Thursday, June 08, 2006

Decoding the Pope

A blistering piece in Outlook (an Indian newsweekly) that attacks Pope Benedict as an opponent of inter-religious dialogue, as a proponent of an arrogant Christian exclusivism, whose interest in Asia is driven by a zeal for conversions (understood as a numbers game) to replace waning interest in Christianity in the West.

The article starts out with the recent fracas over the Pope's remarks to the new Indian Ambassador. This was an attack on India's sovreignity. The laws in question are, apparently, quite justified.

So what if India's internal commissions and inquiries resulted in laws to curb mass conversions sometimes obtained with financial and other incentives? The Vatican's chief concern is: spreading the word.

Of course Dominus Iesus figures prominently in this -- apparently it was motivated by fears that Buddhism and eastern religions are proving to be too attractive to Westerners. And

even those of other branches of Christianity were seen as inadequate pathways to the ultimate goal: reaching God. In short, all other roads to nirvana were blocked except that guarded by the pope.

Dominus Iesus apparently even had the temerity to suggest:
that Christ is the only saviour of mankind, thereby shutting the lid on romancing with other religions.

Like this was an innovation that can be laid at Ratzinger's door?

Archbishop Fitzgerald's being sent to Cairo is seen as a stern demotion, and the supposed "merger" of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious dialogue with the Council for Culture is already a fait accompli and is understood in entirely negative terms. [John Allen has a different take on the move.] The appointment of Cardinal Dias to Propaganda Fide is also seen as a hostile act against Asian religions. Dias "is in reality Benedict's comrade in arms in the big drive."

Hans Küng is trotted out. The "extremely conservative positions" on social issues - gay marriage, abortion, condom use for HIV-infected people and "induction" (induction?) of women priests are mentioned. [What this has to do with inter-religious dialogue is not really clear. Except, perhaps, to strengthen the portrait of Benedict as a heartless bigot.]

And here's the kicker. The discontinuity between John Paul II and Benedict is so great that:

Pope Benedict -- should he ever travel to India -- would probably not allow a traditional Indian welcome of a 'tika' on his forehead as John Paul did.

Because, you know, Dominus Iesus wasn't issued under the authority of Pope John Paul. Nor did he write, for instance, that great encyclical on the permanence of the missionary mandate, Redemptoris Missio. Because Benedict hates other religions so much that he wouldn't dare corrupt himself with a "tika"?

Finally, a not so subtle implication that calls for "dialogue" are hypocritical, since the Church is apparently becoming more "militant."
The Pope says everything must be done to prevent a clash of civilisations but then all religions have to become more accommodating not more militant.

Militant? To accuse the Catholic Church of "militancy?" When Islamic terrorists have been slaughtering innocent tourists in the Kashmir Valley (not to mention everything else that terrorism in the name of Islam has done)? When Hindu nationalists routinely intimidate India's Christian population, with churches being burnt, with a foreign missionary and his two children being burnt alive, with numerous rapes and killings of religious? When a major state government stands by and even abetts in the genocidal slaughter of members of a minority religion? When wholesale slaughters in another state on caste lines is de rigeur? That is militancy. If you think that Pope Benedicts is on the same page as this stuff then you really don't have much creidbility. Besides, can anyone point to any instance when the Catholic Church, in recent times, has advocated or carried out any such action?

[This is not to gloss over the Church's checkered past -- the Inquisition in Goa, for instance. Or the treatment of European Jews. Or, even, the hostile reaction to the rise of modern liberalism in the 19th century. However, there's been a conscious attempt to understand those past actions and positions critically. And what of the very public (and controversial) litany of apologies by Pope John Paul in 2000? In pretty much every instance, there is an acknowledgement that these activities were clearly a violation of Christian doctrine.]

The article is risibly one-sided, and a shoddy example of journalism. The picture, is, of course, incomplete. There is no mention of Nostra Aetate or Lumen Gentium (or the Catechism) on the status as well as relations with non-Christian religions, or Dignitatis Humanae on the fundamental right to religious liberty (the Catholic Church is one of the few religious voices in the world right now calling for an unequivocal respect for freedom of conscience). Nor is there any understanding of the nuanced arguments the Pope makes in his landmark work on inter-religious dialogue, "Truth and Tolerance."

It is a screed that would be very easily at home on the pages of the New York Times, or a Call to Action newsletter. Eveyrthing is understood only in terms of a numbers game, a turf war, a political battle. There is no attempt to engage any of the spiritual realities that underlie the Church's teaching.

Yes the essential task of the Church is to evangelize.

No this does not mean forcing anyone to become Christian.

Nor does this mean that the Church considers all outsider her embrace to be lost, or in spiritual darkness (though there are many other Chrristians who would go that route). There is even a clear acknoweldgement that in mysterious ways, not known to the Church, others can (and certainly have), attain salvation.

The Church is however duty bound to proclaim what she has received: that Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life. She invites everyone to search for the truth. She is the bearer of Good News -- of a new way of living, of being human indeed [think of the language of "mutation" that the Pope used in his Easter homily] -- it is such a powerful message that she cannot but proclaim it to anyone who would care to hear. [It is in this sense that evangelization is her essential task, to use Paul VI's langauge from Evangelii Nuntiandi. It is not Christianity that divides the world into a house of the faith and a house of war. Nor was Christianity propogated, in the first centuries, by the sword. And it most certainly does not seek to advance by force.

Yes, she dialogues with all religions. But she does not start with an a priori assumption that all religions are "essentially the same." They manifestly are not. Any serious study of the religions of the world bears that out. Such woolly thinking comes from a modern secular mindset that fails to understand the nature of religion, that would rather see it as a hobby, a private enterprise, something one "does" at home, but certainly that has no bearing on one's public life.

There is a certain tension, to be sure, between an exclusivist pole ("Christ is the Way" therefore the rest of you go to hell) and a relativist pole ("Christianity works for me, but you may have your own truth" or "All religions are the same."). The Church, I would argue, exists in that tension, proclaiming her message .

The language of truth can and is easily misunderstood. It is not, ought not, to be used in an arrogant sense. "We have the truth. Too bad for you. Go to hell."

And yes, all Christians are tempted at times to think that somehow by the virtue of being part of the Church, being on the "right side", so to speak, they will be saved. This also leads to a sense of spiritual pride. "Look at me! I'm Christian! I'm better than everyone else!" Nothing could be further from the true attitude of a Christian, which is always one of humility, of gratefulness at the God "who loved us first", of thankfulness, of regarding the needs of others as greater than our own, of loving neighbor as oneself. We are asked to work out our salvation in "fear and trembling." Religion is not some kind of an "after-life insurance." Go to Mass, say a few novenas, write a few checks and you're in. All Christians are on a journey of constant conversion, a constant turning away from sin, from the world and a turning to God. The first to need "conversion" (in this deeper sense) is we, ourselves. The Gospel is the standard we are measured by. We have to constantly be purified, to be purged our our desire to yoke the Gospel to a political ideology, to a system of governance, to power, to prestige, to our own egos. As Christians, our goal is at once simple and terrifying. We are called to become the image of Jesus Christ, to become other Christ's, clones of Christ even, carrying on His mission, God's mission, of renewing humanity, of "making all things new," of rescuing His creation which has gone so awry. This is our path, the end (telos) of which is communion with God. Or, in the language of Eastern Chrisitianity, divinization.

Does this mean that I, as a Christian, think that non-Christians are just poor lost souls? No. But, of course, as a Christian, I cannot but think that Christianity is the way, the best way, indeed. [And, I would expect a committed Hindu or Muslim to feel similarly about his or her own faith.] This does not mean a disrespect for the other great religious traditions. It also means recognizing and valuing everything that is good in other reigions, for all that is good comes from God. But I cannot make a categorical judgment that all religions, whatever their origins, practice and development through history, "are the same" and therefore "equally valid." The standard of the Gospel, which we apply (ought to apply) to ourselves, is a universal standard, applicable to all cultures.

Those opposed to the Church will not want to recognize any of this, I suspect.

However, I don't want to just lay blame at the door of others. We Christians have a long history of just the kinds of prideful, superior atittudes I've criticized. And, in Asia, a history of complicity with the colonial powers that has left a legacy we still struggle with -- the image of Christians as outsiders, of Christianity as a foreign religion.

Yes, we are called to spread the Good News, to evangelize. And to welcome those who are drawn to our faith, of course, while maintaining peaceful and respectful relations with those who are not.

I suspect, however, that the role of Christians in Asia will continue to be what it has been down the ages: to be leaven. Witnesses to a different way of doing things, a different way of ordering human relations. A signpost of the inbreaking of God's kingdom. Of a world that is healed of division and conflict. Of salvation.

[I haven't engaged a whole another set of issues: the difficulty, some would say inability, to understand this deeper idea of conversion in India. Nor is the idea of a religious relativism, "all paths up the mountain" solely the domain of modern secularism. It is common enough in India. The other side of the "conversion" issue in India is the political ramifications, closely tied up with the staus quo of caste system. I'll save that for another time, pehaps.]

1 comment:

Napoleon said...

Wow, that article set you off. You did provide a great description of interreligous respect and dialogue in relation to evangelization. Thanks for your wisdom.