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The truth is universal, but other religions play a role


While in Menlo Park for a meeting of doctrinal officials, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a public lecture at St. Patrick’s Seminary on Feb. 13. He spoke on John Paul’s recent encyclical Fides et Ratio.

Ratzinger opened his address by quoting C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a book about a junior devil who writes to his uncle for advice on ensnaring humans. The older devil praises the modern “historical point of view,” which treats ancient authors in terms of their context and influences but never asks if what they wrote is true.

In much the same way, Ratzinger said, modern scholarship’s intoxication with relativism has become an “immunization against the truth.”

Ratzinger denounced what he called the “dictatorship of appearances,” or the tendency to substitute interpretation and opinion — what journalists would call “spin” — for the truth itself. He said this tendency shows up both in politics and theology today.

Ratzinger extended the question of universal truth to Christian missionary efforts. He noted that missionaries have been attacked for subverting local cultures and acting as “an original form of imperialism.” While “mistakes were certainly made,” Ratzinger said, behind this attack is a relativistic denial that different cultures can or should share the same truth.

The genius of Christianity, Ratzinger said, is its capacity to allow cultures to transcend themselves, a process he said was already at work in the Bible. God called Israel to become more than it was — to move beyond “the worship of blood and land,” Ratzinger said. In that sense, Paul’s conversion to Christianity and his mission to spread the new faith to the world was “the logical conclusion of the Old Testament trajectory.”

Responding to criticism that missionaries too often impose European cultural norms, Ratzinger said that the church has “no intention to canonize a culture.” He pointed out that the first Christian missionaries had insisted the ancient Europeans abandon their local gods, too.

A major portion of Ratzinger’s address concerned religious diversity. He praised other religions for fostering attitudes such as reverence, hope and love of neighbor. “They contribute to salvation insofar as they bring men to ask about God,” Ratzinger said.

Representatives of other religions in San Francisco’s highly diverse population were in Ratzinger’s audience. The Rev. Heng Sure, a Buddhist, told NCR he had come to “explore the possibilities for dialogue.”

In 1997, Ratzinger riled Buddhists when he called the religion an “autoerotic spirituality” that seeks “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” He also suggested that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the church’s biggest foe by 2000.

Despite this background, Sure was ready to be gracious. “I think maybe he hasn’t met that many Buddhists. Face to face it’s a very positive thing, and there’s a lot of potential,” he said.

“I’ve known some Buddhists in very high places who find Catholicism kind of cryptic. As soon as they meet some Catholics, they say, ‘Oh my goodness, here’s a human being who has something to share,’ and this may be the same kind of thing.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999