The Dirty Taint of Paganism

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Late last year, Pope Benedict XVI removed autonomy from the Franciscans of Assisi. Since Pope Paul VI the Franciscans in Assisi had enjoyed freedom from direct oversight and were the Catholic heralds of interfaith work. The most famous manifestation of this was the first “World Day For Peace” in 1986, at which Pope John Paul II met and prayed with representatives of several faith traditions (much to the chagrin of then-Cardinal Ratzinger). Now in light of the recent Papal controversy over the Palaeologus quotation, commentators are putting this and other interfaith dealings in a wider context.

One such editorial was from the New York Times who criticized Benedict for moving Catholicism away from interfaith work.

“The pope and the Vatican can also do more. For the past two years, Benedict has been a no-show at interfaith gatherings in Assisi, begun 20 years ago by his predecessor, John Paul II. Last year, he issued an edict revoking the autonomy of Assisi’s Franciscan monks, a move that was seen as a reaction against the monks’? interfaith activism. On the occasion of this year’?s gathering, he issued a statement about religion and peace that was read by an envoy, but his absence spoke louder than his words.”

This secular critique enraged Beliefnet blogger and “Crunchy Con”* Rod Dreher who lashed back with his own commentary.

“I know the Times’s idea of religious dialogue is a priest, a rabbi, an imam and a Buddhist monk singing “Kum-Ba-Yah” in four-part harmony, but grown-ups should ask themselves why Benedict chose to stay away from the event. Benedict was sick and tired of the local Franciscans letting it turn into a polytheistic carnival. When African voodoo priests sacrifice chickens to their pagan gods near the tomb of St. Clare, it was time to put a stop to this nonsense. Benedict is not against dialogue with other religions, but he demands that reasonable limits be set. If a Pope has to accept chicken-slaughter by voodoo priests at a Christian holy site to appease the gods of East 43rd Street, then to hell with the gods of East 43rd Street.”

Voodoo priests doing blood sacrifices right in front of the tomb! How disrespectful! How shocking! If it were actually true.

“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.”

Either Dreher believes the Franciscan to be a liar, or his invective isn’t troubled by facts. It seems to me that his comment displays a great uneasiness with any religion removed from the monotheistic model. An uneasiness that seems to be shared by Pope Benedict who is famous for his digs at faiths that don’t worship the One True God(tm). People like Dreher seem to fear the dirty taint of Paganism, even the attendance of Pagans, polytheists, and animists leave a stain on the “good” kind of interfaith work (which must obviously be the opposite of whatever the Franciscans are doing).

As Scripps Howard columnist Terry Mattingly put it:

“Come to think of it, Benedict XVI doesn’t seem like a praying-with-pagans kind of guy, as I am sure our pagan readers would agree.”

Perhaps being left out of the picture is the best thing for the polytheists now. It seems that currently everyone is itching for an old-school showdown between the two largest monotheisms (that would be Christianity and Islam for those playing at home). With a possible war in Iran looming and rhetoric about WWIII being thrown around things could get quite bad before they get any better. We may just see a further “hardening” of Christian attitudes towards anyone who isn’t supporting the Christian cause. In the coming years modern Pagans and Heathens may need more than ever to look to the health and safety of our communities lest we get swept up in a new inter-religious conflict.

* A “Crunchy Con” or “Crunchy Conservative” is a term invented by Rod Dreher describing social conservatives who like eating free-range chicken, shopping local, and preserving old buildings.