In the 21st century, Catholic ecumenism is learning to push back

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

When the Vatican recently widened permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass and reaffirmed that Catholicism is the one true church, both moves set off alarms in ecumenical and inter-faith circles, prompting some to wonder if the Catholic Church is reevaluating its approach to other Christian bodies and to other religions. (The Latin Mass is swept up into this discussion largely because of prayers in the Good Friday liturgy for the conversion of Jews, heretics and pagans, language from a decidedly pre-ecumenical age.)

In truth, the future of Catholic ecumenism and inter-religious relations is less likely to be determined by declarations from Rome, whatever one makes of them, than by shifting demographics on the ground. In the Catholicism of the 21st century, the tone on many matters will be set more by the global South, where two-thirds of all Catholics today live, a transition which is producing a new ecumenical psychology.

In the immediate post-Vatican II period, the architects of Catholicism’s relationships with other churches and other religions were mostly Europeans, many of whom carried a sense of historic guilt for sins of the past, from the Crusades to the Wars of Religion, and in particular they were haunted by the Holocaust. Their approach was therefore dominated by the need for an examination of conscience, and a spirit of reconciliation.

Tomorrow’s trailblazers will be Africans, Latin Americans and Asians, who are often more likely to regard themselves as victims rather than perpetrators of religious intolerance. In the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia today, Catholics suffer under aggressive forms of Islamicization, while Catholics in India are reeling from militant Hindu nationalism. In Latin America, Catholics often see themselves as targets of aggressive proselytism from Pentecostal and Evangelical movements.

In such contexts, self-defense rather than deference becomes the leitmotif. Two stories this week, both from the Indian subcontinent, help make the point.

The first is set is Faisalabad, the third largest city in Pakistan, where two Christian girls – aged 11 and 16, respectively – were recently kidnapped from their families in separate incidents, forcibly converted to Islam, and then married to their kidnappers, according to a report by the “Asia News” service.

According to that report, in both cases the families of the victims reported the abductions to the local police, who declined to intervene.

Asia News quoted Khalil Tahir, chairman of a free legal aid organization in Pakistan and a Christian lawyer: “The growing number of attacks against Christians is worrying,” he said. “We try to aid the victim’s families and at the same time help those who are subjected to this violence legally and practically, but the government must intervene with force if this is to be stopped”.

The other story is from India, where thousands of leaflets distributed in the southern Karnataka state by Hindu nationalists tell Christians they “must immediately abandon Indian territory, or return to the mother religion which is Hinduism.” Otherwise, the leaflet bluntly warns, “They will be killed by all good Indians, who, by doing so, will show their virility and their love of the country.”

Perhaps most chillingly, the leaflets openly carry the names of their sponsoring organizations, the nationalist movements Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagrutika Samiti.

Written in the local kanada dialect, the leaflets accuse Christians of seducing converts through offers of food, education and medical care, and of subverting Indian traditions by ignoring the caste system. (Conventional estimates are that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the Catholic church in India is composed of Dalit “untouchables,” who often turn to Christianity as a protest against the caste system, which some experts describe as the most vicious remaining system of apartheid in the world.)

Again, a local activist reports that such intimidation is par for the course.

“These handbills are being widely circulated, but it is only the last in a series of anti-Christian acts that have long plagued the state,” said Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians. “All right-thinking persons, the media and the government must cry a halt to the violent hate-mongering being engaged in the name of religion.”

Collectively, such experiences fuel a tougher line on ecumenical and inter-faith matters in the Catholic South. For example, the Christian Association of Nigeria is an ecumenical body to which the Catholic Church belongs, formed as a self-defense league when anti-Christian violence by Islamic radicals broke out in the late 1970s. Earlier this year, I asked the group’s general secretary, S.L.S. Salifu, if the pugnacious spirit of his organization is consistent with Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek.

“Of course it is,” Salifu said. “You can’t turn the other cheek if you’re dead.”

None of this means that ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue is headed for extinction under Southern leadership. On the contrary, the Catholic bishops of Asia have pioneered a flourishing “triple dialogue” with the cultures and religions of Asia and with the continent’s poor. In much of Africa and the Middle East, relations among Christians are close, in part because they face a common threat vis-à-vis radical Islam. Anglican/Catholic relationships in Africa may be stronger than anywhere else on earth, as both share a sense of revulsion about liberal moral tendencies among their co-religionists in the North. In Latin America, Catholics and Pentecostals are making common cause against the stirrings of secularization, especially in the legislative arena.

Demographic shifts in Catholicism are nevertheless reorienting the ecumenical and inter-faith outreach of the Catholic Church in two important ways.

First, reconciliation and mutual theological understanding are yielding pride of place on the inter-faith agenda to reciprocity and religious freedom. If the top post-Vatican II question was how Catholicism can be reformed to make space for a positive view of others, the question more likely to drive the 21st century is how other religions, and the societies they shape, can be reformed to make space for Christianity.

Second, the monopoly of “dialogue” as virtually the only way Catholicism relates to other Christians and other religions is giving way to more complex forms of engagement. Dialogue will remain important, but the 21st century is also seeing a comeback of apologetics, meaning a principled defense of the faith, and proclamation, meaning explicit efforts to invite others to conversion. Both are a reflection of the fact that many Southern Catholics are less inclined to tip-toe around the sensitivities of others, because they don’t feel responsible for creating those sensitivities in the first place.

Both trends are also reinforced by the impulse in the global North towards a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity, reflected in recent Vatican documents, which in its own way is related to a growing sense of victimization here too. Many Catholics in Europe and North America these days feel like an aggrieved minority up against hostile secularism, rather than as part of a powerful institution needing to make amends for its past.

Benedict XVI recently said that the genius of Catholicism is its penchant for “both/and” solutions. In that light, perhaps the key question is whether the humility and passion for unity of post-Vatican II ecumenism, which were undeniably historic achievements, can be creatively combined with today’s greater willingness to push back when the other side doesn’t play fair. Such a blend may be precisely what it means to think in a global key.


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