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The Spirit of Assisi: On Praying With Other Religions | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 16, 2006

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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 motions.

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 human principles.

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 a theory.

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 "relativism."

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 attaining it."

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 humanly possible.

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

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

Visit 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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