Pope Benedictís Interfaith OutreachFRANCIS X. ROCCA
It was hardly surprising that this year's Assisi gathering would reflect Pope Benedict's concerns about religious relativism.
The World Day of Prayer for Peace on Oct. 27, 1986, was of one of the most remarkable events in the spectacle-filled reign of Pope John Paul II. It epitomized that pontiff's historic opening to other faiths, the legacy of which is now known as the "Spirit of Assisi."
On Thursday, some 300 religious leaders returned to the city of St. Francis to join Pope Benedict XVI in commemorating his predecessor's gesture and renewing their commitment to the cause of peace. Yet this year's event differed in several ways that reflected the current pope's distinctive approach to interreligious dialogue.
The 1986 meeting at Assisi, for all its appeal to those of other persuasions, was far from universally popular among Catholics. Among its critics was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, who told an interviewer that Assisi "cannot be the model" for such encounters. The cardinal later wrote that "multireligious prayer" of the kind offered there "almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith."
Such prayer should occur only rarely, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, and to "make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts" but in the substance of what different religions claim.
Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict, so it was hardly surprising that this year's Assisi gathering would reflect his concerns about religious relativism. Not that everyone was on message: A Hindu swami declared that "truth is one" even though "professed in many different ways," and there were several invocations of one deity or another. Otherwise public prayer was conspicuously absent. Even this restrained display, however, was too much for the most intransigent opponents of ecumenism.
Followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the ultra-traditionalist who cited the first Assisi gathering as a major factor in his decision to break with Rome in 1988, are now considering a Vatican overture that would bring an end to more than two decades of schism. Yet a statement authorized by their current leader denounced this week's event as a "dreadful blasphemy toward God as well as an occasion of scandal for all on earth."
This year's gathering did draw another group traditionally resistant to the appeal of interfaith activity: those who profess no religion at all. Among the guests chosen to speak in Assisi's Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, along with the patriarch of Constantinople and the archbishop of Canterbury, was the Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, one of four nonbelievers in attendance.
Benedict's decision to include agnostics, to whom he dedicated the conclusion of his address, was the choice most revealing of his priorities. In acknowledgment of their presence, Thursday's official program called for "reflection and/or prayer," and the day itself was rechristened one of "reflection, dialogue and prayer." Thus at a gathering of religious leaders, worship had become optional.
This change, redefining the group as united not by faith but by the desire for peace and justice, ruled out any interpretation of their meeting as an advertisement for religious syncretism. Even more importantly, opening the dialogue to nonreligious "seekers of the truth" underscored one of the major themes of Benedict's pontificate: the need for Western culture to restore its dialogue between faith and reason, and thus to rehabilitate the concept of objective truth in the realms of metaphysics and ethics.
This audacious goal has unsettling implications for Catholicism's relations with other faiths. After all, if religion is of more than merely subjective value, and if its many varieties are not just different expressions of the same reality, it follows that some religions are truer than others. And Benedict has never hidden his conviction of where the truth in its fullness lies.
However undiplomatic it may seem in certain contexts, Benedict's emphasis on objective truth is, by his lights, essential to the agenda for which he prayed in Assisi. As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from "reason and nature" – that is, from "universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment."
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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