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The Spirit of Assisi: On Praying With Other Religions | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 16, 2006
A puzzling issue that arises today within circles concerned
with the consistency and integrity of Catholicism has to do with the claim of
Catholicism to be the true revelation of God to man. The claim is said to be
un-ecumenical, culturally bound to one civilization, or even "arrogant." Why
cannot there be a kind of parliament of all religions in which they agree to
"live and let live"? No missionary zealotry. Everyone worships the same God by
different ways anyhow. Why bother when, in this view, everyone ends up in the
same place? It really does not matter what you hold, just so you hold it, as
they say, "sincerely."
We have departments of "religion," not "theology." And the theology we do have is
considered to be "scientific," as the Pope noted in the Regensburg Lecture.
That is, it is based on the assumption that we can investigate by methods of
science only the deeds and sayings of this historical Jesus, namely, what we
can find in documents and tradition. Our methods reveal that Christ is nothing
more than a prophet and a fine, exemplary man. Certainly they do not and cannot
tell us that He was the Son of God or divine. Thus, we should "respect"
everything, "tolerate" everything. Religion is a sort of generalized
agreeableness. Nothing in it is really worth fighting for or dying for,
certainly not over whether a few ideas are accurately stated or not. All forms
of worship are really the same thing under slightly different formulations and
Several years ago, when John Paul II called a general prayer
service in Assisi, not a few thought that he was showing signs of this kind of
religious relativism. No doubt we are puzzled when we see all those
representatives of the various religions together, wearing their colorful garb,
with the Pope or his representative gathered together in their midst. They seem
to be "praying" to the "same" God. It looks very much like the Catholic Church
has finally come around to the view of a religious parliament of man. All we
need to do is build on this common denominator basis to form an international
religious branch of the United Nations. There, by law, all matters of religious
controversy would be settled democratically, as it were. The Pope could be a
kind of general spokesman for them.
On the twentieth anniversary (September 2, 2006) of John
Paul II's Inter-religious Prayer Meeting for Peace in Assisi,
Benedict XVI addressed a letter to the local bishop of Assisi commemorating the prayer
initiative (L'Osservatore Romani, 13
September). The letter makes an interesting read. The idea of members of
different religions praying together is not forgotten. Rightly stated, it is a
good idea. But what is the right statement? Benedict recalls that the most significant
event of the past twenty years is "the fall of the Communist-inspired regimes
in Eastern Europe." He does not mention John Paul's basic contribution to the
crisis of the Communist regimes.
However, Pope Ratzinger does note that the division into two
opposing political blocks preparing for war did cease. Hopes for peace were
rife. Now, without fear of total war, world relations could develop under a
"common international law inspired by respect for the needs of truth, justice
and solidarity." The logic of this hope was that Communism's proving itself
unworkable left the world open to a revival of a peaceful world on classic
But it did not happen. "The third millennium opened with
scenes of terrorism and violence that show no signs of abating." Something few
expected rose to claim hegemony in the place of Communism. The Pope next
acknowledges that we may think "religious differences are causes of instability
or threats to the prospect of peace." Certainly, in light of the religious
persuasions of most terrorists, reasons to think this abound. In this light,
Benedict remarks that John Paul's initiative for prayer now seems like
"prophecy." The implication seems to be that while it was rather difficult to
pray with "atheists," it is possible to pray with Muslims.
The Pope is most concerned that religion's potential
contribution to peace is now being questioned. John Paul II wanted to show
"with no possibility of confusion that religion must be a herald of peace." One
must wonder what exactly is meant here. It cannot be rationally held that no
actual religions have justified the used of violence to achieve their ends.
Benedict himself refers to this issue in his Regensburg Lecture. What seems to
be meant is rather that when a religion appears to justify arbitrary violence,
it must be rejected as a false religion. Only true religions are heralds of
peace. This is a deft but delicate explanation.
Starting from the position that, in differing ways, men can
know God's existence, all men and women can be viewed as brothers and sisters.
This is the initial basis the Pope provides as to why religious representatives
can pray together. "It is not legitimate for anyone to espouse religious
difference as a presupposition or pretext for an aggressive attitude toward
other human beings." This attitude is what the Pope considers initially as
common to all religions whatever their differences, not that they need to have
a theory of creation to come to this conclusion. Aristotle came to it without such
The Pope next acknowledges that, in history, we have seen
"religious wars." He then proposes a distinction by which he hopes to save the
proposition that "religion cannot cause war": "Such demonstrations of violence
(wars) cannot be attributed to religion as such but to the cultural limitations
with which it is lived and developed in time." On this slender basis that what
causes religion sometimes to foster violence in its own cause is cultural, we
can say that "when the religious sense reaches maturity it gives rise to a
perception in the believer that faith in God, Creator of the universe and
Father of all, must encourage relations of universal brotherhood among human
beings." There are "mature" and "immature" senses of this Fatherhood of God and
brotherhood of men. It seems difficult to explain all violence stemming from
religion on this basis.
All religions, nonetheless, profess a close relation between
the existence of God and proper ethical relationships. The Old Testament has a
teaching of love of all men. The New Testament expands this notion. Christ died
for all of humanity. "Thus God demonstrates that his nature is Love." I take it
that the Pope implies that other religions contain explanations of their
relations to all men in terms of ethical conduct.
But what does this have to do with all religions praying
together? Here we begin to notice some careful distinctions. First, we
acknowledge "the value of prayer in building peace." Peace has so many factors
that must come together. It must begin in the hearts of men. "Moreover, the
human heart is the place where God intervenes." This emphasis on the inner life
of each person means that we also look to the "vertical" relation to God, not
just the "horizontal " relation to one another. John Paul II even wanted
fasting and pilgrimage along with prayer or as a form of prayer. He said in
1986 that "prayer entails conversion of heart on our part." In the history of
religion, this is no doubt a very Christian approach.
The value of prayer was testified to by example at a meeting
of representatives of various religions. This praying together in each one's
own respective style visibly witnessed to the fact that prayer united; it did
not divide. This endeavor also depends on friendship, reciprocal appreciation,
"and dialogue between people of different cultures and religions." We need this
spirit even more now. Why? "Sentiments of hatred and vengeance have been
inculcated in numerous young people in those parts of the world marked by
conflicts in ideological contexts where the seeds of ancient resentment are
cultivated and their souls prepared for future violence." The Pope, alas, does
not specify more exactly where this preparation might take place. He probably
suspects it is not necessary.
Yet, John Paul's initiative, this "spirit of Assisi," could
be "misunderstood." How so? First of all, this or any such prayer meeting
should not "lend itself to syncretist interpretation founded on a relativistic
concept." And what is a "syncretist interpretation?" It means that what was
going on was a filtering out of common beliefs or prayers acceptable to
everyone while dropping what is distinctive of each particular religion. This
result, which many in the parliament of religion school desire, is not what is
going on here. John Paul II himself was very clear on this point. The
representatives are not at Assisi to "negotiate our faith convictions." More
importantly, the differences in religion cannot be settled if, as their
purpose, all agree on a "common earthly project which would surpass them all."
Nor could it be founded on the thesis that all religious beliefs are based on
Benedict next affirms that he agrees with this position of
his predecessor. Inter-religious dialogue is not based on a prior position that
no religion is true. It has to be based on the position that the
representatives of each religion hold what they maintain to be true. That is
what there is to talk about on some common basis. If they cannot agree, they
cannot agree. But they still might agree to pray together as a sign that they
ought not to use religion for violence. "Like us Christians, they (other
religious leaders) know that in prayer it is possible to have a special
experience of God and to draw from it effective incentive for dedication to the
cause of peace."
This position too can still cause "inappropriate
conclusions." What the Pope says is very precise. "Therefore, even when we are
gathered together to pray for peace, the prayer must follow the different uses proper
to the various religions." That is, the Jew is supposed to pray as a Jew, the
Hindu as a Hindu, the Muslim as a Muslim, the Catholic as a Catholic. I am not
supposed to pretend, either in private or in public, that I am a Muslim or a
Baptist when I pray, nor are they to pretend they are Catholics. "The
convergence of differences must not convey an impression of surrendering to
that relativism which denies the meaning of truth itself and the possibility of
Benedict identifies John Paul II's call to prayer at Assisi
a "daring and prophetic initiative." Assisi, the home of Francis, was the place
to try it out. Many look on Francis as a kind of humanitarian who loved animals
and the poor. Benedict does not deny the human attractiveness of Francis,
something Chesterton remarked on in his famous biography of Francis. This human
attractiveness may in fact be why representatives of other religions are there.
But for Francis himself, his real message flowed out of his inner relation to
Christ: "It was Christ's radical decision that provided him with a key to
understanding the brotherhood to which all people are called, and in which
inanimate creatures--from 'brother sun' to 'sister moon'--also in a certain
way participate." What the Pope implies is that even Francis would not have
seen the humanness of our kind if he were not first devoted to Christ.
Clearly, our private prayers should lead to some pondering about what is
Calling together in a certain place--that special place of
Assisi--representatives of the various religions simply to pray together is not
intended to be a juridical body or even a forum for discussion. This Pope has
long recognized unreasonable religion cannot be religion. And prayer to God
cannot make it so. But he also affirms that modern scientific method cuts
itself from the deep longings and appreciation of human things found in the
great religions. Something beyond politics exists in this world. The mere fact
that the religions pray together is a first step. When they pray, they are to
pray as they believe. The question of the right way and of the right
understanding of God and His will for us remains. It is precisely this issue,
as both John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted, that was to be kept for its own
consideration and resolution. No religion, including Catholicism, can avoid
asking itself about these fundamental things.
The whole import of the Church's modern insistence on
peaceful dialogue implies that both praying one's own prayers and frankly
discussing one's beliefs with the purpose of knowing the truth are in order.
The issue of religion approving violence as part of religious belief, then, is
both a practical and a theoretical issue. John Paul's "prophetic" proposal for
a prayerful "spirit of Assisi" turns out in retrospect to be directed to the
most pressing problem of our time. No one thought twenty years ago that
Communism would fall rather soon. Few today thinks the problem of Islamic
violence will go away anytime soon. Perhaps this is why we first pray together.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Dialogue Is Never Enough | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope
Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Pope John Paul II resources available from Ignatius Press
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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