Archives For Benedict XVI

In a move that has shocked the world, Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, announced that he was abdicating his pontifical duties at the end of February.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Already, speculation is flying fast and furious about who will replace him, and what the legacy of this Pope will be. However, for modern Pagans, for indigenous religious communities, for interfaith advocates, for anyone who existed outside the boundaries of the dominant monotheisms, his legacy of exclusion and derision was all too clear. Here at The Wild Hunt we’ve been covering the career of the former Cardinal Ratzinger turned Pope Benedict almost from the beginning. Below is a sampling of that coverage, of a church under his leadership that has emphatically placed our faiths outside the boundaries of respect or dialog.

So let us place the pieces together, shall we? Banning energy healing, banning a book that suggests female pronouns for the Christian God, banning gender-neutral formulations of baptism ceremonies, turning access to contraception (for women) into a national referendum on religious freedom, and now, accusing the largest conference of American nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” and moving to bring them under control.  What do you get? In his book “The Ratzinger Report”, then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, made very clear his views as to what radical feminism was: “I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, oreven traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, andpredicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy. 

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.

Obviously not all Catholics are demon-haunted like Father Euteneuer, my father’s a staunch Catholic and I don’t think he believes I’m being controlled by various devils (right dad?), nor do most rank-and-file believers seem to be lining up for exorcisms because their teenager is reading “Twilight” or dabbling in Wicca. But this new zeal for exorcisms among certain priests and believers is troublesome, especially since Euteneur isn’t the first exorcist to list modern Paganism as a symptom of possession. Further, their zeal for occult battle is vindicated when prominent Bishops fear a looming “esoteric religiosity” due to the evils of secularism, and their Pope warns of “subjugation to occult powers” in his encyclical on love. When your religion isn’t merely criticized, or found to be in error, but actively demonized, seen as a pure evil to be cast out, there can be no real conversation or understanding. It sparks a dehumanizing process that can lead to violent outbursts against those who are “other”.

Catholicism is the best! Paganism is the worst! Rah! Rah! Rah! Some religions are more equal than others, right Benedict? I love the scare quotes around religion when describing syncretic, magical, and occult belief systems, it really drives home that the current leader of the Catholic Church doesn’t see us as even practicing a valid faith (even if in error). I suppose I should be flattered that the Pope considers us enough of a going concern that we’re mentioned in an encyclical, but I doubt it’s a first step towards understanding or tolerance. After all, if we aren’t “equal” to Catholicism (and other faiths that the Catholic Church deems “real” religions), maybe we don’t deserve the same religious freedoms and protections.

There are quite a few problems with Benedict’s argument, a primary one is the confusion of mythological stories with the living and breathing religion being practiced at the time. The assumption that Roman polytheists had no hope for a pleasant afterlife, when in fact they had a systematic afterlife that included judgment, rewards, and punishments, and the characterization of Roman religious ritual as a clockwork obligation that had no belief or passion. The bugbear here for Benedict is the specter of “philosophical rationalism”, which along with relativism leads (in his view) to all manner of horrors, including the destruction of Christianity (and which, in his view, drained the life out of Roman polytheism).

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, while addressing the Jewish community of Cologne, laid out exactly what the new party line on Christian involvement in the Holocaust was. “And in the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.” Comments like these conveniently sweep aside the long, long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people. As columnist James Carroll pointed out, to not mention Christian culpability when discussing National Socialism can be a dangerous enterprise in the longer run.

This is a pope that claimed indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers, who said at the recent Assisi gathering that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-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. This was the Papacy of a man afraid of a post-Christian future, one “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” as he put it. His stepping down can only be met with something akin to relief, albeit one tempered by the knowledge that his sucessor will no doubt follow in his footsteps.

I leave to others the monumental task of listing the many things this Pope will be held accountable for, but I wanted to use this moment to remind the world of how the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI had used its power and influence when it came to the religious world beyond monotheism. Catholicism is one of the most powerful religious bodies in the world, and power should always be judged by how it is used. For my part I think Pope Benedict XVI used his power in ways that were not always wise or good, and should the post-Christian shift really bring about a “neo-pagan” (as he would put it) world, I wonder if the Church will look back on him as a hero, or as a misguided, intolerant, man trying to shore up the power and privilege of a lost institution.

“I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.”Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker

For years now there’s been a quiet effort to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Catholic Church’s largest association of American women’s religious orders. Back in 2008 it was announced that the Vatican was undertaking two large-scale investigations of American nuns who may “have opted for ways that take them outside” of Church teachings (meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted a ban on Reiki ). Many American nuns didn’t take kindly to this display of authority, did not participate in the investigations, and in some cases spoke out about what was happening.

LCWR National Board

LCWR National Board

“Where did the impetus for the visitation and investigation originate? During a visit to Rome last April, several officers of the Leadership Conference put this question to Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of CICLSAL, and were informed that the initiative had been suggested by American members of the curia, some U.S. bishops, and some members of religious communities. Cardinal Rodé told LCWR officers that “concerns” had been expressed on issues ranging from living arrangements to the lack of new vocations to the public positions some women religious take on topics such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, and abortion.”

In short, too many American nuns were openly questioning Catholic doctrine on hot-button issues. Now, the results of one of those investigations has been released, it states that the LCWR has “serious doctrinal problems” and the conference will be “reformed” by a Cardinal and two Bishops.

“The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” [...] “I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.”

While this decision may have shocked some American nuns, the writing was on the wall for some time that a crackdown on their autonomy and spiritual authority was coming. Last year, the US Conference of Bishops accused Catholic theologian and nun Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson of violating church doctrine in her 2007 book “Quest For the Living God,” issuing a 21-page critique and recommending the book not be taught in Catholic universities due in part to her suggestion of using female imagery for God.

“The passages drawing the harshest admonishment, however, concerned Sister Johnson’s proposal that feminine as well as masculine imagery be used in prayers referring to God, a recommendation that has been debated and rejected by the bishops before. Still, the book persisted, “all-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement.” Wrong, the bishops said: If the Gospels use masculine imagery, it is because divine revelation would have it that way. [...] Dr. Tilley, the Fordham theology chairman, described that argument as “approaching the incoherent.”

So let us place the pieces together, shall we? Banning energy healing, banning a book that suggests female pronouns for the Christian God, banning gender-neutral formulations of baptism ceremonies, turning access to contraception (for women) into a national referendum on religious freedom, and now, accusing the largest conference of American nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” and moving to bring them under control.  What do you get? In his book “The Ratzinger Report”, then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, made very clear his views as to what radical feminism was.

I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

Another religion. That is what Catholic Women Religious in America are being accused of, practicing another religion. When nuns start advocating for the ordination of women, for making poverty and health care a priority over abortion and making sure gays can’t marry, they are no longer Catholic. They trigger an atavistic fear in the Catholic mind, the fear that women will start listening to a Goddess instead of a God.

“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed. We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune. But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine. And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?”Jeremiah 44:15-19, translation by Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, excerpted from “The Paganism Reader”.

The move against American nuns is just the latest effort to squash reform-minded thinking, just as the Franciscans in Assisi, Italy were smeared with accusations of allowing blood sacrifices at their altars when interfaith gatherings there became too popular and high-profile (the Pope, naturally, doesn’t meet with “pagans”). Like Cronus, the Catholic Church fears too much reform will act as an emitic, and all the pre-Christian elements, traditions, figures, and imagery it has swallowed over 2000 years will vomit forth and usurp the Church’s role as religious power-player on the world stage.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Think I’m perhaps overstating things? In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-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. There are the words and actions of a man, of a church, who fears that as religion becomes female-dominated, it might also become “pagan.”

The question now is, will there be unintended repercussions from this move by the Vatican and the US Conference of Bishops? Will the nuns, pushed into a corner, and ordered to heel, simply leave? Can anyone imagine the chaos that a mass exodus by Women Religious would instigate? Perhaps this action will really amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, leaving the sleeping giant(s) in the Catholicism’s belly alone for awhile longer, but I think the more this quiet force is insulted and ordered the more the Church risks exactly what it fears: the rise of another religion.

Welcome to the latest installment of Unleash the Hounds, in which I round up articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans. Before we get started I wanted to give an update on the Pagan journalism crowdfunding experiment I launched on March 21st. The very excellent news is that not only have I reached my fundraising goal of $1850 dollars to send The Wild Hunt to Chicago in November so that I can cover the American Academy of Religion’s 2012 Annual Meeting, but I’ve surpassed that goal by hundreds of dollars. All in less than a week! Thank you! Your enthusiastic response not only means I’ll be covering the AAR’s Annual Meeting, but that we have a head start on the next crowdfunding assignment (all monies raised beyond the goal will be rolled over into the next campaign).

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

Once the month-long campaign officially ends I’ll update my affiliates page with all those who chose to become underwriters, and update all who’ve donated on other promised perks. Considering the success of this initial go, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll be using this model to fund other assignments. The big question now is, where would you like me to go, and how often do you think I should hold a crowdfunding assignment campaign? I welcome your feedback, and once we have some solid ideas for events you’d like to see me at, we can even hold a poll to gauge reader interest. Some initial ideas for future assignments include the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle, and Paganicon in Minnesota. Make your voices heard, and if there’s enough demand, we’ll try to fund them one at a time. Ultimately, I would like to build this up and work towards funding a trip to the 2014 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Belgium.

So again, thank you to my generous supporters. You made this happen. Now then, let’s unleash the hounds, shall we?

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making a historic trip to Cuba at the end of March, the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. This high-profile trip has many people buzzing as to its significance, and what it means as Cuba’s communist government looks towards a post-Castro era. What is clear, is that the Pope will not be meeting with any leaders or practitioners of Santeria / Lukumi during his three-day stint in Cuba, despite a hurtful snub from the last Pope’s visit.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

“The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santería representatives. Lombardi said Santería does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions. ”It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.”

During Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Santeria practitioners were blatantly left out. The Catholic Church’s head met with representatives from Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches, institutions that oversee tiny minorities on the island, while an estimated 80% of Cubans participate in some form of Santeria or other syncretic African religious practice. Can you imagine a religious tour of a land that ignores 80% of the actual religious practice and still be seen as valid? At least one Cuban Santero, Lazaro Cuesta, is bitter over the treatment his faith received from Catholic leaders in the past.

“…we live in the basement, where nobody sees us …we have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”

One should not be surprised, for as much as Pope Benedict likes to talk about dialog with indigenous and traditional non-Christian faiths, he seems hesitant to actually engage in it. Even when perfect opportunities lay before him.

On Saturday, he traveled to Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, more or less the Vatican of voodoo. Historically, Benin has been the cradle of voodoo in West Africa, and it remains a huge presence. A famed python temple is right across the street from Ouidah’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a reminder of how Catholicism and voodoo live cheek by jowl.

One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism.

Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe. That produced some resentment in a country that’s proud of its unique religious heritage — Jan. 10, for instance, is marked as “voodoo day.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, or even traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, and predicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy.

This behavior continued once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-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.

Only the most blinkered Catholic partisan could look at these instances and not see a unifying theme. A message that true ”interfaith” and “dialog” only exists in the Catholic Church between faiths it is forced to respect through social or political power. Or in very rare instances, when it is shamed into changing its behavior. Twelve years ago Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for the sins of the Catholic Church. He apologized to Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and to native peoples. But apologies have to be backed by action to mean something. So long as Benedict continues his trend of ignoring or insulting “non-institutional” indigenous, traditional, and Pagan religions, we all, to paraphrase Lazaro Cuesta, will continue to live in the Catholic basement.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

  • The New York Times does a profile of Lady Rhea, “the Witch Queen of New York.” The article focuses on how Lady Rhea doesn’t fit the profile of the fantasy witch, noting that she is “no cartoon witch. She is a no-nonsense Bronx native who drives a Ford Focus and tells it like it is. No black robe and pointy hat here. On Wednesday night, she wore slacks, a sweatshirt and designer glasses and jewelry.” Actually, Lady Rhea’s non-pointy-hat wearing fashion sense is pretty much the norm for most Pagans, and it seems strange that the fact that we don’t dress like Elphaba Thropp is still a story hook to hang a profile on. Still, it’s a positive look at a local figure, and I’m glad the NYT devoted time to doing the story.
  • Remember all my talk about Pope Benedict XVI meeting with Vodun leaders in Benin? Turns out it didn’t happen, at least according to the National Catholic Reporter. Quote: “One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism. Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe.” NCR reporter by John L Allen Jr surmises that the controversy over Pope John Paul II’s 1992 meeting with Vodun leaders made Benedict gun-shy about doing something similar. So much for the “importance of dialogue with practitioners of indigenous African religions.”
  • The Los Angeles Times looks at Pagans and Paganism in the Air Force Academy, focusing on the $80,000 outdoor worship center for “earth-based” and Pagan religions that was recently installed. Quote: “Witches in the Air Force? Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan, branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy, sighs. A punch line waiting to happen, and he’s heard all the broom jokes.” It’s a fairly decent story, but I have to say, and maybe I’m biased, but I felt Cara Shulz’s recent story for PNC-Minnesota focusing on the same topic (which was reprinted here) was better.
  • Ritch Duncan, co-author of “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten”, writes about the bizarre media panic that ensured after a “Satanic sex ritual” resulted in a man being hospitalized, and his book was listed as being found at the scene. Quote: “Even worse than being misrepresented in the media was how lazy it all seemed to be. If the reporters charged with covering this story actually spent five seconds looking up what the book was about (they certainly had the time to do a Google search and steal an image of the cover), they could have mentioned it was filed under the “humor/parody” section.” The piece is a great look at how moral panics are fueled just by shifts in emphasis.
  • Amanda Marcotte writes an editorial for Reuters on the “increasingly Godless” American future. Quote: “The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.”
  • This year the Christmas Tree at the United States Capitol was given a traditional Native American blessing by an elder from the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk tribe, the first time such a thing has happened. Quote: “It was an amazingly moving ceremony they sang and blessed the tree and blessed the people there on site and blessed our safe journey for the tree.” You can watch a video of the blessing, and the tree being harvested, here.
  • The Guardian looks at the rise and mini-revival of “occult rock,” highlighting Rise Above Records, the return of Black Widow, and Swedish band Ghost.  Quote: “Whether it’s a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians, occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power. Perhaps more importantly, its newest exponents seem to have abandoned shock tactics in favour of a subtle, persuasive approach worthy of Eden’s duplicitous serpent himself.”
  • The Times of India has yet another article about the spread of Wicca in India, this time focusing on Swati Prakash, head of The Global Wicca Tradition. Quote: “In the middle and dark ages, anyone who followed any ancient belief was falsely accused of ‘consorting with the devil’ and was tortured into accepting the new faith. Ironically, you will note that male wizards are always depicted as wise old men in fiction and art throughout history while women witches were shown as cunning and ugly. Clearly, there has been a gender bias in favour of male spiritualists and gurus.”
  • The Associated Press explores American Indian reactions to the James Arthur Ray verdict, with some hoping that it will result in better safety when non-Natives try to appropriate Native ceremonies. Quote:  Bill Bielecki, an attorney representing the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, said the trial would encourage non-Natives to focus on safety when running sweat lodge ceremonies. “They’re going to look at the facts,’’ said Bielecki, who also was party to the lawsuit, “You don’t use a large sweat lodge, you make sure people can leave and you don’t coerce the occupants into staying beyond their limits or capabilities. If you do that, then you avoid gross negligence.’’ You can see a round-up of my coverage regarding this case, here.
  • Why do Catholics think the worship of Maria Lionza is so popular in Venezuela? Why, “poverty and poor education are contributing factors,” naturally. But they better be careful what they wish for, because isn’t Catholicism’s main growth areas with the very same “people lacking education and social services?” Do I sense a double-standard here? Are the poor and uneducated Catholics actually wise, then?

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

News did not grind to a halt while I was away at the AAR Annual Meeting, and I have a few important updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt that I’d like to share with you before I continue unpacking my AAR coverage.

James Arthur Ray Sentenced: Perhaps the biggest news to break while I was away is that New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who was convicted in June of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led at a retreat in Sedona, has been sentenced to two years in prison (three two-year concurrent sentences) and fined nearly $60,000 in restitution for his crimes.

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. The judge instead imposed three two-year terms, to be served concurrently. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows “extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray.” “A prison sentence is just mandated in this case,” he said.

Victim’s families and Native American activists alike are both unhappy that Ray didn’t get a longer sentence, though Lakota elder Marvin Youngdog did hope the conviction would act as a deterrent to others appropriating and misusing Native ceremonies. Quote: “Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others.” From all accounts an appeal seems likely. This story has been covered extensively by The Wild Hunt, as I feel this case, and the issues it raises have ramifications for the wider Pagan community. Here’s some highlights of my past coverage: “Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community,” “James Arthur Ray Trial Begins,” “Checking in With James Arthur Ray,” and “The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy.” You can be sure we’ll be following future developments.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vodun Leaders: While I was heading to San Francisco to be among religion scholars, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was headed to Benin for a three-day visit to the West African country of Benin, birthplace of Vodun (aka Voodoo). Anticipating this planned visit, I wondered what the pontiff would say to Vodun leaders in a planned meeting.  As the BBC notes, Vodun is “completely normal” there, an interwoven part of the culture, and Vodun leaders like Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala (mentioned previously on this site) were hoping for words of reconciliation and bridge-building.

High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope. One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions. “I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.

So what happened? So far I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the meeting(s), and what was said. However, there’s been some side-coverage of the Pope’s interactions with Vodun and African Traditional Religions in Benin. The National Catholic Reporter notes that Benedict “urged Catholics to resist a ‘syncretism which deceives’ and to uphold a Christian faith that ‘liberates from occultism’ and ‘vanquishes evil spirits.’” On a somewhat more positive note The Washington Post reports that the new papal document unveiled in Benin,  “Africae Munus” (”The Commitment of Africa”), “stresses the importance of dialogue with Islam and practitioners of indigenous African religions.” I’ll be writing more about this topic once first-hand accounts of the Vodun meetings emerge.

Haiti’s Vodou Tourism: Turning from Vodun in Benin to Vodou in Haiti, we pick up on a story I first noticed back in SeptemberHaitian President Michel Martelly wants to “rebrand” Haiti, and Vodou tourism is part of that vision. In Martelly’s first address to the United Nations he said: “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” This was no idle rhetorical question as Haiti’s new tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation.

“Because we are talking of Voodoo, and there again, it is an initiation to what makes us unique and gives us the force to propose, Haiti on the most popular tourist routes as is now the Caribbean basin. Haiti as a must-visit, because its cry at the world is and remains “Unique Haiti, magic Haiti ! (bewitching, fascinating)” Although recognized as a religion and institutionally to the equal of all others, since 1992, Voodoo is more that this normative and formal status ; it marries and inspires all fields of conscious as the unconscious of every Haitian. It is the starting point of the Foundation of our Nation. Voodoo is in Everything, it is tautological in the expressions of each, both at the level of the laborious daily, than at the level of representations of the artistic creation (dance, music, literature, cuisine, cinema, painting and sculpture) both traditional and modern.”

Former Haitian presidential candidate Jean H. Charles has lauded the appointment of Villedrouin, calling her one of three Haitian women who represented the country’s “highest good,” and noting that Haiti has “immense” potential as a tourist destination, specifically listing Vodou-related events. So it looks like Vodou tourism is full-steam ahead in Haiti. What this will mean for Vodou, both in Haiti and abroad, should be an interesting question to follow in the months and years to come.

That’s all I have for now, but stay tuned for more AAR-related coverage and other great Pagan-oriented news updates!

This Friday the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, will be heading to Benin for a three-day visit where he is expected to unveil an “important document” relating to the Catholic Church’s role in Africa. What makes this visit distinctive is that Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Vodun (aka Vodou/Voodoo), and it is the third largest religion in that country (after Christianity and Islam). Indeed, the pontiff’s visit will feature a “a speech to non-Christian leaders” which can only mean he will be addressing practitioners of Vodun in some capacity. The Religious News Service speculates that Benedict’s message may not be one of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.

Ouidah is also an international center for the indigenous religion of Vodoun, or Voodoo, which is practiced by more than 17 percent of Beninese. Catholicism’s relationship with traditional African religions is of particular concern to Benedict, who has warned against the danger of melding faiths in non-Catholic cultures. Late last month at the Vatican, Benedict lamented to bishops visiting from Angola and Sao Tome and Principe that African converts to Catholicism often persist in “practices that are incompatible with adherence to Christ,” including the “marginalization and even murder of children and elderly people, condemned by the false diktats of witchcraft.”

It is increasingly clear that Benedict is unafraid of using important interfaith moments to engage in triumphalism. At the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. It’s also hard to forget that in 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were “silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers; does he believe that practitioners of Vodun hold the same longing?  Will he publicly comment on the new code of conduct for Christian missionaries approved by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) that calls on Christians to reject all forms of coercive behavior and misrepresentative slurs?

“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts. [...]  Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. [...]  Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.

Finally, while the Pope will get to make a speech to non-Christian leaders, will Vodun leaders get a chance to address Benedict in any format whatsoever? In 1993, during the reign of Pope John Paul II, Vodun leaders voiced their displeasure with the “denigration” of their faith by Catholic missionaries directly to the pontiff.

“Two days into his 10th African tour, Pope John Paul II tacitly acknowledged vodun’s hold tonight, meeting in Cotonou with a group of its practitioners and leaders and telling them that, while they would certainly gain from converting to Christianity, “the church considers freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, a right that brings with it the responsibility to seek the truth.” In response to his proselytization, the vodun leaders made their own point about some members of the church that seemed to reflect strains. “One cannot but bitterly deplore the campaign of systematic denigration to which the practice of vodun is subjected by certain churches and parishes,” said Senou Zannou, a spokesman for the group of 30 senior vodun priests who met the Pope and placed him on a carved wooden throne to address him.”

Since then, some Vodun leaders have become evangelists for their faith, streamlining initiations,  in an effort to stem the erosion of their beliefs under constant missionary activity.

So what will the Pope say to Vodun in its birthplace? Will he strike a conciliatory note with non-Christian faiths, or will he use this opportunity to bolster conversion efforts in Benin?

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.

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 Dreherremoved 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-ArthenPhyllis 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.