[UPDATED] This wasn't written in answer to William Oddie's post today, but it seems we were thinking about the same topic, only in quite contrary ways.
I'm dismayed this morning, cher lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère. I know what is going to happen in the next few weeks. Quite apart from the liturgical season, it is going to be full of excitement about the approaching beatification of John Paul II. As I remarked yesterday, the buzz on the blogs is all about the alternative bloggers' meeting in Rome. The weather here in the UK is hot. We've forgotten the worst of the recent past, and the year is full of Spring promise.
So nobody wants to read or hear about reservations with the good ship Vatican at the moment. Tribalism is alive and well. If we object to the current mood, then we must either belong to the lunatic fringe of the Great-Dotty Traditionalist variety, or we must just be sour pessimists. I cannot say I agreed with half of the content of the recent petition that was got up to protest at the beatification of John Paul II, but I certainly share their fear that the beatification will not simply stand for beatification of the person of John Paul II - a man of immense piety, sacrifice, devotion to duty and chronic suffering - but a stamp of approval on his papacy, good and bad.
The biggest mistake in this beatification is that we have no historical perspective. Comparisons with popular acclamations of holiness by the faithful in the past are lame. We live in an age of fadism and fancy where yesterday's fringe indie is today's modishness, and where last week's scapegoat is next week's pop idol. John Paul II's holiness would not change one bit if the Church left it ten or twenty years before going any further in this beatification process. But another ten years would give us calmer minds and spirits, greater objectivity, and more willingness to sift and discern.
For me, the greatest sign of the refusal to discern further is this meeting planned for October in Assisi. Don't get me wrong. I believe the traditionalist position which states that such meetings contravene the First Commandment is not well founded. I also applaud the changes in format in this meeting which are meant to be another barrier against such intepretations.
No, the Assisi Obex is the way that it embodies a certain philosophy of religion which is unbalanced. You can read all about it in Cardinal Ratzinger's book Truth and Tolerance in which he describes the change in how theologians view other religions. Nowadays the procedure is to regard all religions from the perspective of the religion of the Three Kings. Their religious understanding led them to follow the star and to honour the King at Bethlehem. So too, we must regard other religions as ground in which seeds of the Word are already present and need only to be brought to fruition. Indeed, it is possible that some religions are still pre-Christological, not historically speaking, but in terms of having hardly encountered Christ... like the Three Kings.
This position is in contrast with a time in which theologians, indeed the Church herself, was far more preoccupied with the errors of other religions. Such an approach tended to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. It also sometimes left doctrinal precision at the mercy of humanity's proclivity for hurly burly. This was the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. And it was one which Vatican II was renouncing in its statements on ecumenism and inter-religious relations.
Let us be practical. In the fragile and violent world in which we live, with conflict never far away, the Church needed to tack differently against the winds of religious difference. Indeed, one can convert nobody unless one learns how to walk with them in some sense. The problem with this reformed philosophy of religion, however, is that it air-brushes out of existence the notion that other religions are as capable of posing an obstacle - an OBEX - to conversion as they are of providing a stepping stone thereto. Of course it is marvellous that we 'share' the Sacred Scriptures with our Protestant brethren, but we cannot thereby air-brush out of existence the fact that Sola Scriptura is the context in which vast swathes of Protestants receive those writings. In other words, at the very point we can acknowledge what we have in common, we have to acknowledge the gulf in how we conceptualise the passing on of Revelation.
But that would be considered unecumenical. In practice - I'm not speaking of the theory - ecumenism seems to be an ecclesiological form of the English vice of saying the very opposite of what we mean. 'Oh, yes I'm quite comfortable'; 'oh, yes, I've had enough to eat'; 'oh, I don't mind at all.' In point of fact, we aren't comfortable, we're starving, and too right we bloody mind! But we had better not say it for fear of making a scene.
What I'm saying here is that Assisi III, even if it avoids the symbolic manifestation of indifferentism, will necessarily articulate an entirely benign - and, therefore, unbalanced - view of such religious distinctions. This indeed is why the announcement of Assisi III spoke of all believers 'constantly journeying towards God'. To my mind, this is as wrong as saying that all sexual relationships are praiseworthy insofar as they articulate love between individuals: men and men, women and women, humans and animals. Surely, an optimist would argue, all we need do is encourage the love and they will somehow come to a fully mature view of love and renounce their own. But is that likely if we simply tell them about the good in their relationships? Is that likely if we air-brush from view those things that are an obex to their recovery? Friendliness can lower barriers, but no genuine friend ever placed cushions beneath the elbows of sinners, as Jeremiah puts it. On a personal level, of course, prudence dictates that far more preaching must go on through action than words. But institutionally? Please tell me what ecumenism has done, other than encourage the idea that we all belong to the same slightly odd club of 'religious people'?
But Christ isn't religious. He is religion. How did we forget?
So, what is my conclusion? Simply that we cannot deal with other religions solely as seedbeds of the Word. THIS is the Assisi Obex. Nor indeed should we go back to treating them as if they are simply the work of the partisans of error. But Christ spoke sometimes with compassion and sometimes with anger: mustn't the Church do the same? How very sad that this failure to distinguish - this failure that, for me, will always mar JPII's memory - is going to be reinforced by Pope Benedict whose own motto declares his commitment to cooperating in the truth.