Converting a tough tone

Converting a tough tone April 25, 2005 Denver Post As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he called other Christian traditions “defective,” boycotted an interfaith prayer for peace and wrote a document blamed for setting back Catholic relations with other religions. As Pope Benedict XVI, he used his first Mass to say he would continue talks with non-Christian religions and do everything in his power to promote Christian unity. “The fact that among the first things Benedict says is he wants to extend his hand in relations with other Christian churches is probably a signal that he knows he is behind the eight ball on this very issue, and similarly of interreligious dialogue,” said Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religions at Harvard University. By all accounts, one of the major challenges facing the new papacy is how the Roman Catholic Church engages an increasingly pluralistic world. Pope John Paul II, who witnessed the Nazi extermination of Jews in his native Poland, extended an olive branch to the Jewish community time and again. He apologized for Catholic misdeeds against Jews, established diplomatic ties with Israel and called Jews “beloved elder brothers.” As the reign of Benedict XVI dawns, it is not Judaism but Islam at the forefront of interreligious issues. Muslims now outnumber Catholics worldwide, the Catholic Church is in fierce competition with Muslims for African converts, and Muslim immigration from North Africa is transforming Europe. While it is too soon to tell how Benedict XVI might approach other faiths and Christian traditions, the questions he will face are well-established: squaring Catholicism’s claim to being the “one true church” with engagement of traditions that take the opposite view; weighing the benefits and limits of dialogue as the chief tool for finding understanding; and dealing with militant Islam. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger in 2000 issued Dominus Iesus, which insisted on the supremacy of Catholicism and declared all other religions “defective” by comparison. To Ratzinger, the strong tone befitted his intended audience: the bishops of his church, some of whom he believed were being too open to other paths to salvation, said the Rev. James Wiseman, professor of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America. That stance was a bit disingenuous, Wiseman said, considering it was not a private communiqu�. “Neither as a cardinal nor as pope is Benedict XVI going to back down on the position that there is a certain fullness of truth in the Catholic faith he doesn’t find elsewhere,” Wiseman said. “That doesn’t mean there is not truth and value in other traditions that is to be affirmed and supported.” “A new chapter” Pope Benedict indicated as much in the softer stance he took in his first Mass. He endorsed further carrying out the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which brought the church into the modern world. One of Vatican II’s documents supported Christian unity, breaking with the church’s past hostility toward Protestants. That spirit, not that of Dominus Iesus, is what Philip Wogaman, interim president of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, hopes for in Pope Benedict XVI. “During his tenure as cardinal it’s no secret that many of us were not pleased with his positions he sometimes took,” said Wogaman, a member of the United Methodist Church’s Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations Commission. “But that’s past. He is now Benedictus XVI, and it’s a new chapter.” How the Protestant and Orthodox Christian world responds to the new pontiff’s calls for unity depends on what he means by that, said Michael Cromartie, vice president with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Cromartie said Benedict will find enthusiasm if he is proposing dialogue to identify common ground and understand differences. But if the idea is “some sort of massive, universal, unified church,” that would not be welcome, he said. On one hand, evangelical Christians were insulted when Ratzinger used the words “sects” to describe evangelical and Pentecostal churches making inroads in historically Catholic South America. But better that Ratzinger not sugarcoat his beliefs, Cromartie said. “If you really do believe other churches are deficient for strong theological and doctrinal reasons, better then to go ahead and say it and make your case,” said Cromartie, a conservative Episcopalian. “It’s important for people to take each other seriously. The way to do that is to state your true principles.” During a 26-year papacy, John Paul II engaged Muslims in dialogue, expressed sympathy for Palestinians, spoke out against Western materialism and opposed both U.S. wars on Iraq. Ratzinger has taken a more skeptical view of Islam. He has described the faith as being in competition with Catholicism, and he has lamented that Islam’s clarity has inspired believers in a way Christianity in the contemporary West has not. In 1986, Ratzinger skipped an interreligious prayer for peace meeting in Assisi sponsored by John Paul II, in which space for people of other religions was allotted in Catholic churches. More recently Ratzinger has fought predominantly Muslim Turkey’s application to the European Union, saying it would run “counter to history.” Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said Muslims should give the new pope the benefit of the doubt and hopes Benedict will stand against militant Islam. Some commentators say the Catholic Church has been too cautious on that front, in part to protect Christian minorities in Muslim countries. “There is nothing more potent in combating militant and theocratic Islam than nongovernmental religious institutions such as the papacy,” said Jasser, a Phoenix physician. Continuing the dialogue The Vatican office at the forefront of how the church interacts with other religions is the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, headed by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a British scholar of Islam. Speaking to reporters in Rome a week before Benedict’s election, Fitzgerald said he did not foresee fundamental changes in how the church deals with Islam, which mostly has concentrated on dialogue. “I don’t think we’re going to go to war,” Fitzgerald said. “The time of the Crusades is over. We are not to use religion in the service of violence.” Fitzgerald said dialogue with Muslims has proved difficult in part because there is no formal Muslim hierarchy. His council instead has engaged in talks with governments in Jordan, Turkey, Iran and Libya. An Islamic-Catholic liaison committee meets annually, though its mostly Arab Muslim membership does not reflect Islam’s worldwide reach. Fitzgerald said that while the question of Islam is important, it must be viewed in the wider context of how the church fits into a pluralistic world. For instance, Fitzgerald cited growing Western interest in Buddhism – not in new converts but in people adopting Buddhist practices to enhance their spiritual lives. “We see that as a challenge: What is it that people are looking for, why is it that they are going to other communities. Isn’t there something we should be doing?” he said. But therein lies another challenge. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger once called Buddhism a religion for the self-indulgent.

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