A little while back, John Allen had a piece called “Only Benedict could go to China”. His basic argument was
Precisely because of those credentials [viz. “Benedict XVI is unquestionably a “conservative”], however, the old American axiom that “only Nixon could go to China” fits Benedict XVI like a glove. Because of who Benedict is and what he represents, every once in a while he can do things a more “liberal” pontiff either wouldn’t dare or couldn’t pull off without splitting the church apart.
I think that applies perfectly to the latest announcement that Benedict will go to Assisi for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s famous 1986 Interfaith Peace gathering in the home town of St Francis. There have been various criticisms, including that of the leader of the SSPX. Fr Z. even admits that he is cool about such “ecumenical” occasions (nb. he is using the term “ecumenical” incorrectly here; those of us in the “business” make a clear distinction between ecumenism, which is about seeking unity among Christians, and interfaith relations, which is about getting along with everybody else).
The 2011 meeting at Assisi will not be a replay of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an event in which I participated officially when it was here in Melbourne in 2009. Much that the latter event achieved was good and wholesome, but there were certainly aspects of it with which I could not agree. There is something called the “Interfaith Movement” which is decidedly syncretistic, but that is entirely different from the aims and methodology of Catholic interreligious dialogue. Between 1986 and 2011 we have the 2000 statement “Dominus Iesus”, which was authored by Joseph Ratzinger (inter alia) and signed by the same pope who inaugurated the Assisi gatherings, Ven. (soon to be Blessed) John Paul II. There is much about the 1986 gathering that could be criticised in hindsight, but, also in hindsight, we must interpret 1986 through the prism of “Dominus Iesus”.
One thing that I have noted about the Catholic Church is that it is confident of its own identity and faith. So confident, that it is not afraid to encounter people of other religions on a level playing field (the field may be level, even if the teams aren’t!). There is little argument today – and in fact was little argument in 1986 – that the Roman Pontiff is the foremost religious leader in the world today. No other religious leader carries the clout that he does. Only the Pope could call such a meeting and expect the world’s religious leaders to come at his invitation. Given that he has such clout, it is clear that Papa Benny intends to use it for the good of humanity as a whole and the welfare of the Christian family in particular. Calling a gathering of world religious leaders (and all people of good will) to pray for peace and religious freedom is precisely the sort of thing that Catholic interreligious dialogue is all about.
There is no reason to fear this new meeting in Assisi. On the contrary, there is everything to hope for it and from it. It is a good thing.
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