Pope Benedict Misses An Interreligious Step

Cambridge, MA. Benedict XVILike many a Catholic and Catholic writer, I was immediately intrigued to hear that Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus – or more properly, simply the retired Bishop of Rome — had published a document of timely interest, related to the sex abuse crisis. Those of us with timid German skills, such as myself, waited for an English translation.

While often enough I have had reason to disagree with Benedict, even when as Joseph Ratzinger he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I always found him to be a solid intellectual, worth listening to and arguing with. To hear his views on sex abuse, gay clergy, and the state of the Church today, after the papacy of John Paul II and his own papacy, in a Church now under the providential guidance of Pope Francis, would surely be of interest. But as I pondered what I might write, I found that a host of experts had already expressed themselves rather quickly on the content and style of Benedict’s odd treatise: Steve Skojec in OnePeter5; Rusty Reno in First Things; Michael Dougherty in National Review; Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter; Rachel Donadio in the Atlantic; Austin Ivereigh in America; Massimo Faggioli in Commonweal; Ross Douthat in the New York Times. So many opinions,  so rich in insights across the spectrum! Despite the push and pull of left and right, and the greater concerns we may have regarding Benedict’s own well-being at his venerable age, we can see that once again he has made many people stop and think about the faith that is the ground we need to be standing on when we look honestly at scandals in the Church and around it.

So I needed a new angle, and found one, As far as I can see, no one has touched yet on the small interreligious paragraph right in the middle of the text:

Independently of this question, in many circles of moral theology the hypothesis was expounded that the Church does not and cannot have her own morality. The argument being that all moral hypotheses would also know parallels in other religions and therefore a Christian property of morality could not exist. But the question of the unique nature of a biblical morality is not answered by the fact that for every single sentence somewhere, a parallel can also be found in other religions. Rather, it is about the whole of biblical morality, which as such is new and different from its individual parts. The moral doctrine of Holy Scripture has its uniqueness ultimately predicated in its cleaving to the image of God, in faith in the one God who showed himself in Jesus Christ and who lived as a human being.

He adds,

The Decalogue is an application of the biblical faith in God to human life. The image of God and morality belong together and thus result in the particular change of the Christian attitude towards the world and human life. Moreover, Christianity has been described from the beginning with the word hodós (Greek for a road, in the New Testament often used in the sense of a path of progress). Faith is a journey and a way of life.

The passage is classic Benedict, insightful and to the heart of the matter, and yet neglectful of other ways of seeing things.

Benedict is right in criticizing the idea of picking apart revelation and tradition simply by showing that most statements in Christian theology and ethics have parallels in other traditions. He is right to say that there is a deep coherence to Christian faith, a wholeness that is not the sum of various statements that might just as well be patched together in other ways too. It is indeed “faith in the one God who showed himself in Jesus Christ and who lived as a human being,” and the Ten Commandments, even when read with respect for their Jewish roots and location in the Torah, have for a very long time been used as a guide to the living of the life of Christian faith. We are on the Way, pilgrims, and the wholeness of the Christian faith needs to be understood if we are to purify or adapt one or another part of it.

There is indeed an abundance of parallels to Jewish and Christian teachings in other traditions. This is unsurprising, since for thousands of years teachers in so many traditions have taught so much. But Benedict seems uninterested in the wholeness of those traditions, as if unaware that every religious tradition surviving the millennia is also deep and coherent, and guided by rules that direct enduring ways of life. He does not seem to see that no venerable and enduring religious path is merely a patchwork of ideas and practices. He knows that piecemeal borrowing is unwise; but neither here, nor in previous writings, does he show any interest in a better learning from religious traditions properly understood.

When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - Cardinal Ratzinger's office - published Dominus Iesus (2000), it tried to simplify matters: embracing with sensitivity the wholeness of the Christian faith in the Lord Jesus, while dismissing the idea that other traditions too (even Christian ones) are more than fragmentary lesser realities which we can pick away at as we choose, showing, by an allusion here or there, that they are but pale imitations of our own God-given tradition. Only those who have never studied and learned in depth from other traditions think that they are one- or two-dimensional, easily put in their place.

If we are to learn well in the interreligious world in which we live, we must do more than appreciate and cherish our own tradition. We are required to risk acts of intellectual and spiritual imagination that allow us to see the world through Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist eyes, envisioning today’s problems by perspectives from outside the West, from African and East Asian and indigenous Australian, African, and American perspectives. The fruits are real: disciplined attunement to the other, that treats its riches as fairly as we treat our own, enables us to see the world through the eyes of the religious other even while seeing our own tradition ever more clearly, soberly, with hype and romance.

Viewing the Other with spiritual generosity and imagination has little to do with relativism. It is rather a matter of facing up to the nature of human reality as infused with God’s presence. The theses of a robust Christian morality need not be thought of as merely human constructions — nor merely as revelatory truths that descend upon us with a finality no other tradition can hope for.

A less stingy approach to other religions would have served Benedict's laudable purpose of rediscovering the integral life and truth of the Catholic faith. He would have done well to remember the bold words of his predecessor, John Paul II: “By dialogue we let God be present in our midst; for as we open ourselves in dialogue to one another, we also open ourselves to God.” (Madras, 1986) Or, he might have recollected the recent words of Pope Francis: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.” (Abu Dhabi, 2019) Not all papal statements have the same authority, to be sure, but neither can we afford to read Benedict without also remembering and honoring John Paul II and Francis, who far better than he have appreciated interreligious wisdom and goodness.

Now, the patient reader may ask, what does this have to do with the current crisis in the Catholic Church and its seminary communities, among its clergy, with a leadership beset by cover-ups and denials? I suggest that when facing up to our sins,  I agree that we need to return to the source and renew our basic faith commitments, and we need to renew our conviction that God remains faithful to the Church, always, even when we have lost our way. But we also need to be able to attend with spiritual imagination to how other Catholics view the issues that vex me. I, for one, need to be able to understand and respect what horrifies concerned Catholics when they think about gay priests, the upset of traditional gender balances, and why it is that they want to reaffirm the traditional hierarchical structure of the Church. But we all need also to learn to understand and respect concerned Catholics who affirm the dignity of every person, straight or gay, trans, who will not settle for anything less than real equality of women in the Church, and who mean seriously in the priesthood of all God’s people. We need to look at other Catholics with respect and equanimity; and we can learn this by practicing interreligious respect.

If you've never learned interreligiously, you may not be able to learn from kindred believers, close to home, who differ on important matters. In the end, then, Benedict's small interreligious paragraph uncovers a certain irony: as we learn interreligiously, we become more able to understand others in our own faith tradition as well. We come to see our virtues and vices with fresh eyes.