Assisi III

by Michael Sean Winters

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In an otherwise balanced article in this morning’s Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein writes, “and Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the sole truth of Catholicism over other faiths, even declining this month to pray with Hindus, Jews and others at an interreligious [sic] event.” That’s not quite right.

It is true that when Pope John Paul II held the first inter-religious encounter at Assisi 25 years ago, part of the program included a “common prayer” to which many conservatives took umbrage. I did not. John Paul II, always aware of the drama of events, was willing to set aside any theological concerns about “communicatio in sacris” in order to send a powerful visual message: Whatever our differences, we religious leaders seek peace and brotherhood. John Paul II had a second inter-religious meeting in 2002 at Assisi which, in the wake of 9/11, was especially poignant.

But, I also do not object to the program Pope Benedict devised and think it a mischaracterization to say he was “declining to pray with” other, non-Catholic and non-Christian leaders. After a period of dialogue and what was billed, appropriately in Assisi, a “frugal lunch,” the different religious leaders went off to pray and meditate for 90 minutes on their own. Perhaps this decision flowed from concerns about relativism or syncretism, but I suspect it was of a piece with Pope Benedict’s consistent theme – faith, prayer, worship, these things are not about us, they are about God. All the great religious traditions provide some manner of private prayer with the God whom they worship. Benedict seemed to be saying: Let us pursue that avenue rather than come together in one space and hear the kind of lowest common denominator prayers that are habitually employed at such inter-religious occasions.

I see this decision to organize the event without a “common prayer” as akin to Pope Benedict’s attempts to put renewed emphasis on Christ in the liturgy. The most striking example of this is the practice he has introduced at papal Masses at which communicants now come forward and kneel before the Pope to receive communion. In the event, I don’t think this latter practice has the intended effect. If you have been to one of these papal Masses, or if the camera pans out to a wide angle view, it is clear that whatever piety is achieved at the main altar, in the piazza beyond, people are climbing over each other to get to the barricades along side of which priests are distributing communion into the outstretched hands of people who are standing. The message conveyed is that while you have to kneel to get communion from the Pope, the Body of Christ is somehow less worthy of reverence if delivered by anyone else, the exact opposite message of the one Benedict intends.

There is a still wider theological framework for Pope Benedict’s decision to arrange the Assisi meeting around private prayer rather than common prayer. Broadly speaking, there have been three singularly powerful influences on Catholic theology in the last hundred or so years: the development of higher criticism regarding the Scriptures; the ressourcement theology that seeks to recapture some of the wonderment at the profundity of the Christian claim evidenced in the writings of the Fathers of the Church; and the “turn to the subject.” For purposes of this discussion, it is the last two that matter and they are clearly in a kind of tension. I do not want to put words in the mouth of the Holy Father, but I think he might agree that the “turn to the subject,” important though it is, may have turned a bit too far, that for too many – on both the left and the right – religion has become too much about us and not enough about God. (I dare say he is right in this.) Benedict, both as Pope and before that as Prefect of the CDF and before that as a theologian, has been concerned to get the focus of religion off of us and back onto God, as the ressourcement theology sought to do.

Let us come at this from another angle, one especially useful for examining Assisi II. In the 1960’s a theologians wrote (and I paraphrase as I can’t seem to find my copy of the work this morning), “Polytheism was half-right. It understood that God was immanent in the world. But, it missed the fact that God also transcends the world.” The theologian? Joseph Ratzinger of course. If one of the reasons to gather religious leaders of different faiths together was to focus on the first half, the part polytheists got right, that is well and good. But, for Benedict, we cannot neglect the other half, nor the fact that we Catholic Christians do not pray to the same God as our polytheist brothers. The God to whom we Catholic Christians pray is the Trinitarian God who is uniquely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I am told by theological insiders that while Ratzinger has always had great respect for Karl Rahner, the latter’s theory about “anonymous Christians” scared the livin’ bejeezus about of Ratzinger. I share the fear. I do not think our Church – or our world – suffers from too much watering down of the centrality or the uniqueness of the dogmatic claims at the heart of our faith.

Does this uniqueness mean we have no business dining with, or praying alongside if not exactly “praying with” people of other faiths? Of course not. But, all religions are not the same and there is something profoundly disrespectful, both to others and to ourselves, to suggest that all religions are really all the same so that it doesn’t really matter to which religion a person belongs. My problem with Rahner’s anonymous Christians theory was that in order to avoid disrespecting people of other faiths by saying “you are wrong,” his theory seems even more disrespectful, suggesting that these people of other faiths are, at least, not very bright because they are not wrong, they are right, they just don’t know it. I would rather be wrong than clueless.

My philosophy teacher at Catholic University, the great Paul Weiss, was not a theist. Yet, so committed was he to the fundamental questions of humankind, he wrote a book of theology called, “The God We Seek.” (This book, too, I do not have at hand and it is not buried under other books. I lent it to someone and can’t remember who!) To paraphrase, Weiss wrote, “Whomever God is, He is not less that the sum total of our various approaches to Him.” Not a bad insight for an atheist. But, of course, this God is a philosopher’s God, not the Christian God. Our God is not a “sum total” of anything. Our God was once a clot of blood in the womb of the Virgin.

The other outstanding aspect of Assisi II as conceived by Benedict was the decision to invite atheists to the event. Benedict’s commitment to ressourcement theology and the uniqueness of the Christian claim has not turned him into a parochial thinker by any means. His focus on God has not made him unalert to the importance of humanity or of humanism. The decision to include non-believers is, to my mind, just a stunning an affirmation of our common humanity as was the “common prayer” at Assisi I twenty-five years ago.

If you have not read the Pope’s remarks at Assisi, they can be found here. They are important, especially his closing section in which he said of those who are agnostic, “they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others.” Pope Benedict is no uncritical, triumphalistic thinker and his invitation to all religions to constantly purify themselves is refreshing and even urgent at a time when, stateside, a handful of bishops think they are above the law, even above their own laws! Reading Pope Benedict’s remarks at Assisi, I could not help thinking that we have on the throne of Peter exactly the man, and the mind and the heart, we need.

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