, for many, was one of a kind of United Nations of faiths. It seemed to speak of a multireligious coexistence in which each faith was as good as the other, and among which the Catholic Church took its place as an equal. . . .

On October 27, television stations all over the world broadcast the images of the event that the pope had so strongly desired: pilgrimage, fasting, prayer, peace among peoples and religions. John Paul II even revived a medieval tradition by invoking on that day a "divine truce," a halt in the use of arms on all war fronts throughout the world. It so happened that practically no combatants paid attention, but the symbol outweighed reality, and the image of the pope praying with the heads of so many different religions established itself as one of the most powerful signs of his entire pontificate.

But at the same time, critical reservations about the event were taking shape. The event in Assisi added fuel to the fire through some of its more excessive gestures. Some of the city's churches were allotted for the prayers of Buddhists, Hindus, and African animists, as if these buildings were neutral containers, void of any indelible Christian value. The Buddhists set up a shrine of Buddha on the altar of the local Church of Saint Peter. The absence from Assisi of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was not improperly interpreted as the self-distancing of the cardinal who, by his office, is the custodian of sound Catholic doctrine. The pope himself did not escape criticism. There were those who recalled that in February of that same year, during his voyage to India, he had given speeches of unprecedented openness toward that country's religions, and at Bombay had even let a priestess of the god Shiva anoint his forehead with a sacred Hindu symbol. A few of those who complained about this were Indian bishops. One of them, from Andra Pradesh, said, "The pope knows Hinduism from books, but we, who live with it and see the damage it does to our good people, would never make certain speeches."[John Paul II and the Other Religions: From Assisi to "Dominus Iesus" June 18, 2003]

As a consequence, Assisi I & II have been used, on one hand, as fodder by radical traditionalists (along with fundamentalists on the Protestant fringe) to bolster charges of heresy against the 'post-conciliar' church (What Should We Make of Assisi I & II?, by Archbishop Lefebvre. Society of St. Pius X). On the other hand, they are held by liberal Catholics as a model of ecumenical and interreligious cooperation, and sometimes even as an inspiration for innovative theologies of religious pluralism. Thus in his defense of Fr. Jacques Dupuis, Cardinal Koenig ventured:

Not only is the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue concerned with issues of such vital interest, but the Pope himself has blazed a trail here. John Paul II, who so courageously invited the representatives of the world's religions to Assisi in 1986, a move we must not forget, specifically tells us that there is room for "other mediatory roles of a different kind and order" in Christ's universal mediatory role. (The Tablet January 16, 1999)

As discussed in my last post, Catholic theologies of religious pluralism may not necessarily be heterodox in themselves -- some theologians adhere to the traditional teaching of the Church, and strive to remain within the boundaries of orthodoxy, yet they involve issues which are highly susceptible to misinterpretation and have a capacity to lead Catholics astray).

Despite the stated purpose of such events, there is also legitimate concern that the broadcasted images themselves might convey a meaning wholly unintended and contrary to the mind of the Holy Father. Another recent article by Sandro Magister includes the criticism by Fr. Divo Barsotti, Italian mystical theologian and confessor to recent Popes:

"I have written to the pope, twice, that I did not have a favorable impression of the interreligious meeting in Assisi in October of 1986. I told him: 'Your Holiness, I don't have a television at home, not even a radio, but the day after the conference in Assisi I saw on the front page of 'Avvenire' a photograph showing Catholics venerating the Dalai Lama, as they do Your Holiness.' There is a danger of losing distinctions: the Dalai Lama is like the pope for many believers, so the people can no longer tell the difference or recognize what is specific to Christianity."

A Philosopher, a Mystic, and a Theologian Sound an Alarm for the Church Feb. 14, 2005.

Losing distinctions between Christianity and other religions, and perhaps a clear understanding of what the Catholic Church deems essential for salvation: these are obvious concerns for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger (who said of Assisi 1986 "this cannot be the model" for ecumenical dialogue). While Dominus Iesus was chiefly a correction to questionable theories of religious pluralism, perhaps it can be seen as an exercise in "damage control", reigning in the speculation of scholars who sought to exploit the Pope's fraternization with other religions as a sign that the Church was maturing beyond an outdated "triumphalist" soteriology. Was it purely a coincidence that Paul Knitter responded to Dominus Iesus by pitting Cardinal Ratzinger against the Pope and Assisi?

Some observers point to a gap between the tone of Dominus Iesus and Pope John Paul II's ongoing efforts to forge ecumenical and interreligious ties. For example, the pope has invited leaders of other world religions to prayer services in Assisi, Italy. Last March, news media broadcast powerful images of the pope at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, deep in prayer, leaving behind a handwritten note apologizing to Jews for the failings of the church. The pope asked no one to convert, but rather used the common language of penance and prayer.

Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati underscored what many see as a contradiction. "Look at the way the pope conducts himself when he meets with members of other religions," he said. "He makes no reference to Jesus as the lone savior or to Christianity as the fulfillment of every other faith. You cannot sustain that behavior with a theology that says we have absolute and full truth." [Exclusive Claim, John Allen Jr. Sept. 15, 2000]

The specific intent of Assisi I & II was to promote peace by presenting to the world's believers a united religious front against violence, especially interreligious violence. Unfortunately, such interfaith gatherings on a grand scale served to foster something much more: unanticipated and unwarranted theological speculation about the relationship between the Church and various Christian denominations, and the status of world's religions as a whole.

While the next papacy won't mean an end to interreligious relations per se, I agree with Bill Cork that our next Pope might take the unanticipated consequences of Assisi as a lesson to refrain from getting into (much less sponsoring) "situations that require such nuanced explanations."

Further Thoughts on Assisi I & II

  • Reflections by Cardinal Arinze on the Day of Prayer at Assisi January 24, 2002.
  • John Paul II and the Other Religions: From Assisi to "Dominus Iesus", by Sandro Magister. www.Chiesa. June 18, 2003 - A survey of the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger's developing stance on world religions. Magister notes how the second meeting at Assisi "took care to avoid any appearance of syncretism and confusion. Ratzinger, who had stayed away the last time, came to this meeting."
  • Together for prayer despite debate, National Catholic Reporter Feb. 1, 2002. John Allen Jr reports on the second Assisi gathering in the wake of the Dupuis affair and Dominus Iesus, featuring an interview with Paul Knitter.
  • The Assisi Interfaith Gatherings and Catholic Principles, by fellow blogger I. Shawn McElhinney (Rerum Novarum).

    Addendum (from Shawn):

    I noticed your recent post on the Assisi subject where you linked to my shorter extraction essay on Assisi. There is a broader concept that I go over in that piece which is not well understood by most detractors of Assisi: the traditional moral/ethical principle of double effect. Basically I state it as a part of the equation without going into too much detail on the matter. Later when that essay's content was challenged, I discussed the concept in more detail in a Lidless Eye weblog post. Not long after that, I decided (because of the broader scope that this subject entailed) to revisit my earlier post on the subject and structure it differently for posting at Rerum Novarum. Here is the result of that decision from late last year:

    On the Double Effect Principle in Ethical Argumentation

    I used two examples in the above thread - one natural (a pregnant woman with cancer having an operation which results in an abortion) and one supernatural (the concept of people of different faiths praying together for a common cause -exemplified by the Assisi interfaith meeting). Anyway, as it directly pertains to the subject of your post, I thought directing your attention to it along with my essay on Assisi may be useful for many of those who struggle with this concept.

Other memorable "incidents" in the papacy of JPII

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