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Together for prayer despite debate


By welcoming 150 representatives of a dozen world religions to Assisi, the home of beloved peacemaker St. Francis, Pope John Paul II hoped to affirm in the bloody post-Sept. 11 world that religion can be a catalyst of reconciliation rather than of conflict.

The core message was simple: Give peace a chance.

In that sense, the Jan. 24 event was far more a refutation of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a coming “clash of civilizations” than a commentary on theologian Jacques Dupuis’ positive views of religious pluralism.

Yet for anyone who follows Catholic theology, the specter of the Belgian Jesuit Fr. Dupuis, suddenly controversial at 78 after decades of quiet, scholarly labor, and the debate he has come to symbolize over how Catholicism relates to other religions, was unavoidably part of Assisi’s subtext.

Dupuis was the object of a 36-month Vatican investigation for his 1997 work, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, in which he argues that other religions play a positive role in God’s plan for humanity -- that other religions exist not just as a fact of life, but as gifts of God to the peoples of the world.

Among experts, Dupuis is considered a moderate, even “institutional” thinker. But his book and the Vatican response marked a further eruption in a debate that had been coming to a boil since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The intensity of the feelings it can generate was clear in 1986, when John Paul held his first interreligious gathering in Assisi.

Since then, friction over what Catholic theologians call “religious pluralism” has become perhaps the most vexing intellectual issue in the church.

The questions are easy to formulate, notoriously difficult to answer:

  • Is religious pluralism simply a fact of life, the way the fallen and divided world shook out? Or is it what God wants?
  • Are other religions paths to salvation in their own right?
  • Is the spirit of Christ operative outside the visible bounds of Christianity? In other words, are other religions also works of the spirit?

Dupuis is by no means the only theologian to have run into opposition for his exploration of these questions. Others working the same terrain, from lay theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel, a German now teaching in Scotland, to Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight in the United States, have been subjected to similar inquests.

The September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, perhaps the most controversial and widely discussed Vatican text since the council, was addressed precisely to this issue. Many saw the document as clamping down on theological speculation on religious pluralism, or creating a chilling effect for interreligious dialogue.

Nor is the controversy simply an intramural Catholic affair. After the Pontifical Biblical Commission released a document saying that messianic expectations of the because they keep alive eschatological hope, the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, shot back Jan. 17: “It’s not enough to say our wait is not in vain. It’s necessary to say that Jews are saved without Jesus Christ.”

No one pretends the Jan. 24 gathering settled, or had the ambition of settling, the debate. The question is what theological sense one can make of Assisi in light of the lacerating nature of these questions in today’s Catholic church.

Heart and logic

John Paul obviously respects, even loves, other religious traditions.

Case in point: On May 5, 2001, he became the first pope to enter an Islamic mosque. In the Grand Mosque of Omayyadi in the heart of Old Damascus, the 81-year-old John Paul took off his shoes and shuffled across the floor of the mosque, arm-in-arm with Syria’s 86-year-old grand mufti, Shiekh Ahmad Kuftaro. The image of these two aging spiritual leaders in fraternal embrace had wide international resonance, especially in the Arab world.

The payoff was not long in coming. When John Paul visited the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a sizeable number of participants at his open-air Mass in the capital city of Astana were Muslims. Many told NCR they felt comfortable coming to the Mass because the pope had first gone to a mosque.

Damascus thus took its place alongside the first Assisi gathering in 1986 and its successor events in 1993 and 1999, the pope’s stop at the Rome synagogue in 1986, and his trip to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 2000, as icons of interreligious outreach.

Experts say no pope has developed Catholic teaching on religious pluralism as John Paul has. Prior to Vatican II, the mainstream Catholic position was that non-Catholics could be saved, but it happened in spite of their religious tradition. In Nostra Aetate, the document on non-Christian religions, the council offered a cautious step forward, saying the Catholic church did not reject anything “true and holy” in other religions, which “often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.” The lofty language left many unanswered questions.

John Paul took this ball and ran with it. From the efficacy of non-Christian prayer to the role of other religions in the economy of salvation, this has, in the eyes of many, been a bold teaching pontificate, endorsing the theological status of other religions as no pope ever has.

Consider the following statements:

Does it not sometimes happen that the firm belief of the followers of the non-Christian religions -- a belief that is also an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the confines of the Mystical Body -- can make Christians ashamed at being often themselves so disposed to doubt concerning the truths revealed by God and proclaimed by the church?

-- Redemptor Hominis,
March 4, 1979

Even when for some he is the Great Unknown, he nevertheless remains always in reality the same living God. We trust that wherever the human spirit opens itself in prayer to this Unknown God, an echo will be heard of the same Spirit who, knowing the limits and weaknesses of the human person, himself prays in us and on our behalf.

-- Radio address to the
peoples of Asia,
Manila, Feb. 21, 1981

Human beings may often not be conscious of their radical unity, and when they profess different religions incompatible among themselves, they can feel as if their divisions are insuperable. But all people are included in the grand and one design of God, in Jesus Christ, who is united in a certain way with every human being, even if they are not aware of it.

Every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.

-- Address to the curia,
Dec. 22, 1986

The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions.

-- Redemptoris Missio,
Dec. 7, 1990

Every quest of the human spirit for truth and goodness, and in the last analysis for God, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The various religions arose from this primordial human openness to God. At their origins we often find founders who, with the help of God’s Spirit, achieved a deeper religious experience. Handed on to others, this experience took form in the doctrines, rites and precepts of the various religions. …

Normally, it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious traditions and by following the dictates of their own conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their Savior.

-- General audience,
Sept. 9, 1998

For many experts, it is a breathtaking record.

“He’s saying that the Holy Spirit is out there everywhere. It all comes from Christ, but in and through other religions and cultures. They are fruits of the spirit,” said Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, an Australian theologian at Rome’s Gregorian University.

O’Collins told NCR the pope has not softened this line despite criticism of the 1986 Assisi gathering.

“You couldn’t say he’s given any ground. He might actually have beefed it up a bit,” he said.

Theologian Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati agreed.

“You could call him the pope of dialogue,” Knitter said. “So much so that he keeps getting into trouble with some of his theologians in the Vatican.”

That trouble is the rub.

While the pope’s word and deeds appear to send one message, the doctrinal clarifications that have flowed from this pontificate sometimes seem to cut in another direction. Dominus Iesus, the Dupuis investigation, recent censures of authors such as Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello and Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, and a 1989 document from the doctrinal congregation criticizing Christian use of Eastern prayer and meditation, all suggest a more cautious, defensive stance.

So, one way to phrase the question about the theological significance of Assisi may be to ask who got the bigger lift from Jan. 24: John Paul’s heart or the Vatican’s logic?

Glass half empty

This was actually the fourth major interreligious assembly of John Paul’s reign. After 1986, the second took place in Assisi in 1993 to pray for an end to the Bosnian conflict. The third happened in October 1999 and assembled a variety of lower-level religious leaders in Rome for talks followed by a trip to Assisi for prayer.

For those inclined to a “glass half empty” view, there were plenty of signs of skittishness at Assisi, signals that the Vatican’s concern with relativism (one religion is as good as another) and syncretism (a blending of different religious elements) is alive and kicking.

At a briefing for journalists before Assisi, papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls went out of his way to emphasize the point.

“This is not an act of interreligious prayer,” Navarro said. “Thus there is no danger of religious indifferentism or syncretism.”

As in 1986, the Vatican took the position that delegates came together to pray, not to pray together, because prayer implies faith and they do not share the same faith. Hence at no stage did Christians and non-Christians pray together, even though the day was billed as one of prayer for peace.

Preparatory documents published in advance of the Assisi event suggested that prayer between Christians and non-Christians is dangerous. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano carried an article Jan. 11 saying that “Christians and the followers of other religions can pray, but they cannot pray together. Every form of syncretism is to be avoided.”

Dupuis, however, said that done right, interreligious prayer is a positive thing. He cited a 1989 document from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India asserting that under the right conditions, common prayer is “not just a right but a duty.”

“Interreligious prayer is the soul of interreligious dialogue,” Dupuis said in a Jan. 15 interview at Rome’s Gregorian University. “How can you say it’s to be discouraged, even forbidden?”

Dupuis rejected the argument that Christians and non-Christians pray to different gods. “There is only one God. Who else are you praying to?” he asked.

Dupuis said he understood why at Assisi, with relatively little advance planning and a wide range of religious beliefs, common prayer could be “unthinkable.” He said it is an error, however, to move from that practical conclusion to a doctrinal warning against joint prayer as such.

Salesian Fr. Sebastian Karotemprel, an Indian who teaches at Rome’s Urbaniana University and who serves on the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the doctrinal congregation, agreed that the negative attitudes about common prayer bothered him.

“Any Asian would have no problem with common prayer,” he said, noting that Indian Catholics use Hindu sacred texts and meditative techniques in liturgical settings, even in the Mass. He said it is common practice for Muslims and Hindus to join Catholics in their liturgies.

In part, Karotemprel said he attributes the caution in Assisi to cultural differences between Asian and European Catholicism.

“I am considered in Asia as quite a conservative theologian,” laughed Karotemprel, who is critical of Dupuis. “Here I am considered liberal.”

Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, an expert on Islam and a former official of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told NCR he wishes common prayer could have occurred at Assisi, but takes a practical approach.

“Is the better option to wait until all the theological problems are solved before we come together? The other option is that we come together and do what we can now.”

Michel pointed out that it’s not just Catholics who object to joint prayer. Even stronger concerns, for example, are sometimes voiced by Orthodox Christians.

Others have also complained that, as in 1986, 1993 and 1999, the pope met with other religious leaders on his terms and on his own turf.

“The initiative always comes from the pope’s side. There is no common participation in the planning, the execution,” one theologian told NCR. “It takes a lot of humility on the part of the others, who always have to play the game of the pope.”

Knitter, whose views on religious pluralism are considered daring by many Catholic theologians, said that while he found Assisi “encouraging,” he wished the pope would have moved beyond the insistence in Dominus Iesus that the revelation in Christ subsumes other revelations.

“Respect doesn’t always remove condescension,” Knitter said. “If we really want to pray in an attitude of peace, it should be with the understanding that all our individual acts of prayer are valid and worthy, and one is not better than the other.”

The argument was echoed by Karl-Josef Kuschel, a Catholic theologian at the University of Tübingen in Germany and an expert on interreligious dialogue. Kuschel said that while he sees Assisi as a good thing, he wishes other religious leaders would have boycotted it unless the Vatican withdrew Dominus Iesus, which asserted that followers of other religions are in a “gravely deficient position” with respect to Catholics.

“You can’t have both Dominus Iesus and Assisi,” Kuschel told NCR in Tübingen Jan. 21. “The two are in contradiction.”

Doctrinal worries

It’s exactly that kind of talk that worries those with doctrinal responsibilities in the Vatican, who see it as invitation to soften traditional beliefs in the uniqueness and finality of the salvation won by Christ.

As recently as Jan. 16, eight days before Assisi, officials were issuing warnings about the dangers of religious pluralism.

Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of the doctrinal congregation, told Vatican Radio that it is one thing to recognize that religious pluralism exists in the world, another to accept it “almost as if it were the will of God that many religions may exist as means of salvation.”

Such a view, Bertone warned, jeopardizes the church’s belief that Christianity is the “true religion revealed by God himself through the incarnation of his son.”

Concern to avoid the appearance of relativism led the Vatican to take special cautions with the program at Assisi.

In 1986, some religious groups were invited to use one of the many Catholic churches in Assisi for their rituals. In one instance, Buddhists placed incense sticks atop a tabernacle, leading to outrage in traditionalist Catholic circles. This time the other religions were assigned to nondescript rooms, mostly classrooms in a convent school, rather than to places of cult. There were no Christian religious images. Even crucifixes were to be removed from the walls, according to Bishop Marc Ouellet, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, one of the organizers of the event.

Ouellet told NCR that in part this scheme was a response to criticism about syncretism from the 1986 event. He said, however, that there is also a positive way of looking at it. By ensuring each religion has a “neutral” place to pray, he said, the church ensures that “their own identity will be respected.”

Other aspects of the program reflected the same sensitivity. The leaders of the various religions gathered twice to talk about peace, but in both cases in a square in Assisi rather than in a church. There was no moment of silence together, nothing that could have suggested a joint devotional experience.

Dupuis’ overall assessment, given the hundred-and-one ways the papal outreach was hemmed in by doctrinal reservations, was guarded.

“I am skeptical it will be a major step forward,” he said.

Glass half full

There is, however, a way to read what happened in Assisi more positively, a “glass half full” perspective that finds support for both interreligious dialogue and theological research.

Ironically enough, Michel, the Jesuit expert on Islam, said one could go back to Dominus Iesus and find positive indications that Assisi strengthened.

In an address to the bishops of Asia in August 2001, Michel picked out no fewer than 18 positive affirmations in Dominus Iesus. They include that scriptures of other religions contain elements of grace, that “the Spirit is at work in the history of peoples, cultures and religions,” and an invitation to theologians to explore how salvation comes to followers of other religions.

“Especially since these points seem to be made kind of grudgingly, they’re all the more powerful,” Michel said in a Jan. 16 interview in his office in Rome. “It means there is no turning back of the magisterium. We do not have an evangelical position that only Christians can be saved.”

In that light, Michel said, Assisi is an important indication as to how Dominus Iesus must be read -- as a reaffirmation of basic principles, not an impediment to theological research or as a discouragement to dialogue.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has no authority of its own. It is an arm of the pope,” Michel said. “Anything that comes out of the congregation, or any other Vatican office, has to be interpreted in light of what the pope has done, both by example and in words.”

Thus, according to Michel, Dominus Iesus did not -- indeed, could not -- “clarify” what the pope was doing in Damascus, or what he did Jan. 24 in Assisi. Instead, Damascus and Assisi are the touchstones for putting Dominus Iesus in context.

“Our bishops might have been wondering themselves whether there was some sort of change in theology, if there was some sort of pulling back, and it’s now clear [from Assisi] that there isn’t,” Michel said.

Michel, who was involved in planning both the 1986 and the 1993 events, said experience also suggests the pope’s message is getting through.

“In 1986 it was very difficult to get almost anybody. We had three or four Muslims and a handful of Jews. Many Christian groups refused to take part, even conservative Catholics. Non-Christians were saying, do the Catholics and the pope have an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda?”

The response, Michel said, has become progressively better every occasion. This time, he said, figures from other religions were calling him to see if he could get them invited even though he no longer works in the Vatican.

Knitter said he sees Assisi as an encouragement to the theology of pluralism, which is flourishing in Asia. “They have seen and lived with the value and beauty of other religions,” Knitter said. “Dominus Iesus has only elicited greater determination to carry on with the kind of dialogue that is necessary for them to represent the gospel, to proclaim the gospel, in a situation where they are a minority.”

Karotemprel agreed. “On the Asian scene, this will be taken as a very positive exercise,” he said.

Karotemprel argued that Assisi implicitly endorsed one key aspect of the Asian approach, which is that dialogue does not have to be a pretext for attempts to convert others. The pope, after all, met with followers of other religions at Assisi and made no such solicitation.

“The idea of dialogue without the missionary dimension may not be acceptable to all, but times are changing,” Karotemprel said.

A touch of mystery

Ultimately, can the church get past its seemingly paralyzing division on religious pluralism? O’Collins says it can, if we are willing to leave some questions unanswered.

“Just leave it in the mystery of God, how God is working this out with the other religions,” he said.

O’Collins ended with an unusual dictum for an analytical Western theologian, which perhaps illustrates better than anything else the brain-bending complexities involved: “We shouldn’t want too much clarity.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002