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Fr. Tissa Balasuriya is clearly onto something when he says there is a debate within Catholicism about how to respond to the world’s religious diversity (see story).

One approach, embodied in the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus, is to assert in the clearest possible terms the superiority of Christianity to other religions, and of Catholicism to other Christian churches. The other is to allow that God is infinitely greater than any particular creed or cult, and thus to accept that pluralism may indeed be the divine plan. John Allen’s story clearly illustrates the gulf between the theological line of Dominus Iesus and what the church’s dialogue partners are hearing when they sit down with Catholics to talk.

That gulf, by the way, which might well be ignored by ordinary Catholics and those engaged in official dialogue, has consequences at another level. It is one more illustration of church leaders leaning heavily on an authoritarian approach to a complex reality. The result is a further diminishing of real authority. That quality, as Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles point out in their book, Authority, the Most Misunderstood Idea in America, nurtures and gives power to grow and create. The authoritarian acts of the Vatican in recent years, in contrast, have cut down and silenced. Little has been nurtured.

However, if Balasuriya, insightful as he is about the growing gulf between words and practice, is suggesting that Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is aligned with the more affirming view, he gives credit where it isn’t due. Yes, the concluding document from the council’s interreligious assembly last October contained some polite language about mutual respect. But those present remember the exceptional pains Arinze took to stress that this implied no shift in Catholicism’s claim that Jesus is the lone savior of humanity.

The event was orchestrated to avoid even a visual hint of equality among the religions. When the delegates traveled to Assisi, the media was excluded from their joint “moment of silence” before the tomb of St. Francis. No one had a chance to snap a photo of Arinze and a Shinto priest or a Native American shaman in what might look like common prayer. At the beginning of the conference, Arinze admonished the delegates to “leave aside speculative discussion,” suggesting that no progress could be expected on the doctrinal front.

Arinze, in other words, does not appear to be the champion of religious pluralism that Balasuriya’s essay might suggest. On the important matter of Catholic relations with other world religions, his view is far more aligned with the Vatican document than with any pluralist view. On other matters, the record would show him as authoritarian as any of John Paul II’s appointments. These are points with special significance since many regard Arinze as a candidate to be the next pope.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000