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A friend who headed a religious order in an earlier decade would talk of his puzzlement at the papacy of John Paul II. There were few straight lines. Papal pronouncements of one week would appear to be canceled later by a document from the Vatican doctrine authorities.

Contradictions? Ambivalence? Or simply living in the tensions of opposing ideologies?

Probably a mix of all three with a smidgen of simple human inconsistency thrown in.

Those seem to be some of the choices for understanding the subject of this week’s cover, the gathering in Assisi.

The image on the cover seems apt for the meeting, a kind of hope for a resolution that ultimately will rise above the mists of uncertainty. Given the world’s situation, I can see the gathering in Assisi only in a positive light. First, no matter where one comes down in the debate over religious pluralism, who can argue with the simple impulse to pray?

For those of us who might see this papacy, particularly at this point in history, as a conservative, defensive pontificate on doctrinal issues, here is a classic counter-example. On the theological significance of other religions, John Paul has been remarkably daring, moving Catholic thought well beyond the narrowly inclusivist position enshrined in the Second Vatican Council. Despite being the first council in church history to speak positively of other religions, Vatican II essentially said those other religions are natural expressions of the human spirit yearning for God, rather than God inspiring and working through those religions. That some of the disciplinary measures and doctrinal “clarifications” issued during John Paul’s reign breathe a different air is a serious matter, but it should not negate the ultimately more lasting contributions the pope himself has made.

One of those “clarifications,” Dominus Iesus, continues to be an irritant. It is difficult to find an expert on interreligious dialogue that doesn’t see that document as problematic. It stands as an example of a central flaw in the process used by Vatican doctrinal authorities to render judgments: Their theological documents are not developed in consultation with theologians other than a narrow circle of like-minded advisers.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, an expert on Islam and a former official of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, asks, “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.” I say pray now. The doctrinal establishment has the rest of time to build the proper theological container.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr begins a Lenten series today on Page 14. If it seems early, it’s intentional. We’re publishing the series early so those who want to use the pieces for discussion or study during Lent can do so.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002