Large interfaith gatherings can often be fraught with long-simmering tensions, just ask the folks who put on the Parliament for the World’s Religions, but it is generally thought that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. That getting leaders and clergy of the major religions in the same room to find common ground and common understanding will bring dividends of lasting peace (or at least bring about greater tolerance). Yesterday, in Assisi, Italy the Catholic Church sponsored a massive interfaith gathering, the third such gathering to directly involve a sitting Pope (hence, “Assisi III” in Catholic circles), and the 25th anniversary of the first such meeting. In his address to the gathering, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that Christianity has used violence to achieve its ends, and that this is against the spirit of his faith.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature. The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family. For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God who put “suffering-with” (compassion) and “loving-with” in place of force. His name is “God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11). It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.”
Benedict has long been categorized as skeptical of interfaith efforts such as these, and famously criticized the first Assisi gathering, saying that it could lead to the impression that all faiths are valid. As a consequence, great pains were taken to avoid the impression of unified prayer at this event, and to assert that profound theological differences exist between the world’s faiths.
“In the 1960’s a theologian wrote (and I paraphrase as I can’t seem to find my copy of the work this morning), “Polytheism was half-right. It understood that God was immanent in the world. But, it missed the fact that God also transcends the world.” The theologian? Joseph Ratzinger of course. If one of the reasons to gather religious leaders of different faiths together was to focus on the first half, the part polytheists got right, that is well and good. But, for Benedict, we cannot neglect the other half, nor the fact that we Catholic Christians do not pray to the same God as our polytheist brothers.”
However, these measures weren’t enough for some Catholic traditionalists, who felt the very gathering together of religious leaders with the Pope was a blasphemy too far.
“…the very nature of a pan-religious event with representatives of the world, most of them pagan, is to foster religious indifferentism and religious relativism. Yet in the months leading up to the third major Assisi affair, we have been told repeatedly by Vatican officials that this latest manifestation of religious relativism will actually be an attack on religious relativism. That this manifestation of religious indifferentism will actually avoid religious indifferentism. Such a promise does not correspond to realty. The only way to avoid religious indifferentism in a pan-religious event is to not hold the event.”
Also unhappy with the event were agnostics and atheists, who, while invited to the event, were also singled out for criticism in the Pope’s address to the gathering.
The Vatican made a big publicity push out of Pope Benedict XVI’s personal initiative to invite atheists to this week’s interfaith dialogue at Assisi, Italy. It was supposed to be a day of reflection and dialogue, but Benedict XVI, with four atheists in attendance at his invitation, turned the meeting into yet another attack against atheists. “God’s absence”, the Pope argued, would lead to violence and even concentration camps, because denial of the Divine “corrupts men, deprives them of restraint, making them lose their humanity”. By contrast, said the Pope, use of violence in the name of religion would only be “an abuse of the Christian faith.” “Again and again the Pope reveals himself as an ‘atheophobe’” says Raffaele Carcano, head of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR), an International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) member organization. “His attacks against atheists, and his pretension to acquire agnostics, are a clear attempt to demonize the unbelief that’s increasingly spreading throughout the world, as acknowledged by the clearly worried Pope himself.”
It seems pretty clear from his statement that Benedict invited the four agnostics “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it seems like one step forward, two steps back, in regards to outreach with agnostics and atheists.
From a personal perspective, I applaud the spirit of Assisi, interfaith gatherings that have been taking place every year since 1986 and made this anniversary celebration possible. I also think that the current Pope will always be caught between too much and not enough. Any move towards reconciliation and understanding with non-Christians will be seen as a betrayal by traditionalists and hardliners, while his outreach toward bringing extremist groups like the Society of St Pius X back into full communion, and his track record of hostility towards indigenous and non-monotheistic faiths will ensure outreach half-measures bring as much criticism as praise. He is fundamentally limited by his very role and purpose, unable as an individual to bring healing while existing as the living embodiment of his faith. Any step too far in one direction would rupture the Catholic world, destroying a balance that has allowed it to become one of the world’s largest faiths.
So, what, if one believes in the power of interfaith work, can be done? I honestly believe that interfaith can’t be a top-down affair, at least not in today’s world. The heads of the dominant monotheisms are all immobilized by the same problems that haunt Benedict, while the non-monotheistic world faiths, being largely decentralized, have no single leader that guides them all. I think the best leaders and clergy can do is to simply allow interfaith work to happen, through projects like the Parliament for the World’s Religions, or the United Religions Initiative, so that the ground can shift under them. The absence of persecution for interfaith involvement may not seem like much, but is a core building block for future change. In 25 years a Cardinal hostile to interfaith became a Pope willing to meet and talk with the world’s faiths (albeit with restrictions), what will the next 25 years bring? If we allow the interfaith movement to grow, I’m hopeful we can see massive advances in my lifetime.
I also think that Pagan intrafaith (and intramovement) work needs to become a far more serious consideration. As a diverse movement of unique and individual faiths we have allowed too much to be taken for granted, and made far too many assumptions, threatening to create permanent divisions between natural allies. We need to stop building councils and start building Pagan gatherings that engage in the hard work of actually listening to one another. The days when any small handful of individuals could speak for our now-global movement are over. I think we are ready to emerge as a much-needed perspective in world events, but it can only happen if we respect our own nature and reality.