Every year since 1986 the Franciscans in Assisi, Italy hold an interfaith gathering. At that first gathering Pope John Paul II met and prayed with representatives of several faith traditions, spurring vocal criticism from then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
“This cannot be the model!” an indignant Ratzinger told a German newspaper at the time. A year later he said the meeting left the impression that all religions are equally valid, which is “the definitive rejection of truth.” [...] Ratzinger, along with many conservatives, laid much of the blame for John Paul’s splashy 1986 interfaith meeting at Assisi at the feet of the Franciscans, who they considered too liberal politically as well as ecumenically.”
The event has become something of a political football within Catholicism, loved by the Catholic left, and often reviled by the Catholic right. In 2005, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, most likely spurred by false rumors spread by an Italian journalist saying the Franciscans allowed “African animists to slaughter chickens on the altar of the basilica of Santa Chiara, and American redskins to dance in the church,” (a rumor shamelessly repeated by Rod Dreher) removed autonomy from the Franciscans of Assisi. This is unfortunate since rumors of horrendous desecrations were unfounded.
“In the interview, [Rev. Vincenzo] Coli acknowledged the criticism but defended the meetings. He denied Messori’s assertion that African animists sacrificed chickens on the altar near the tomb of Saint Clare, a contemporary of Saint Francis. Criticism of the Franciscans’ activities is a way of indirectly criticizing John Paul, he added…He said that meetings with members of other religions were not a sign of weakened faith, but a mark of mature, confident belief. “We can therefore be open to communication. Clashes are not necessary,” he said.”
But the outrage of Catholic traditionalists overcame reason all the same. Now, with the 25th anniversary of the gathering approaching, Benedict says he’ll be attending “as a pilgrim” and is calling for “all men of good will” to attend. This includes atheists. However, trying to avoid controversy, Vatican spokesmen have noted that the Pope will not be praying with non-Catholics, and indeed is doing his praying at a safe distance away.
“Pope Benedict XVI and representatives of the world’s major religions will make speeches and sign a common commitment to peace when they meet in Assisi in October, but they will not pray together, the Vatican said. In fact, Pope Benedict’s formal prayer service will be held at the Vatican the evening before the encounter Oct. 27 in Assisi with leaders of other Christian communities and representatives of the world’s main religions.”
This prayer firewall, which wasn’t initially noted, was very likely announced after traditionalist groups like the Society of St Pius X (who lack of canonical status) lashed out in criticism. Defenders of the Pope find themselves dealing with harsh criticisms, and are now trying to bolster the case for ecumenical relations between Catholics and non-Christians.
“The point is that to recognise that men and women of other religions should be respected, and that their spiritual search for a God they have not fully apprehended should be recognised, is in no way to deny the ultimate need for their conversion. Nearly everyone who becomes a Catholic is converted from some other religion, which has been for them a stepping-stone to the fullness of faith which is to be found only in the Catholic Church.”
The problem is that Benedict painted himself into this corner, he was vocal in his opposition to these meetings, he removed autonomy from the Franciscans in Assisi, and he has spent much of his reign bad-mouthing non-Christian faiths. Benedict is a Pope who predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic Church’s main enemy this century, that native populations were “silently longing” for conversion, and has repeatedly shown his scorn for modern Paganism. During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Assisi “as a pilgrim” after all that and not expect your right flank (which he has been wooing for years) to have conniptions.
The last 25 years have seen Catholicism’s theological conservatives smear the goals and initiatives of the Assisi interfaith meetings, setting back progress on relations between the Catholic Church and non-Christian faiths (incidents like this don’t happen in a vacuum). Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s religions have moved on, the Parliament of the World’s Religions openly welcoming all faiths without worry over who does and doesn’t pray together. Its 35 Trustees boasting three American Indians, four individuals in Hindu or Hindu-derived traditions, two Buddhists, and three modern Pagans (Andras Corban-Arthen, Phyllis Curott, and Angie Buchanan). If anything, this Benedict-approved Assisi meeting could be interpreted as an attempt to regain relevancy for the Catholic Church within the world of interfaith dialog. As for claims of “desecration” or “syncretism” in Assisi, I think Italian Pagans have an earlier claim for that particular outrage.