By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
the relationship between Christianity and politics was the burning issue in
Catholic theology in the 1970s and 1980s, with liberation theology forming the
front line, the new mega-issue in the 1990s became the relationship between
Christianity and the world religions. Its battle zone is the so-called
“theology of pluralism.”
“Pluralism” is a complex impulse that takes many different forms, but at its
core is the idea that more than one religion can communicate saving knowledge
about ultimate reality, and no religion has a superior saving knowledge.
other words, Christianity can be a true religion, but not the true
Beginning this weekend, 40 of the world’s top pluralist theologians are
gathering at a unique summit in Birmingham, England, to ponder the future of
their Copernican-style revolution. The event features English Presbyterian John
Hick, Catholic stalwarts such as Paul Knitter of Xavier University, Jesuit Fr.
Roger Haight of Weston School of Theology, and Chester Gillis of Georgetown
University, as well as Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and
Confucians. All told, 40 scholars from 16 countries are expected.
view they represent is theological dynamite, at least from the Christian side.
What does it mean to say that Christ died for all, if the vast majority of human
beings don’t need him to be saved? What’s the point of missionary efforts if
being a Hindu, or a Druid, is just as valid as being Christian?
questions help explain the Vatican’s keen interest. The September 2000 document
Dominus Iesus, which insisted that followers of other religions are in a
“gravely deficient situation” in comparison to Christians who alone “have the
fullness of the means of salvation,” was a response to the pluralist movement.
with ears to hear could pick out the rumblings that led to Dominus Iesus
in 1996, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, addressed the Latin American bishops.
Ratzinger called pluralist theology the fight of the decade: “In some ways [it]
occupies today — with regard to the force of its problematic aspect and its
presence in the different areas of culture — the place occupied by the theology
of liberation in the preceding decade,” he said.
Ratzinger named names: Hick and Knitter.
Hick, Ratzinger said, “Concepts such as church, dogma and sacraments lose their
unconditional character. ... The notion of dialogue becomes the quintessence of
the relativist creed and the antithesis of conversion and mission. … The
relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus
becomes a central commandment of religion.”
Ratzinger accused Knitter of holding that praxis is more important than dogma.
Thus for Knitter, according to Ratzinger, dialogue reduces to an ethical or
political program. This stance, Ratzinger says, is self-contradictory, because
without objective truth, who’s to say any particular ethic is correct?
bottom line, in Ratzinger’s judgment, is that pluralism is tantamount to
relativism. “Christ is Lord!” would be a truth for Christians, but not
necessarily for Buddhists or Jews. Such a view, Ratzinger believes, would neuter
should be noted that this is not merely Ratzinger’s personal crusade. Other
theologians are concerned that pluralism goes too far. Many defend some version
of a position known as “inclusivism,” which allows that other religions may
contain saving truths, but are “included” in the salvation won by Christ. In
this view, all religious traditions ultimately converge in, and are perfected
by, Christianity, even if that convergence is eschatological. Some version of
this model is generally held to be implicit in the documents of the Second
Vatican Council (1962-65).
draft paper for Birmingham, Knitter argues that pluralists are not relativists.
They accept universal truth, but not absolute truth.
“This is the pluralist challenge to traditional religious believers,” Knitter
writes. “You can and should continue to go forth unto all nations to proclaim
what you know to be true and good; but you should not, because you cannot,
proclaim that this is the only word, or the last word, on what is true and
can discern Ratzinger’s concern with pluralism in recent appointments at the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His new secretary, Salesian
Archbishop Angelo Amato, was one of the primary authors of Dominus Iesus
and the driving force behind the investigation of
Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, a prominent writer in this field. Amato studied in
India and has a background in Oriental religions. Likewise, Ratzinger’s
under-secretary is an American Dominican theologian, Fr. Augustine DiNoia, who
wrote a well regarded book on religious pluralism in 1992, The Diversity of
Religions: A Christian Perspective.
other words, don’t expect the Vatican to let go of this issue. By the same
token, the pluralists don’t seem ready to fold their tents and silently steal
Birmingham conference, titled “The Pluralist Model: A Multi-religious
Exploration,” is held under the Department of Theology of Birmingham University,
UK, where Hick teaches, and is co-sponsored by the Journal of Ecumenical Studies
of Temple University.
Over the years I’ve written
often on this theme and come to know some of the thinkers representing the
various positions. I’ll be covering the Sept. 6-9 summit and will have a full
report next week.
For now, I’ll reproduce the
“statement of key principles” the summit’s participants agreed upon in advance,
though it could still be revised. It’s a good synthesis of the pluralist model.
The list, especially points seven and eight, also helps explain why defenders of
conventional Christological and ecclesiological positions find the model
pluralist model of religion
1.The religions of the world affirm an ultimate reality which they conceive of
in different ways and which both transcends the material universe and is
immanent within it.
2.Whilst in itself ultimate reality is beyond the scope of complete human
understanding, in its relation to humanity many claim to have experienced its
presence in diverse ways, including great individuals in supreme revelatory
moments that have given rise to the world’s religions, including the great world
The great world religions, including their different and at times
incompatible teachings, are as totalities of scripture, history, tradition,
paradigmatic figures, rituals, creeds and forms of spirituality, authentic paths
to the supreme good.
The world’s religions share many basic values, for example, love,
compassion, justice, honesty, treating others as one wishes to be treated
There are however forms of religion, including some based in the great
world religions, which are misused for purposes contrary to those values.
Each person must follow his/her conscience. Therefore the possibility of
conversion is part of the human right to religious freedom.
In the present century the traditional assertions of an exclusive
possession of absolute truth repel rather than attract many people who seek the
wisdom that religions, and other explanations of the ultimate meaning of life,
have to offer.
Hence, from a pluralist point of view it does not make sense in the
contemporary world to try through missionary activities to convert the world to
one’s own tradition.
Interreligious dialogue, as conversations among people who wish to learn
and benefit from one another’s inheritance and insights, should be the normal
way for religions — and ideologies — to relate to each other.
Within this dialogue a paramount need is for the religions to heal any
historic antagonisms between them.
* * *
weren’t on my way to Birmingham, I’d be heading for Aachen, Germany, where the
Community of Sant’Egidio is holding its annual inter-religious gathering Sept.
7-9. This year the theme is “War and Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue.”
Sant’Egidio began hosting these gatherings in 1987, after John Paul II’s
historic summit of religious leaders in Assisi in 1986. The community took upon
itself the role of keeping the “spirit of Assisi” alive, and its annual
gathering has become one of the premier vehicles for ecumenical and
inter-religious dialogue anywhere in the world. I’ve attended previous
gatherings in Lisbon and Palermo.
Twelve cardinals are scheduled to take part: Godfried Danneels of Belgium; Karl
Lehmann, Friederich Wetter and Joachim Meisner of Germany; Roger Etchegaray,
former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Mario
Francesco Pompedda, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura; Walter Kasper, president
of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Frédéric
Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi of Congo; Ignace Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the
Congregation for Eastern Churches; Peter Shirayanagi of Japan; Pedro Rubiano
Sáenz of Colombia; and Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine.
Highly anticipated sessions include a panel on Catholic/Orthodox dialogue that
will feature Etchegaray, Kasper and Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni on the
Catholic side, as well as Metropolitan Kyrill, the number two figure in the
Russian Orthodox hierarchy, and Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox
Patriarch of Antioch. A session on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will include
Gadi Golan, the head of the religious affairs bureau at the Israeli
Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
and Tyseer Al-Tamimi, head of the Sharia Court for the Palestinian National
Authority. A fascinating panel on John Paul’s 25th anniversary as
pope will include a rabbi from Paris, an Orthodox metropolitan from Syria, and
an Islamic theologian from Morocco. Two Iraqi bishops plus an Iraqi Sunni and an
Iraqi Shi’ite will discuss prospects for peace in their country. Sr. Helen
Prejean will take part in a panel on abolition of the death penalty.
Sant’Egidio, which is sometimes called the “U.N. of Trastevere” for its capacity
to bring discordant voices into conversation, will post texts from some of these
presentations on its web site:
* * *
Last week I
carried an interview with Fr. Diego Lorenzi, the private secretary of Pope John
Paul I, on the 25th anniversary of the pope’s election. Lorenzi’s
recollections summoned others from readers of “The Word from Rome.” Among other
things, a few readers wrote to ask if it was true that prior to becoming pope,
Cardinal Albino Luciani had expressed a positive view of birth control.
In short, the
answer is yes.
In 1967, when
Luciani was still the bishop of Vittorio Veneto, then-Cardinal Giovanni Urbani
of Venice asked him to prepare a position paper for the bishops of the Triveneto
region on artificial contraception, then under study by Pope Paul VI. The story
is told in the superb recent book Papa Luciani: Il Sorriso del Santo, by
Andrea Tornielli and Alessandro Zangrando.
attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), had already
been wrestling with the problem. In his diary from his days at Vatican II, Un
Vescovo al Concilio, published in 1983, he said that the formation of a
study commission had produced hope that the teaching might change. Another
factor fueling that hope, he wrote, was the “spiritual trauma” the issue was
causing for married couples, for whom it represented a “laceration of
1965, Luciani gave a retreat for the pastors of the Veneto in which he told the
bishop told me at the council, ‘Sometimes I thank God that I’m a bishop for only
one reason, not for anything else. The reason is that I don’t have to hear
confessions at Easter, dealing with painful, difficult cases that are hard to
resolve. These blessed Christian couples simply don’t want to convince
themselves that the use of contraceptives is a sin. At the end I never knew what
to say … What could I say to a young father who already had six children and he
was the sole support of the family? I knew that he was a good young man and in
every other way obeyed the law of God.’
you,” Luciani told the pastors, “the bishops would be extremely happy to find a
doctrine that would declare licit the use of contraceptives under certain
conditions ... If there’s only one possibility in a thousand, we have to find
this possibility and see if maybe with the help of the Holy Spirit we can
discover something that previously escaped us.”
In a recent
interview, Msgr. Mario Senigaglia, Lorenzi’s predecessor as Luciani’s secretary,
recalled that his stand was well known. In fact, he said, some Italian wags
referred to Luciani at the time as “the bishop of the pill.”
Paul VI got
wind of the thinking in the Triveneto and sent his personal theologian, Msgr.
Carlo Colombo, to meet with the bishops. Sources say that during the closed-door
session, Luciani argued that Colombo’s position was “too abstract” and did not
take account of the real-life struggles of couples.
In the spring
of 1968, Luciani gave a series of presentations in parishes. In Mogliano Veneto,
the birth control question arose. His response has been preserved in an audio
“For me, this
is the most serious theological question that has ever been dealt with by the
church,” Luciani said. “In the age of Arius and Nestorius, the issue was the two
natures of Christ, and these were serious questions, but they were understood
only at the very top of the church, among theologians and bishops. The simple
people understood nothing of these things and said, ‘I adore Jesus Christ, the
Lord who has redeemed me,’ and that was it, there was no danger. Here, on the
other hand, it’s a question that no longer regards solely the leadership of the
church, but the entire church, all the young families, the young Christian
families. It is a truly central point that they are still studying.”
When Paul VI
issued Humane Vitae on July 25, 1968, however, Luciani’s adherence was
immediate and unwavering. He wrote a letter to his diocese four days after the
that I had hoped in my heart that the extremely grave difficulties could be
overcome and that the response of the magisterium, which speaks with special
charisms and in the name of the Lord, could have coincided, at least in part,
with the hopes held by many spouses.”
Yet, Luciani said, Pope Paul has spoken, and the proper
response is assent.
“knows that he is about to cause bitterness for many; he knows that a different
solution would probably have drawn greater human applause; but he’s put his
trust in God, and in order to be faithful to His word, he re-proposes the
constant teaching of the magisterium, in this most delicate matter, in all its
As late as
1974, after he had become patriarch of Venice, Luciani publicly acknowledged how
difficult this teaching was to enforce.
with few children, some maintain a heroic self-control that merits admiration,”
he said at a convention. “Others … find themselves in difficulties so serious
that, on the objective plane, not even the confessor sometimes has the courage
to pronounce on the gravity of the sin, entrusting everything to the merciful
judgment of the Lord.”
invites a historical “what if?” If Luciani’s papacy had endured longer than 33
days, how would he have handled the birth control issue?
certain he would not have reversed Paul VI’s teaching. The church does not lurch
from position to position like that, and Luciani was no doctrinal radical.
Moreover, in Venice some saw a hardening of his stands as the years went by. On
the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that John Paul I would not have
insisted upon the negative judgment in Humanae Vitae as aggressively and
publicly as John Paul II, and probably would not have treated it as a
quasi-infallible teaching. It would have remained a more “open” question.
would have been good or bad obviously depends upon one’s point of view.
* * *
notes from the “keeping an eye on the conclave” file.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, Germany, was interviewed recently about the
World Youth Day scheduled for his archdiocese in 2005. In the course of the
conversation, the question of Meisner’s own possible candidacy as John Paul’s
is Meisner’s response:
Holy Father is strong, and the rest is only speculation. I hope that he’ll
remain for a long time. The proverb is valid: ‘Popes come and go, the Church
goes on.’ As for me, I am an old cardinal, I’m 70. The Church will need a young
What’s interesting about the response is that Vatican-watchers have long
speculated that the cardinals will be looking for a candidate significantly
older than the 57-year-old Karol Wojtyla was on Oct. 16, 1978. Many pundits have
guessed the right age range could be 65-75, which would perhaps translate into a
brief “transitional” pontificate.
take Meisner at his word, and assume that his comment was more than a kind of
faux humility, we now have at least one cardinal who thinks the next pope should
be significantly younger than 70. That might boost the chances of some of the
younger papabili, such as Honduras’ Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga (60) or
Austria’s Christoph Schönborn (58).
Another much-discussed hypothesis is the possibility of a Latin American pope,
as a symbol of the Church’s solidarity with the developing world. At the recent
Comunione e Liberazione gathering in Rimini, one leading Latin American
candidate got a boost from a Vatican official.
M. Carriquiry, an Uruguayan layman who is the under-secretary of the Pontifical
Council for the Laity, elegized Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Buenos Aires,
Bergoglio has become the most authoritative personality, a moral spiritual point
of reference, for the reconstruction of the nation. What strikes you above all
is his testimony as a good pastor, which unites a strong capacity for governance
with unusual gifts of humility.”
66, who was a trained chemist before deciding to become a priest, does have a
lot going for him. He’s seen as an accomplished intellectual, having studied
theology in Germany. His leading role during the recent Argentine crisis has
burnished his reputation as a voice of conscience, and has also made him a
potent symbol of the costs globalization can impose on the Third World.
Bergoglio drew high marks when he replaced Cardinal Edward Egan of New York
during the October 2001 Synod of Bishops as general relator.
On the other
hand, Bergoglio is a Jesuit, which automatically creates reservations on a
couple of levels. One is that Jesuits are not supposed to receive ecclesiastical
honors, and there is some resistance within the community to the idea of a
Jesuit pope. Moreover, the Jesuits aren’t exactly wildly popular in some Church
circles these days, given their image as the loyal opposition to John Paul II.
Some cardinals might shrink from voting for a Jesuit, especially a Latin
American, given memories of the bitter struggles over liberation theology.
Jesuits, Bergoglio’s reputation is mixed. He was appointed provincial in Buenos
Aires in 1973, which means that he enjoyed the respect of his brothers. On the
other hand, Jesuit sources in Rome say he was a divisive leader. At a time when
many Latin American Jesuits were moving aggressively into the social apostolate,
he insisted on a more traditional, spiritual approach, demanding that Jesuits
continue to staff parishes and act as chaplains rather than moving into “base
communities” and political activism. Eventually he stepped down as superior in
today close to the Comunione e Liberazione movement. Twice he has
presented Spanish editions of the books of the movement’s founder, Fr. Luigi
Giussani, at Argentina’s major annual book fair.
comes across as traditional theologically, but open and compassionate.
“Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been
caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord,”
Bergoglio said at the 2001 book fair. “I beg the theologians who are present not
to turn me in to the Sant’Uffizio or the Inquisition; however, forcing things a
bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of
the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.”
One high-ranking Vatican official, who insists that he
predicted the election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978, today says he believes
Bergoglio will be the next pope. Time will tell.
* * *
I had the awful experience this week of watching someone
die, although I didn’t realize until later what I had seen.
An Italian laborer named Costantino Marchionni, 53, was
working in front of St. Peter’s Basilica on Sept. 1 when he fell 10 and a half
feet after some scaffolding collapsed. A co-worker named Salvatore Campolattano,
30, was also hurt in the incident and is expected to recover within a couple of
months. Marchionni, however, never regained consciousness and died roughly an
The men were working on the platform in front of St.
Peter’s for the pope’s Wednesday General Audience.
Any death under such circumstances is tragic. As an
American, I was especially struck that Marchionni perished in a work-related
accident on Sept. 1, observed in the United States as Labor Day.
I was walking across St. Peter’s Square that morning on
my way to the Press Office when I heard a loud boom. I turned to look and saw
the collapsed scaffolding, but it wasn’t immediately clear from a distance that
anyone had been hurt, so I went on my way. When I exited a half-hour later I
could see several ambulances on the steps on the basilica, so I went to see what
I could see Marchionni, and at the time I believed he
would recover because his body was moving as it lay on the ground. Medical
personnel were giving him first aid. After a few minutes I returned to my
I had realized the situation was serious when the
Sostituto, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, arrived on the scene. Sandri is the
number three official in the Vatican, the man in charge of day-to-day church
affairs, and his presence signaled that something grave had happened. Later in
the day, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement
confirming that Marchionni had died.
John Paul II remembered Marchionni during his Sept. 3
“I would like to remember, together with you, our dear
brother Costantino Marchionni, who died last Monday while he was working,” the
“We raise to the Lord our prayer for him and for those
who mourn him, as well as for all the victims of job accidents,” he added. "Requiem
aeternam dona eis, Domine!” (“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.”)
Marchionni lost his 80-year-old mother last year, and
does not leave behind a wife or children. Italian labor unions have called for a
review of safety procedures in the wake of the accident. In the meantime, I’ll
be praying for Marchionni and for the safety of all who labor.
* * *
My colleague Gunther Simmermacher, editor of the South
African Catholic weekly The Southern Cross, has called my attention to an
18-part series written for his newspaper by the emeritus Archbishop Denis Hurley
of Durban, recalling his experiences of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a
fascinating series of vignettes.
It can be found here:
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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