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 The Word From Rome

September 5, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 2

global perspective



"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."

From the statement of key principles for "The Pluralist Model: A Multi-religious Exploration"
a conference by the Department of Theology of Birmingham University, UK, Sept. 6-9

The battle over "theology of pluralism"; Pope John Paul I and the pill; keeping an eye on the conclave; Archbishop Denis Hurley reminisces about Vatican II


If 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.

In other words, Christianity can be a true religion, but not the true religion. 

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.

The 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?

The 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.

Those 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.

Of 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?

The 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 Christian tradition.

It 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).

In a 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 good.”

One 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.

In 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 away either.

The 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 worrisome.

The pluralist model of religion
Key principles

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 religions.

3.                  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.

4.                  The world’s religions share many basic values, for example, love, compassion, justice, honesty, treating others as one wishes to be treated oneself.

5.                  There are however forms of religion, including some based in the great world religions, which are misused for purposes contrary to those values.

6.                  Each person must follow his/her conscience. Therefore the possibility of conversion is part of the human right to religious freedom.

7.                  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.

8.                  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.

9.                  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.

10.              Within this dialogue a paramount need is for the religions to heal any historic antagonisms between them.

* * *

If I 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.

Luciani, who 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 conscience.”

In January 1965, Luciani gave a retreat for the pastors of the Veneto in which he told the following story:

“A Capuchin 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.’

“I assure 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 recording.

“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 encyclical appeared.

“I confess 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.

The Pope “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 purity.”

As late as 1974, after he had become patriarch of Venice, Luciani publicly acknowledged how difficult this teaching was to enforce.

“Among couples 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.”

The story invites a historical “what if?” If Luciani’s papacy had endured longer than 33 days, how would he have handled the birth control issue?

It’s virtually 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.

Whether that would have been good or bad obviously depends upon one’s point of view.

* * *

Two 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 successor arose.

Here is Meisner’s response:

“The 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 pope.”

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.

If we 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.

 Guzman 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, Argentina.

“Cardinal 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.”

Bergoglio , 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.

Within the 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 1980.

Bergoglio is 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. 

The cardinal 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 hour later.

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 had happened.

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 office.

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 General Audience.

“I would like to remember, together with you, our dear brother Costantino Marchionni, who died last Monday while he was working,” the pope said.

“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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