Papal pull

The new pope of the Catholic empire has put the rebel alliance of Assisi and its dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists in check:

Peace, love and tolerance: you disgust me

In a decree published Nov. 19, the pope placed the Franciscans in Assisi under the… control of a new local bishop… The edict overturned autonomy granted in 1969 by Pope Paul VI that in effect made the Franciscans ambassadors to peace movements and to outside cultural and religious groups… So far, [Pope Benedict's] reign has been an exercise in the tightening of practice to match church doctrine as he sees it… [Link]

Rise, Lord Ratzinger. What bugs the new pope about those hippie-dippy Franciscan friars: respectful, tolerant interfaith exchange. Why, those reasonable bastards.

In the view of critics, few places within the church challenged Catholic certainties more flamboyantly than Assisi. In particular, interfaith meetings held in the hilltop town appeared to them to be a kind of food court of dangerous relativist thinking.

… Benedict was settling scores with the Franciscans over a “carnival-like” interfaith meeting they hosted in 1986. Voodoo priests, American Indian dancers and African animists took part… The Franciscans went beyond agreed-upon rules by allowing pagan worship practices to take place on church property, and Benedict “never forgave the Franciscan community for the excesses…” [Link]

Voodoo, Native Americans and animists are fine, but what really gets the good pope’s robes in a twist are Hindus and Buddhists:

St. Francis basilica at Assisi

“… during [the previous pope's] voyage to India, he had given speeches of unprecedented openness toward that country’s religions, and at Bombay had even let a priestess of the god Shiva anoint his forehead with a sacred Hindu symbol…”

Some of the city’s churches were allotted for the prayers of Buddhists, Hindus, and African animists, as if these buildings were neutral containers, void of any indelible Christian value. The Buddhists set up a shrine of Buddha on the altar of the local Church of Saint Peter. The absence from Assisi of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [the new pope]… was not improperly interpreted as… self-distancing… [Link]

Hinduism, he said, offers ‘false hope’; it guarantees ‘purification’ based on a ‘morally cruel’ concept of reincarnation resembling ‘a continuous circle of hell’…… [Link]



What horror. Part of the church’s issue with Hinduism and Buddhism is a well-developed theology which makes conversion more difficult:

The pope maintains that there are religions that are by nature “particularly close to Christianity,” like the animist religions of Africa, from which conversion to the Gospel can come more easily. But he formulates an opposite judgment concerning the “great religions of the Far East”: Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism. These “are of a systematic character,” and are thus far less penetrable. This explains why, in these regions, “the missionary activity of the Church has born, we must acknowledge, very modest fruit…” [Link]

The peaceable Baha’is got shafted as usual:

The next Assisi interfaith meeting, in 2002, was low-key compared with the one in 1986, and several commentators saw Ratzinger’s hand behind the changes. Fewer groups were represented, and some religions, including American Indian and Bahai, were replaced by Asian sects with larger followings. [Link]

The 2002 interfaith gathering in Assisi yielded this bit of sweetness. As Rodney King once slurred, c-c-can’t we all just get along?

I wish to extend my heartfelt greetings to all Hindus on this happy occasion [Diwali]…. I would like to conclude by sharing with you the strong impression which the image of lighted lamps made on me during the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi last January. The representatives of different religions held lighted lamps in their hands and after their common commitment they placed the lamps on a common stand, symbolizing the convergence of hopes and efforts for peace. The pope blessed them, saying: “Go forward into the future holding high the lamp of peace. The world has need of light!” Happy Diwali. –Cardinal Francis Arinze [Link]

Related posts: Benedict maledict, Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, A brown pope?

24 thoughts on “Papal pull

  1. Honestly, this isn’t that much different from the last pope, who has made similar remarks about Hinduism despite his actions during the trip.

    And frankly, I can see their point about Christian sacred spaces having dedicated uses. Can you imagine somebody setting up a crucifix on top of a similar spot within a mandir? All hell would break lose!

    Lastly, Arinze, who you quote, is also pretty far to the right as well.

    These guys are 90% consistent with each other and the history of their church. They might still be bigots, but at least they’re consistent and institutionally grounded ones.

  2. I love Assissi. My husband has been there several times but the first time I went there, I had to go back with the children. We all love the quaint little town and the monastary up in the mountains and of course the basilica. It’s a must stop when visiting Italy.

  3. Well I think the following is relevant in this context:

    Seymour HershÂ’s New Yorker piece has THE Quote of the Day:

    “The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,” the former defense official said.  “He doesn’t feel any pain.  Bush is a believer in the adage ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’”  
  4. In this case, what is discouraging is not only the muting of a formidable current of contemporary Catholic scholarship advocating change (Hans Kung, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Matthew Fox) but also the Church’s heavy handedness against one of it’s most respected and dedicated orders – remember how the Catholic Church in N America went to the Franciscans for guidance during the molestation scandal.

    Perhaps the silver lining is that it is usually from such circumstances that change emerges. The last few years in N America has seen the rise of Evangelical Fundamentalism, but it has also seen the gorwing influence of people like Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis – advocates for radical change within these churches.

  5. Ratzo Rizzo – Actually it is not uncommon to find non-Hindu Gods/deities/saints in Hindu temples. I have seen picture of Jesus (witha garland no less) right next to idols and pictures of Hindu gods. Many Hindus consider Jesus to be God without neccessarly following Church practices and traditions.

    To the point of the post – it is these type of actions by church that produce counter actions by the strong advocates of pure Hinduism in India

  6. In this case, what is discouraging is not only the muting of a formidable current of contemporary Catholic scholarship advocating change (Hans Kung, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Matthew Fox)

    Ratzinger silenced Brown theologians too. Mainly for advocating–in disguise–an inclusivist Neo-Vedanta.

    The Sri Lankan Tissla Balasuriya:

    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the doctrinal congregation, has in recent months made clear his distaste for what he calls the “religious relativism” that officials say Balasuriya is preaching. In remarks last September to 80 bishops from the Third World, Ratzinger appeared to signal the outcome of the Balasuriya case when he singled out “religious institutions of Asia especially, and surprisingly … those of the Indian subcontinent, “that espouse a “relativism” that is “the central problem for the faith at the present time.”

    Religious relativism is code for Neo-Vedanta.

    The Indian Anthony Demello, Goan Priest, also silenced. He wrote edifying little stories (in books with such Hindu titles as “Sadhana”) in which he borrowed from world traditions and espoused a Neo-Vedantic worldview.

    India has been described by the Vatican as a cradle of heresies.

  7. Mark IV – thanks for the link. It’s unfortunate that scholars like this are marginalized.

    The Catholic Church atually has a very old tradition of cultural syncretism in India. Robert De Nobeli, one of the first Catholic missionaries in India was well versed in the Vedas (he also greatly respected them) and dressed as a sadhu. Ramund Pannikar was an eminent Catholic theologean and a staunch advocate of deep mutual respect and understanding between the Catholic Church and the Hindu tradition. So these voices have always been there.

    The future of the Catholic Church is in the global south and the current leadership is well aware of this. I suspect they are trying to rein in the future leaders to to offset future chances of another Church council like Vatican 2.

  8. Mark IV – thanks for the link. It’s unfortunate that scholars like this are marginalized.

    No problemo :) I didn’t know Pannikar had died. He wrote a very useful anthology on the Vedas, and claimed to belong to both Hinduism and Catholicism, though he felt Neo-Vedanta’s appropriation of other religious traditions was hierarchical (placing advaita at the top), and therefore prejudiced. He came up with an interesting alternative accomodation (which I’m forgetting right now).

    For Ratzinger, Vatican II was a mistake, which is why Balasuriya et. al. became suspect.

  9. Why is disrespect of sepia mutineers unacceptable when habitual disrespect for the Pope is a hallmark of SM?

  10. Ratzinger silenced Brown theologians too.

    hey, i’m all for the term brown, but there is a Brown university, so for a sec i was wonderin’ what theologians from brown university had to do with it.

    The future of the Catholic Church is in the global south and the current leadership is well aware of this. I suspect they are trying to rein in the future leaders to to offset future chances of another Church council like Vatican 2.

    badmash, no offense, but i think that’s bull. obviously cultural syncretism is something that roman catholic clerisy has come to accept, what, with a pole and a german the most recent popes. but religious syncretism is a different issue, and i see no evidence sincere and explicit religious syncretism will be anything but marginal in the south. where it will succeed, and is already ascendent, is the north (at least among christians). consider, roman catholics are most numerous in latin america, where they compete with fundamentalist evangelicals, and very numerous in africa, where they compete with protestants and muslims. do you think a plea for syncretic tolerance will play there? india might have a dominant pluralist religious paradigm, but muscular abrahamism is the norm throughout much of the south.

    p.s. i believe hans kung was told not to call himself a catholic theologian anymore.

  11. habitual disrespect for the Pope is a hallmark of SM?

    i think what you note is direspect for the institution and beliefs (of exclusivity and non-reciprocity) that the pope represents, not to him as a person. you are free to feel offended by disrespect for the pope, just as you would if you arrived at my house and i had a doormat with the pope’s visage upon it. but, those who are non-christian should feel free to feel disrespected when their beliefs are regularly shat on as “dark,” “pagan” or “idolatrous.”

    you shall reap as you sow.

  12. Don’t be so hard on the Pope. He’s just doing his job. LOL to peace, love and tolerance, you disgust me!

  13. (Manish – if I may)

    I think most people who have been commenting on this entry have at least some admiration for the Catholic church. The criticisms are offered not as flippant jabs but as genuine concern for the common areas of desi culture and the Catholic tradition. No disrespect is intended.

    Razib – I disagree. Religious syncretism is everywhere in the Catholic tradition – in the Mass, in the Church Calendar, in the art and architecture. This is not a fact that is often drawn attention to (esp. within the Church) but nevertheless, it is something that tells us about how religions evolve and gain mass popularity.

    Cut to the global south – both in Latin America and Africa there are in fact widespread practices and beliefs within the Catholic Church that draw from local cultures. It is precisely because syncretism could pose such a challenge to Vatican authority if it begins to influence the theology of local clerics (as it has in India), that the hierarchy is taking such a strong line against it. Yes, I do believe that inasmuch as syncretism allows for continuity, it can pose a strong challenge to the sudden break-with-tradition of “muscular abrahamism”.

    ps Hans Kung lost his license to teach theology at Catholic institutions, but I think he is still an ordained priest.

  14. badmash,

    this is a complicated issue, and as you know, i’m an atheist, so i feel strange here arguing against syncretism in roman catholicism because i think most of religion is consists of cognitive parlor tricks. nevertheless

    1) yes, a lot of the aspects of roman catholic liturgy, tradition and custom exhibit syncretism. but, and this is a big but, elements like the mass, trinitarianism (which isaac newton believed was a pagan interjection into christian monotheism), etc. which can be substantively shown to have extra-religious origins are now fundamentally ‘christian’ because of the weight of church history. similarly, even though jews imported in the matrilineal descent from their time within the roman empire, they have back-projected it via made up ‘oral tradition’ to the mosaic period.

    2) but, the age of miracles is over from what i can tell. on a fundamental level if we are to talk about something we need to make an operational concession to an essentialist idealized type.

    3) so yeah, i agree that roman catholicism is syncretistic, but, i am trying to suggest that to roman catholics (or at least the ‘orthodox’ hierarchy) some syncretism isn’t that at all, but part of christian tradition. the ‘new syncretism’ though is just pagan ballshit.

    4) in relation to mass popularity, yes, it some extent local syncretism is now roman catholicism spread. for example, gregory the great told st. augustine of kent to sanctify pagan temples and transform them into churches and make temporary accomidations to local custom. but once christianity was established and secure there was often a ‘romanization’ of practice and norms. additionally, in areas of central american where syncretism in a very explicit form is the dominant form of roman catholicism (maya) evangelical protestant christianity is ascendent and becoming the majority faith.

    5) by and large, my understanding is that the southern hierarchies of the transnational christian churches are more, not less, traditionally orthodox. there are some modifications, for instance, acceptance of polygamy amongst some african groups, but this isn’t syncretism as much as a purging of roman cultural norms laid on top of jewish christianity with the gentile conversions.

    to cut it short, my main points are

    1) syncretic religion is not virile 2) the south is not fundamentally going to be more syncretic, rather, they are going to be focusing on the parts of the bible which resonate with them. e.g., the magical elements in the acts of the apostles really appeal to the more rustic populations which are just a few years past shamanism (i know that sounds patronizing, i mean to be). i think india is a special case because hinduism is an elite non-abrahamic religion which needs to be addressed in a way that non-abrahamic religion in africa or latin america need not be because they have no elite proponents (until recently in togo, where the majority of the population adhere to a form of vodun, only christianity and islam were recognized by the state).

  15. Why is disrespect of sepia mutineers unacceptable when habitual disrespect for the Pope is a hallmark of SM?

    Hallmark of SM? Disrespecting the Pontiff is a distinguishing characteristic of this blog? No. The banners, excessive punnery or M.I.A.-obsession could be considered “hallmarks”, but not that.

    Mutineers don’t condemn infidels to hell, nor do they say words like this:

    Hinduism, he said, offers ‘false hope’; it guarantees ‘purification’ based on a ‘morally cruel’ concept of reincarnation resembling ‘a continuous circle of hell’…

    If Christian readers get to comment when their religion is being discussed unfairly, shouldn’t Hindus get to respond in kind to charges like a central process of their faith involving a neverending HELL?

  16. JM – the point of #10 was that there have been Christian missionaries/theologeans who have attempted to enhance rather than diminish the role of the local culture in their work. That this was for the purpose of “winning souls” is a given.

    I don’t condone deceit or fraud in missionary efforts. however, the source Shourie is quoting is obscure and I don’t have access to it to confirm his conclusions, which he is known to often stretch.

  17. I think most people who have been commenting on this entry have at least some admiration for the Catholic church.

    Sure why not. I have admiration for Liberation Theology and think its principles should be examined and appropriated by grassroots Hindu movements. Leaders like Narayana Guru (from Kerala) and the Swadhyaya movement certainly coupled social uplift with spirituality, but they have not been (yet anyway) national or international movements. A Hindu resurgence premised on breaking down recalcitrant barriers of economic and social injustice is immensely preferable to unreconstructed Marxism and its Indian offspring–Naxalism.

    Of course Ratzinger silenced Boff and Gutierez (seminal Lib Theologians) too; he also enigmatically claimed the Lib Theology had its antecedents in German theology and not in Latin America. To him it is nothing more than crypto-Marxism

    Constructive Theology also is of some interest to the syncretic Hindu.

    Catholic thinkers have certainly borrowed from Hinduism–Teilard de Chardin, for example, and Pannikar, who we mentioned in passing.

  18. Mark IV, I forgot about de Chardin, good call! I agree, he demonstrates some influence from the modern Hindu thinkers, esp. Aurobindo Ghosh.

    True Ratzinger along with John Paul II was responsible for smothering the Liberation theology movement in Latin America, which speaks to the power struggle between the Vatican and its far flung constituents. One wonders if the Anglican Communion doesn’t have a better model.

    Interestingly in India, Liberation theology has found expression among Dalit communities in different parts of the country. In Kerala, Dalit responses to the missionary wave of the ninteenth century was usually marginalized due to their development of what was mispercieved as unconventional theology. What Liberation theology contributed thereafter to these Dalit movements was the ability to express themselves in a more mainstream language and engage the larger Catholic/Christian community in conversation.