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Doubts about dialogue

NCR Staff

Despite the pain that shot through Roman Catholicism for much of 1986 -- the ongoing silencing of Leonardo Boff, Fr. Charles Curran’s loss of his status as a Catholic theologian, the decision to strip Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of authority in key areas --the year also offered a remarkable harbinger of reconciliation between the church and the wider world.

In October 1986, John Paul II assembled 200 leaders of the world’s great religions in Assisi, Italy, not to “pray together” -- that would be theologically problematic -- but “to be together and pray” on behalf of peace. To many it seemed the pope wanted to lead the church beyond the anathemas of the past into an embrace of religious pluralism. In the years since, however, that hope for inter-religious détente has run up against some hard doctrinal realities.

On that fall day in the birthplace of St. Francis, John Paul joined a circle with the Dalai Lama, Orthodox bishops, Hindu swamis and a Crow Indian medicine man in full-feathered headdress, saying little but offering a powerful symbol of solidarity. Even that muted gesture was too much for followers of schismatic, right-wing bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who distributed flyers denouncing the pontiff as an apostate. In 1988, when Lefebvre ordained his own bishops, he said he was acting to protect Catholicism from the “spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi.” One U.S. Protestant fundamentalist called the Assisi gathering the “greatest single abomination in church history.”

Less stridently, some members of the Roman curia even voiced reservations. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s top doctrinal officer, told a German newspaper: “This cannot be the model!”

John Paul, however, insisted on the propriety of the event: “Diversity is the nature of the human family,” he told an interviewer. “We must go beyond [Catholicism] to persons of goodwill who do not share our faith.” It was a striking overture, considering that Roman Catholicism declared in 1217 at the Fourth Lateran Council that “there is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.”

Today, Boff is out of the priesthood, Curran is teaching at Southern Methodist University and Hunthausen is retired. With those dragons slain, and despite the papal goodwill of a decade ago, the theology of religious pluralism has emerged as the Vatican’s new bête noire in the late 1990s.

The crux of the debate is whether there’s a necessary connection between theological approval of religious pluralism and relativism. Ratzinger identified relativism in 1996 as “the central problem for the faith at the present time,” calling it a threat analogous to liberation theology in the 1980s. In the wake of that statement, church authorities have launched a broad crackdown designed to reassert doctrinal limits to inter-religious dialogue -- where, according to Ratzinger, the danger of relativism is most acute, since people could conclude that “one religion is as good as another.”

Tension in October

Tension between the newly hardened doctrinal line on religious pluralism and the pope’s desire for unity heading into the new millennium will be thrown into stark relief in October, when two events -- the second European Synod of the decade and a second summit of religious leaders -- follow one after the other in Rome. While the Oct. 24-28 summit is intended to renew the fraternal spirit of the 1986 gathering, the Oct. 1-23 synod appears poised to issue a strong warning about pluralism and an even stronger reaffirmation of the uniqueness of the Catholic church among the world’s religions.

The new concern with pluralism has so far claimed several victims:

• In January 1997, Sri Lankan Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was excommunicated for his views on original sin, Marian piety and the role of Christ in salvation -- all defended as necessary adaptations to the religious pluralism of Asia. His excommunication was lifted in 1998 (NCR, Jan. 30, 1998).

• In March 1998, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich, Germany, informed theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel that he could not hold a Catholic professor’s position. Schmidt-Leukel, whose 1997 book Theology of Religions: Problems, Options, Arguments is considered a standard in the field, was told that “this theology is in strict opposition … to the Christian revelation.” The decision made Schmidt-Leukel persona non grata in German-speaking Catholic theology departments.

• In August 1998, the Vatican released a posthumous censure of Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, whose best-selling books blending Eastern and Western spirituality were cited for “relativizing the faith” and contributing to “religious indifferentism.” The doctrinal congregation accused de Mello of teaching that “to think the God of one’s own religion is the only one is simply fanaticism.” (NCR, Sept. 4, 1998).

• In November 1998, Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques DuPuis -- a professor at Rome’s Gregorian University and an adviser to various Vatican offices -- confirmed rumors that he was under investigation by Ratzinger for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (NCR, Nov. 20, 1998).

• In August 1999, an expert on world religions at the Catholic University of America, Michael Stoeber, was denied tenure after an investigation turned up an essay he had written in 1990 favorably comparing the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation with the Christian idea of resurrection (NCR, July 2, 1999).

Observers caution there is a danger of mixing apples and oranges here. De Mello was a popular spiritual writer rather than a theologian, while Schmidt-Leukel and DuPuis represent different theological options on some key issues. Still, the common term uniting all these cases is the question of Catholic dialogue with other faiths.

The debate over religious pluralism was at the heart of the Asian Synod in the spring of 1998. Many Asian bishops pressed for greater openness to non-Christian beliefs and a priority for dialogue over evangelization in contact with non-Christians, while Vatican officials stressed the centrality of faith in Christ and the uniqueness of the means of salvation entrusted to the church. The pope is expected to present the concluding document of the Asian Synod in India in November.

Sources say it is the investigation of DuPuis that seems the clearest evidence of a new level of scrutiny, since DuPuis is known as a moderate who has been involved behind the scenes in drafting Vatican documents on religious pluralism.

Observers caution the new clampdown is not universal, that interfaith dialogue continues at all levels of Catholicism. Approximately 50 Jesuits from around the world, for example, gathered in Kottayam, India, Aug. 14-21 to discuss work on inter-religious issues.

Moreover, the Vatican has institutionalized its commitment to inter-religious contact through creation of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, headed by the powerful Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. The secretary of that body, Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, is reportedly among the front-runners to replace the late Cardinal Basil Hume in England.

The current campaign, therefore, seems designed to control where dialogue goes rather than to stop it altogether. The message seems to be: Share the faith and listen to others, but don’t go too far toward embracing the independent validity of non-Christian religions.

That message has made the late 1990s seem like years of living dangerously for Catholics attracted to a deeper vision of religious pluralism. “When I’m with my Catholic friends in public discussions, I don’t raise these questions because it would just embarrass them,” said John Hick, an English Protestant scholar whose work on pluralism is widely seen as influential.

“Whatever they may think privately, they are constrained from speaking openly. ... There has been a virtual halt to public thinking on this issue from the Catholic side,” Hick said. He spoke to NCR from his home in Birmingham, England.

“It does have an impact, and that’s the point of it,” agreed Jesuit Fr. Francis Clooney of Boston College, an expert on Hinduism. “These targets are carefully selected. It makes everybody reconsider their own positions and critique them for themselves, kind of look over their shoulders and ask, ‘Is there something I’ve written that could get me investigated?’ ”

Ratzinger’s comparison of religious pluralism with liberation theology is in some ways an apt one. Both reflect what theologians have called the “irruption” of the Third World into Catholic consciousness. Liberation theology calls attention to massive poverty in the Third World; pluralism begins with the observation that outside Latin America, most of the Third World is non-Christian. Both movements reflect the post-conciliar turn in Catholic theology away from internal church concerns and toward the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the wider world. Liberation theology seeks signs of God’s purpose in the struggle for social and political emancipation; the theology of pluralism seeks elements of truth and grace in other religions. For Ratzinger and others who believe a naive opening to the world was the fundamental flaw of the council, both movements are therefore suspect.

East meets West

In a 1993 speech in Hong Kong, Ratzinger argued that especially in Asia there is a tendency for modern Western relativism to combine with Eastern religious agnosticism in the belief that all faiths are equally valid. Ratzinger says this blend shows up in Hinduism in the 20th century thinker Radhakrishnan, and on the Catholic side in Fr. Raimon Panikkar. Ratzinger argued that this relativistic synthesis has echoes to late antiquity, when pagan thinkers urged Christians to see their faith as merely one among many paths to truth. Then as now, he said, the church must maintain its claim to exclusivity: “Without this fundamental decision there is no Christianity.”

The preparatory documents for the European Synod, the second gathering of bishops in Rome this decade, contain tough language on pluralism. The instrumentum laboris, the working document for the event, says: “Pluralism has taken the place of Marxism in cultural dominance, a pluralism which is undifferentiated and tending towards skepticism and nihilism. This pluralism, touching extensive areas of social life today, is resulting in a strongly reduced anthropology, in many cases without meaning.”

Since the required input from the various European episcopal conferences to the development of the instrumentum has not been released to the public, it is impossible to know to what extent this hard line reflects Vatican thinking or ideas gathered from the bishops. It will therefore be instructive to watch the interventions at the synod to see which, and how many, prelates strike a different tone in their approach to other religions.

The instrumentum’s uncompromising stance also reflects the thinking of John Paul, who obviously believes that two positions -- openness to dialogue and insistence upon already possessing the truth -- can be reconciled. Dialogue can be meaningful, he says, only if it is grounded in absolute clarity about one’s own position. But for advocates of pluralism, there is a contradiction at the heart of this argument. If other religions can offer only “glimpses” of the full truth already present in Christianity, then Christians engage in dialogue not to learn but to teach -- a distortion, the pluralists say, of what is conventionally meant by dialogue.

It is not the fact of pluralism that is at issue, and few Catholics still question whether members of other religions can be saved. Ratzinger conceded the point in the book-length interview that became 1997’s Salt of the Earth: “It is definitely possible for someone to receive from his religion directives that help him become a pure person, which also, if we want to use the word, help him to please God and to reach salvation. ... This undoubtedly happens on a large scale,” he said.

The real debate, as DuPuis phrased it in his book, is whether religious pluralism exists de jure as well as de facto -- whether the different religions are part of God’s saving plan. Put in its simplest terms, the question is whether members of other religions are saved in spite of, or in and through, their non-Christian faith.

Riding on the answer, according to observers, are four points of deep concern in Rome: the danger of moral relativism; the impact on missionary efforts; how the church understands the salvation achieved through Christ; and the link between religious pluralism and the power of church officials.

Observers say the Vatican’s doctrinal overseers fear a slippery slope from pluralism to relativism, and from relativism on matters of dogma to relativism about ethics. “It’s the camel’s nose under the tent,” Clooney said. “The fear is that if you get boxed into a relativistic position with the Dalai Lama, if you feel like you can’t criticize him about anything, then maybe you end up not being able to assert the truth about anything.”

Schmidt-Leukel believes this is a misreading of what religious pluralism represents. “Religious pluralism as I understand it has nothing to do with such relativism,” he said in a telephone interview from his Munich home. “The theology of religious pluralism makes a truth claim that God wills religious diversity. The relativists say you can’t make any such truth claims.”

In part, advocates of pluralism argue that Ratzinger and other church authorities confuse their stance with relativism because Vatican officials haven’t bothered to read what advocates of pluralism have written. Hick noted in a response to Ratzinger’s 1996 speech that the cardinal had not only misidentified him as an American, but had badly misconstrued his central position (NCR, Oct. 24, 1997). Ratzinger had drawn on a secondary source for his criticism of both Hick and American Catholic theologian Paul Knitter.

Schmidt-Leukel said this mirrored his experience with Wetter, who had “obviously not read any of my work.” He said Wetter called him in for two conversations and promised a third that never materialized. After he was notified he would be refused permission to take a position in Catholic theology at the University of Munich, Schmidt-Leukel found that other German-speaking dioceses also became inhospitable.

Next year Schmidt-Leukel will move his family to Scotland so he can accept a theology chair at the nondenominational University of Glasgow. “It came as a kind of salvation to me,” he said. “Otherwise I was facing unemployment after 20 years of education, with two small adopted children to take care of.”

Ratzinger never responded to Hick, and Wetter declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story.

The second concern about pluralism is doctrinal: If other religions are capable of offering salvation on their own terms, what about the uniqueness of the redemption won through Christ. This worry leads the authors of the instrumentum laboris for the European Synod to a strong reassertion of traditional Christology, the church’s doctrine about Christ.

“In the context of the present increasing religious pluralism in Europe, the Synod also intends to proclaim that Christ is the one and only Savior of all humanity and, consequently, to assert the absolute uniqueness of Christianity in relation to other religions. ... Jesus is the one and only mediator of salvation for all of humanity. Only in him do humanity, history and the cosmos find their definitively positive meaning and receive their full realization. He is not only the mediator of salvation but salvation’s source.”

Though most advocates of religious pluralism would want to modify this sort of uncompromising language, there is disagreement among them on exactly what approach to take. DuPuis accepts the idea that Jesus is “constitutive” of humanity’s salvation, meaning that Jesus holds universal significance and is the “sacrament” of God’s saving will, but he is not the only expression of that will. The “nonincarnate Word,” DuPuis believes -- that is, the eternal Word in its manifestations other than in Jesus -- is operative in other religions and other saving figures.

Schmidt-Leukel rejects this “inclusivist” argument, which holds that salvation is offered through Christ and that members of other faiths can be included within it. Schmidt-Leukel says Christians should recognize that other religions offer valid pathways to salvation that cannot be subsumed into Christ. Hick makes the same point. “If you were to talk to a Muslim and he insisted that salvation comes through one’s response to the Koran alone but that you could be included in it, that is pretty offensive, isn’t it?”

In his 1996 speech, Ratzinger says that the pluralist emphasis on dialogue rather than proclamation of the gospel is “the antithesis of conversion and mission.” His remark speaks to the third concern of many church officials: If you accept that other religions are valid, what happens to missionary work?

John Paul devoted his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio largely to this question, lamenting that “missionary activity … appears to be waning” and insisting that religious relativism must not replace “the impetus to preach the gospel and to establish new churches among people or communities where they do not exist, for this is the first task of the church, which has been sent forth to all peoples and to the very ends of the earth.”

One possible response is to distinguish between “mission” and proselytism, as the Federation of Asian Bishops did in their 1987 “Theses on Inter-religious Dialogue.” The bishops said: “The focus of the church’s mission of evangelization is building up the kingdom of God and building up the church to be at the service of the kingdom. The kingdom is, therefore, wider than the church.” From this point of view, making converts is not the only goal -- it also includes dialogue and work for justice, directed toward ushering in God’s reign. DuPuis calls this a “regnocentric” view.

Knitter, who teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati, endorsed the idea. “We want to establish the church and increase the presence of the Christian community, not as an end in itself, but as a means to transforming the world towards greater mutuality and justice,” Knitter said. “From that point of view, the primary purpose of missionary work is to convert people, not to the church, but to the reign of God.”

This understanding, however, stands in tension with the pope’s declaration in Redemptoris Missio that “proclamation is the permanent priority of mission” and that proclamation “has Christian conversion as its aim.” In his Hong Kong speech, Ratzinger said the use of “kingdom of God” to mean general work for justice is an example of “taking a word from the Bible and applying it in a profane, utopian sense.”

Pluralism and power

Finally, a fourth concern -- rarely voiced openly by Vatican officials but often attributed to them -- has to do with their own authority. “It’s part of the power of the faith, this claim to exclusive truth,” Hick said. “People who run religious institutions believe their future is most secure if they keep complete control over the truth.”

“This is what was going on at the Asian synod, wasn’t it?” Knitter said. “It’s difficult to maintain control from the center if you accept that dialogue calls for adaptation at the local level. [Fr. Karl] Rahner said somewhere that if a world church really is to emerge, we have to accept the possibility of there being various magisteria. That’s what people are really worried about, I think.”

For supporters of religious pluralism, these four reservations -- important as they are -- actually miss the deeper issues. “The idea that God is on their side is still part of what enables young men and women to kill and be killed for some political cause,” Hick said. “If we could reduce that, allow people to think that other faiths have their own angle on the divine, it might help make this a less violent world.”

Fr. Balasuriya, who has called for financial reparations for Third World nations to coincide with the Jubilee Year 2000, says the church also needs to make “theological reparations” for the way its insistence on possessing absolute truth has contributed to war, colonialism, and the marginalization of Third World voices.

“You see, they worry about relativism, but here we worry about what happens when you absolutize limited human expressions of the divine,” Balasuriya said in a telephone interview from Sri Lanka. “We need to ask, ‘How have we misrepresented Jesus Christ?’ That is a far more serious concern.”

Clooney says it’s important not to overstate the impact of the chill on religious pluralism: “It’s not the Dark Ages returning, and I know people who still manage to do good work in the field without getting into trouble.” Yet he admitted the disciplinary moves and hardened language are cause for concern. If over time they produce a pulling back from inter-religious dialogue, “the loss will not be primarily among particular theologians who write about it. What they’re trying to do is to find a way of being a Christian in the millennium to come. It would be a very sad development if the effect is to frighten Catholics away from thinking about that question,” Clooney said.

If these issues manage to get a serious hearing at either the Synod for Europe or the summit of religious leaders immediately thereafter, October could be a very interesting month to be in Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999