A troubling legacy for interfaith relations

April 24, 2005|By The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski

POPE BENEDICT XVI steps into the papacy with a record far more extensive and well-known than most previous popes. Aspects of that legacy will cast a shadow over his pontificate unless he takes concrete steps to erase them.

I speak particularly about the document Dominus Iesus, for which he was primarily responsible. It caused tremendous concern within the interfaith movement and uncertainty within the wider interreligious dialogue. Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000, "concerns the role of Christ and his church in the salvation of people who do not share Christian faith," according to The National Catholic Weekly.

A decade or so before that document, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a speech regarding the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian churches. He appeared to be moving away from the vision of Vatican II, in which the other Christian churches were, for the first time, regarded as integral to the full definition of the church. Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, who was head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, afterward insisted it was not what Vatican II taught.

The vision of Dominus Iesus is very similar to that presented by Cardinal Ratzinger a decade earlier. Ecumenical and inter-religious leaders such as Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, a former head of the pontifical council, Archbishop Walter Kasper and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald tried their best to overcome the deep disappointment of many Protestant and Orthodox Christian leaders over this document. Their basic objection was that it seemed to render the non-Catholic Christian churches as once again peripheral to the full meaning of the church from the Catholic perspective rather than the integral vision promoted by Vatican II.

In his homily to the cardinals after his election, Pope Benedict did commit his papacy to reach out to all religions. But there are still wounds within the Christian community over Dominus Iesus that will have to be healed if the shadow of this document is to vanish. It is hoped that he will move quickly to follow up on his homily so that trust in the ecumenical relationship can be restored.

Pope Benedict also comes on the papal scene with some negatives regarding interreligious relations. For example, his comments about predominantly Muslim Turkey's entry into the European Union as a threat to Christianity received a great deal of negative reaction and have caused uncertainty among Muslims committed to dialogue with the church. Also, his disturbing statements about Buddhism - he called it an "autoerotic spirituality" in a 1997 interview with a French newspaper - have raised red flags.

When Dominus Iesus was issued, there also was apprehension in the Jewish community regarding its implications for the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, which had made so much progress because of the leadership of Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Cassidy and Archbishop Kasper pushed the point that this document was not applicable to Jews. But without a clear statement on this from Cardinal Ratzinger, some uncertainty has remained.

On the Jewish-Catholic front, Pope Benedict does bring a more positive legacy to his papacy. He has written positively in recent years on the continued role of Jews and Judaism in the process of human salvation. And he has endorsed the 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission's document on Jews and their Scriptures in the New Testament, which contain statements about the validity of Jewish messianic expectations that represent genuine breakthroughs in Catholic thinking.

The pope also will face major challenges in revitalizing the church's social commitment in this 40th year of Vatican II's Declaration on the Church in the Modern World. He will need to seek an enhanced role for women in the church and find a way to bring religious values to bear on society.

Finally, Pope Benedict will need to find ways to engage all Catholics in a dialogue about the challenges facing the church. This must start with a reversal of the centralization of authority in the Vatican that developed in the latter years of Pope John Paul's papacy.

The Vatican II Council's vision of shared authority with the bishops of the world and consultation with clergy and lay leadership must be restored to primacy. Cardinal Ratzinger was the architect of that centralization, so he may find it difficult to restore a balance.

I hope he will continue to travel despite his advanced years. But papal trips ought to involve far more opportunities for consultation with local leaders than was the case in Pope John Paul's later days.

Pope Benedict is someone of considerable knowledge and demonstrated graciousness. It is hoped that with the help of the bishops and the global Catholic community, he will be able to transform the church and have a constructive impact on the world at large during his papacy.

The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski is director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

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