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Sept. 8, 2006
Vol. 6, No. 2

John L. Allen Jr.

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Assisi inter-religious assembly marks 20th anniversary of John Paul's initiative; Evangelicals look to '10/40 window'; Opus Dei prelate to visit U.S. and Canada; The bishops' film critic; Benedict's Schülerkreis; Capuchins elect brother to Rome post


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All manner of seekers, Christian and not, have felt the tug of a pilgrimage to the birthplace of St. Francis in Assisi. Even by that eclectic standard, however, the group that assembled on October 27, 1986, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, was unique. It included rabbis in yamulkes and Sikhs in turbans, Muslims praying on thick carpets and a Zoroastrian kindling a sacred fire. Robert Runcie, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, exchanged pleasantries with the Dalai Lama, while Orthodox bishops with flowing beards chatted with Alan Boesak, the South African anti-apartheid activist and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The more than 200 religious leaders had not come to "pray together" -- that would be theologically problematic, since, according to Vatican officials, joint prayer presupposes agreement on the nature of the God being addressed -- but "to be together and pray."

In the context of the Cold War, the summit was a dramatic bit of symbolism in favor of peace. It was not, however, universally popular.

Traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre distributed flyers denouncing John Paul as an apostate for allegedly putting Catholicism on the same level as other religions. Two years later, when Lefebvre went into schism, he said he was acting to protect Catholicism from the "spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi." Fundamentalist U.S. Protestant Carl McIntire amplified Lefebvre by calling the Assisi gathering the "greatest single abomination in church history."

John Paul later called two other inter-religious summits in Assisi, in 1993 and 2002.

Concerns were even voiced from within the pope's own fold. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time the Vatican's doctrinal czar, was quoted in the Austrian press as stating, "This cannot be the model." a 2003 book, Ratzinger wrote that it is "indisputable that the Assisi meetings, especially in 1986, were misinterpreted by many people."

Flash forward to last Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 4-5, once again in Assisi, for the latest inter-religious assembly organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, this one marking the 20th anniversary of John Paul's initiative. It brought together more than 150 religious leaders from around the world. Since 1986, Sant'Egidio has held an annual inter-faith event, always appealing to "the spirit of Assisi."

During this year's edition, dozens of Muslims, Shintoists, Buddhists, and others spread out across Assisi to pray in various locations, and later came together for an evening procession for peace. The Shintoists, for example, used the garden of a Franciscan convent for their rituals.

If the "spirit of Assisi" lives, so do the new pope's concerns surrounding such inter-faith events.

Benedict XVI's message began with a ringing endorsement of John Paul's 1986 summit.

"His invitation for a choral witness to peace served to clarify, without any possibility of misunderstanding, that religion can only be a source of peace," Benedict said. "We need this 'education to peace' more than ever, especially looking at the new generations."

At the same time, Benedict reiterated the need for clear borders.

"It's important not to forget the attention that was given [in 1986] to ensuring that an inter-religious meeting not lend itself to syncretistic interpretations, founded on a relativistic conception," the pope said.

"It's obligatory to avoid inopportune confusions. When we come together for prayer for peace, the prayer must unfold according to the distinct paths that pertain to the various religions," Benedict said. "The convergence of diverse representatives should not give the impression of a concession to that relativism which negates the very meaning of truth, and the possibility of taking it in."

Benedict noted that 2006 is also the 800th anniversary of the conversion of St. Francis, and said that despite the universal appeal of Francis, he was grounded in an unswerving Christian faith.

"It's important to remember, in order not to betray his message, that it was his radical choice for Christ that gave him the key to understand the fraternity to which all persons are called, and in which even inanimate creatures -- from 'brother son' to 'sister moon' -- in some sense also participate," the pope said.

Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant'Egidio, was asked at a Sept. 5 press conference if Benedict was "suffocating the spirit of Assisi while preserving its letter." In reply, Riccardi said he's been around the block on the issue of inter-religious dialogue for more than twenty years.

"I think I understand the logic of messages and texts from the church on the subject," Riccardi said. "When I defend what the pope said, it's not merely because I'm obliged to defend it. Relativism was a concern not just of Benedict but also of John Paul II."

Riccardi pointed out that Ratzinger had attended the 2002 event. On that day, participants were transported from Rome to Assisi on the rarely-used papal train (dubbed by the Italian press the "peace train.") Riccardi said he spoke with Ratzinger on the train back to Rome, and that Ratzinger said the summit "had gone very well, he was very happy with it."

"I would rather say that Ratzinger the theologian is reformulating the spirit of Assisi," Riccardi said of Benedict's message for the Sant'Egidio event, and his general approach to exchanges with other religions.

Benedict still wants conversation with other religions, but also greater safeguards against the dangers of religious relativism, Ricardi suggested.

"The pope knows we have to dialogue," Riccardi said, pointing especially to Benedict's desire for exchanges with Muslims.

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Prior to his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger treated the issue of prayer with other religions in the 2003 book Truth and Tolerance. Ratzinger said it would be wrong to reject such prayer "completely and unconditionally". He distinguished between "multi-religious" prayer, when followers of different religions pray in the same context but separately, and "inter-religious" prayer, when they pray together.

For the former, he said, two conditions have to be met:

  • "Such multi-religious prayer cannot be the normal form of religious life, but can only exist as a sign in unusual situations in which, as it were, a common cry for help rises up, stirring the hearts of men, to stir also the heart of God."
  • "A careful explanation of what happens here and what does not happen is most important … [it] must make clear that there is no such thing as a common concept of God or belief in God … What is happening must be so clear in itself, and to the world, that it does not become a demonstration of that relativism through which it would nullify its own significance."

As for inter-religious prayer, Ratzinger expressed strong doubt that it's theologically possible.

In the first place, he said, we would have to have the same concept of God -- "any confusion of a personal and an impersonal understanding, of God and the gods, must be excluded." Second, there would have to be agreement on the content of prayer, and here Ratzinger suggested the Lord's Prayer as a model. Finally, the whole thing would have to be arranged so as to make a "relativistic misinterpretation" impossible.

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It's worth noting that in the same essay, Ratzinger strongly criticized a 1998 document on inter-religious prayer from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, which was based on a July 1996 consultation in Bangalore, India, between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches.

That document, Ratzinger wrote, argued for inter-religious prayer under the heading of hospitality. Since Jesus urged Christians to receive hospitality from others, the document stated, we should also receive what is most precious to our neighbor, i.e., prayer and worship.

Anyone familiar with the New Testament, Ratzinger wrote, "can only rub his eyes in amazement at such an exegesis."

He quotes Luke 10:1-12, when Jesus sent out the 70 disciples, telling them to shake the dust of a town from their feet if it does not receive them. Refusal to receive the message, in other words, marks a clear break with the obligations of hospitality. To treat this passage as an invitation to shared prayer, Ratzinger said, "has nothing further in common with the Biblical text," and he adds that "we should be able to expect a little more by way of serious argument.

Overall, Ratzinger said the Bangalore document left him with "an unfortunate impression of superficiality and dilettantism."

Generally speaking, the head of one Vatican office does not criticize the work of another in public in quite so pointed a fashion. This is worth recalling, given that the Vatican official responsible for the Bangalore document was then-Monsignor Michael Fitzgerald, later promoted to archbishop when he took over from Cardinal Francis Arinze as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in 2002.

In February, Fitzgerald was removed from that job and sent to Cairo as the papal nuncio. Perhaps this is part of what Riccardi had in mind when he said Benedict is "reformulating" the "spirit of Assisi."

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At the end of the Sept. 4-5 event, participants issued a joint appeal for peace.

"No conflict is a matter of fate, and no war is ever natural," it said. "Religions never justify hatred and violence. Those using the name of God to destroy others move away from true religion."

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At the Sept. 5 news conference, Riccardi was asked about "reciprocity," meaning the insistence that majority Muslim states show the same respect for human rights and religious liberty as Muslim immigrants demand in Western nations.

Riccardi said he regards reciprocity as "a terrific thing," and said he believes European governments could press harder for reciprocity from Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Riccardi said he is mindful of something an African bishop once told him.

"If God were to practice reciprocity with us," Riccardi recalled the bishop saying, "then we'd all go straight to Hell."

Riccardi announced that next year's inter-faith meeting will be held in Naples, and will have a Mediterranean focus. He said that the idea of holding a Sant'Egidio conference in an Islamic nation such as Turkey, Morocco or Syria has come up, but each presents its own difficulties. In Syria, he said, Sant'Egidio would not be able to invite Jewish and Israeli participants.

Riccardi said Sant'Egidio has also considered holding one of its meetings in an African nation such as Mozambique, but doing so presents "enormous technical and financial problems."

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While Christians who move in the circles around Sant'Egidio may debate the right approach to other religions, Evangelicals who call themselves "Great Commission Christians" have no such hesitations. For them, explicit conversion to Jesus Christ is the name of the game.

The most determined movement in "Great Commission Christianity" today focuses upon what they call the "10/40 window," meaning a swath of the globe between 10 degrees latitude north of the equator and 40 degrees south of the equator. It includes Northern Africa and the Middle East, India and China, representing the part of the world with the lowest percentage of Christians. Of the 56 countries in the 10/40 window, 44 are majority Muslim states.

Such "10/40" evangelists are a reminder that gatherings such as the one in Assisi this week, while fascinating in their own right, are not representative of the full range of Christian opinion.

"The claims of Jesus Christ are so exclusive that it's a narrow door," said Warren Larson, director of the Samuel Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. "Salvation is through Christ and his work on the Cross, not by remaining a Muslim."

I spoke in late August with Larson, who spent 23 years as a missionary along with his wife in a small Pakistani town.

Surveying the contemporary scene, where some analysts see the potential of a "clash of civilizations" in rising Islamic fundamentalism, Larson sees missionary opportunity.

"It's creating a fertile climate for conversion," he said.

Larson cited a 1995 study of 32 Muslim converts to Christianity, or "Muslim Background Believers," carried out by an international missionary body. Larson said it found that "the harshness of fundamentalism, the cruelty of the regime in Iran, and other things happening in the Muslim world" were important factors in their decision.

Though he would not offer numbers, Larson said that 10/40 missionary efforts are paying off among Muslims in places such as Iran, Western Africa, and Central Asia. He argued that disillusionment with the Islamic revolution in Iran has created a "growing movement" of Christian converts in that country. He pointed to the fact that there are now 60 Iranian evangelical churches in the United States, serving Iranians who have immigrated.

"Muslims never convert suddenly, easily, or without great deliberation given the cost," he said, referring to social ostracism and even death threats.

Larson enthusiastically endorsed the 10/40 campaign.

"In the end-time," he said, "God will bring more and more of these people to himself in these black parts of the world."

That, to be sure, is a vocabulary one did not hear in Assisi.

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Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, the prelate of Opus Dei, will be in the United States and Canada Sept. 12-28, visiting New York, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and Houston.

While the trip is billed as a routine pastoral visit, Echevarría's North American swing also amounts to a sort of victory following the The Da Vinci Code juggernaut, which went out with a whimper rather than a bang in May after the Ron Howard film was widely panned. (Writing in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane suggested that Opus Dei no longer needed corporal mortification -- just buy tickets and settle in for "2 and ½ hours of pain.")

Rather improbably, given the sinister way Opus Dei was depicted, all the hoopla surrounding the book and movie seems to have had broadly positive effects for the group. As part of this picture, many Opus Dei officials expect to see a "Da Vinci Code bump" in membership.

One example is Bob Zulandi, 61, who works for an energy development company in Oakton, Virginia, putting together deals for the production of natural gas. A cradle Catholic, Zulandi told me in early September that he picked up The Da Vinci Code in 2004, never having heard of Opus Dei before.

He recalled thinking, "This is nuts … there can't really be a group like this."

"I got curious," Zulandi said. "I wanted to know what this group does, what it's all about, so I went to the Opus Dei website." http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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At the time, Zulandi was in New York staying with a daughter at the Sloan-Kettering Institute. (She later passed away). Zulandi discovered from the web site that Opus Dei's American headquarters is in New York, and decided to drop by.

"I was in search of meaning," Zulandi said. "But I was still pretty wary when I approached them."

Zulandi said he met an Opus Dei priest who seemed "a regular guy," and he began attending evenings of recollection sponsored by the group. He continued attending activities when he returned to Northern Virginia, and in June 2006 he "whistled," which is Opus Dei's internal lingo for the decision to join.

Zulandi said Opus Dei's emphasis on "the sanctification of work" gave his professional activity "more meaning than I had ever perceived … that was terribly appealing."

Zulandi said putting together complicated deals "with a lot of money on the table" means some "hard-nosed" negotiations, and it can be difficult to find spiritual significance.

"You're dealing with so many third parties -- lawyers, insurance companies, analysts, and they all claim to add value, but a lot of the time what they're really doing is billing hours," he said. "In the last couple of years, Opus Dei has helped me to put a different spin on it. We have to be charitable to each other, not bleed each other dry. There's no point in just putting a notch in the belt that's of no benefit to anyone."

Marc Carroggio, spokesperson for Opus Dei in Rome, said that he has no way of knowing how many Zulandis there are out there, but said that so far 8-10 people in Opus Dei centers have told him of a new member whose first contact was The Da Vinci Code. Carroggio said his guess is that there may be "dozens" rather than "hundreds" of suchDa Vinci Code converts.

For a group whose worldwide membership is just 85,000, however, that still makes Dan Brown a gift that keeps on giving.

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My wife Shannon is one of those film buffs upon whom Hollywood depends. Her idea of a satisfying weekend almost always involves a film, with the question of which film often being secondary. Thus it was that recently I was introduced to a new documentary called "This Film is Not Yet Rated," and discovered an unexpected Catholic angle.

An unconventional documentary in the tradition of Michael Moore, the film offers a polemic against the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America. Filmmaker Kirby Dick charges that the ratings are arbitrary, that they treat sex as more offensive than violence, that they're biased in favor of major studio productions at the expense of independent films, and that they are doled out by a shadowy band of anonymous raters.

As part of his exposé, Dick discovers that Protestant and Catholic "clergy" sit on the MPAA's appeals panel. He makes reference to the long history of antagonism between Hollywood and the churches, including various attempts over the years at censorship. At the end, Dick flashes the name of the Catholic delegate on the screen: Harry Forbes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For the record, Forbes is not "clergy." He's a former New York drama critic and executive for the Public Broadcasting Service, who came to work for the American bishops as their in-house film critic in 2004.

I spoke to Forbes this week, who said that in reality neither he (nor his colleague David DiCerto, who sometimes attends meeting in his stead) has any voice in the MPAA appeals process.

"We observe, we don't contribute to the conversation," said Forbes, head of the bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting "We're not asked for an opinion. That might influence the vote, and we don't have a vote."

The point of his presence, Forbes said, is to monitor the process and to report back to the bishops about how it's working.

While the appeals panel meets eight to ten times a year, Forbes said, someone from the bishops' conference attends no more than five, given the expense and time involved.

Physically, Forbes said, he sits silently during the screenings, and remains silent during the discussion that follows. If he speaks, it's chit-chat during coffee breaks having nothing to do with the film under consideration.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, outgoing spokesperson for the American bishops, said the bishops' participation goes back to the late 1960s, when the movie industry saw a ratings system as a way to fend off calls for external censorship, and wanted religious groups to be involved to show concern for their sentiments.

Forbes said his role with the MPAA shouldn't set off free speech alarms. If anything, he said, it speaks to the high regard the Catholic church has for cinema.

"In general, Catholic film criticism produces some of the most literate, intelligent pieces about film out there," Forbes said, stressing he was not just talking about his office, but the wider range of Catholic media. "It's very nuanced -- people are usually surprised."

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Benedict XVI's weekend meeting with his Schülerkreis, or circle of formal doctoral students, in Castelgandolfo came and went without the major new statement on evolution that some had rather breathlessly anticipated.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, an American Jesuit who studied under Ratzinger in Germany in the late 1970s, told the Reuters news agency that the group did not talk about creationism or intelligent design, but kept the discussion at a more theoretical level.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, another Ratzinger protégée who spoke at the meeting, announced that its proceedings will be published in German in November. (This will mark the first time that papers from one of the Schülerkreis meetings will be published).

Prior to the Sept. 1-3 session, Schönborn delivered two lectures on the theory of evolution in Rimini, Italy, and Alpbach, Austria. In effect, he said the church's problem is not with evolution as a scientific theory but as a philosophy that leaves no room for God.

The Catholic Church, he said in Rimini, does not support "creationism."

Peter Schuster, president of the Austrian Academy of Science and an advocate of evolutionary theory, who spoke at the Schülerkreis meeting, told L'Avvenire afterwards that it was a "very calm, and above all, very free" discussion.

Schuster said Benedict XVI made it clear that he's interested in the relationship between the church and the sciences, especially biology. Schuster said that criticisms of evolution at Castelgandolfo generally had to do with misapplying it in other fields, such as social theory.

Schuster said he and Schönborn spoke at length, including on the plane back to Vienna. Schuster said Schönborn has shifted his position slightly from a year ago, when an opinion piece by him in the New York Times raised doubts about the church's stance on evolution.

It's more clear, Schuster said, that Schönborn is willing to accept the results of science, but he reserves the right to interpret those results in the light of faith.

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It is no secret to regular readers of this column that I have a special affection for the Capuchins, who had the Christian charity to put up with me in grade school and high school in Hays, Kansas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (No further testimony should be required for an eventual position attesting to their heroic virtue).

One noteworthy aspect of the Capuchin character is the way they deal with disappointment. In 2002, the Midwestern province of the Capuchins elected a lay friar, Brother Bob Smith of Milwaukee, as their provincial, a result which was confirmed by the Capuchin leadership in Rome. The election was annulled by the Vatican, however, on the grounds that a layman cannot exercise authority over priests.

Had this been another community, one could imagine a media cause célèbre driven by theological critique and public expressions of anguish. Instead, the Capuchins lived to fight another day.

This week, the Capuchins elected another lay friar, Brother Mark Schenk, to serve for six years on the order's General Council in Rome. Presumably the fact that he is not the order's superior will avoid raising Vatican hackles, but it is nevertheless a position of real authority. Schenk, previously the provincial vicar of the Province of Mid-America, is believed to be the first lay brother ever to serve in this capacity.

His election speaks as loudly as Smith's about the Capuchin commitment to treating members of the order as equals, ordained or not.

By not waging war over the Smith case, by the way, the Capuchins deftly avoided making him too hot to handle. That allowed Archbishop Timothy Dolan to name Smith the top education official in the Milwaukee archdiocese in 2004 without political complications.

As a footnote, Schenk is a graduate of the same Capuchin high school I attended, Thomas More Prep in western Kansas. By all accounts, he did not represent the same via crucis for the faculty that I managed to offer, and one prays that will be the case in his new role as well.

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