Monday, 11 April 2011

The Assisi Obex

[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.


Londiniensis said...

Yours must be the most reasonable, indeed the nicest, piece against the Assisi meeting that has yet been written, indeed that probably will be written.

And indeed, it is so much more difficult for traditionalists of any stripe to inveigh against Pope Benedict than it was to do so against Pope John Paul II.

I gave JPII the benefit of the doubt over his Assisi meetings, albeit with misgivings, and am prepared to do the same for BXVI, with many fewer misgivings. Indeed, other than raised blood pressure among traditionalists, it is hard to see that 1986 and 2002 have had many ill-effects, indeed the wider Church's attitude to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue has if anything grown more sensibly focused since then.

I try to remember that it is the successor of Peter calling others to him to share whatever they wish to take. And they have so much to learn from Benedict, if they will only open their ears and their hearts, for which we must all pray.

Ches said...

Seneca said, 'Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.' We must all pray for the pope. So, no change there!

J. Christopher Pryor said...

Ches another great article! Without discounting your points and hypothetically speaking, isn't there something to be said that Pope John Paul II had such a "cult of perosnality" that the only way Pope Benedict counteract Pope JPII's Assisi is by redoing it in an acceptable manner? By softening and modefying Assisi III, isn't he teaching by his actions that ASsisi I is not the way to go? It strikes me that Pope Benedict relies his own actions to counter abuses such as can be seen in the way he says mass and distributes communion. You will not hear him condemn the way most parishes are giving out communion, but he is teaching by example. He may be doing the same with Assis III.

Nothing I said takes away any validity from your points. I just wonder if the Pope is giving his Church milk instead of meat, as St. Paul might say.

Ches said...

Good point, Chris. But why not, therefore, do this big meeting somewhere else? Frankly, I believe the world will hardly notice the difference. The press will just report it as 'another Assisi'. A different location might have made the correction discernible.

But, I suppose, that is a problem. Essentially, Pope Benedict is not setting out to correct an unbalanced philosophy of religion but to tone down the syncretist overtones of JPII's Assisi which, as Cardinal Biffi reminded the conclave, led to people praising JPII on his death for teaching us that all religions are equal.

roveto ardente said...

One day you will be lucky enough to visit the incredible hilltop area of Assissi and you will realise that that it is THE most obvious place in all the world for a Catholic Pope to pray for peace. Rome and Jerusalem being obviously out of the question, he could have got them all to fly to Hiroshima, Ground Zero or Auschwitz - but Assissi trumps them all.

I dare to say that anyone who has prayed there and been touched by the spirit of the place would only come home desiring peace in the world more than ever and lasting peace of soul all the more.

Maybe in calling world spiritual leaders to focus on peace (in the world) in the town of Francis and Clare, the Pope is bringing them to Jesus in order to let Him speak His peace to their hearts that they wold never encounter elsewhere.

Ches said...

How I pray that that is so.

GOR said...

Well Roveto, perhaps…if one goes to Assisi in this post-Assisi I atmosphere. I was there back in the 60s before it came to be viewed as it is today. Frankly, I was less than impressed with the site and the atmosphere. Certainly the location and architecture are striking. Less so the commercialism (the bane of all pilgrimage sites, I expect). My thought was “this is a long way removed from the original spirit of Il Poverello…”

The sight of so many rotund Franciscans (is there any other kind…?) ambling about didn’t inspire a sense of asceticism either. Of course even St. Francis himself was viewed as ‘overly rigid’ by some of his early followers. The Portiuncula too would have been more impressive, I thought, had they left it in its natural state instead of building a Basilica around it. I’m not sure that’s what Our Lord had in mind - or St. Francis understood - by “Rebuild my church”. But, ad majorem Dei gloriam…

Ogard said...

Ches, how would you spread the Gospel among those who are not Christians?

Ches said...

With both eyes open, not one eye closed, Ogard.

Ogard said...

One can do it at home, so what?

catholicofthule said...

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.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. ” (John 5:39-40)

Ches said...

Ogard, what is your point? Let me answer what I think it is. I'm perfectly happy with some ecumenical measures, such as dialogue among theologians. I'm less happy with those activities which lend themselves to indifferentist interpretations or to the kinds of errors that prompted such documents as Dominus Jesus.

Mike V said...


Whilst I am not myself a great fan of these inter religious meetings, I would like to make a couple of points for the sake of balance.

Firstly, John Paul II made it clear he did not believe all religions to be equal. I quote below an extract from his opening speech:

"The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because every human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth."

Secondly, it should be noted that he affirmed that true peace is to be found in Christ:

"I profess here anew my conviction, shared by all Christians, that in Jesus Christ, as Saviour of all, true peace is to be found, "peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near". His birth was greeted by the angels’ song: "Glory to God in the highest and peace among men with whom he is pleased". He preached love among all, even among foes, proclaimed blessed those who work for peace and through his Death and Resurrection he brought about reconciliation between heaven and earth. To use an expression of Paul the Apostle: "He is our peace"."

As I say, I mention these points for the sake of balance, not because I think that holding a pot plant with the Dalai Llama made any lasting contribution to world peace!


Mike V

Ches said...

Mike, it was on reading such words from John Paul II that I saw through the extreme traditionalist position on Assisi. Many who criticise it have only ever read about it through traditionalist literature.

That said, I think everyone knows about the deeply scandalous use of the churches of Assisi during the 1986. Consecrated sanctuaries being used for Buddhist rites, for example ... I know JPII was not responsible for every single thing, but it happened on his watch, it happened in the climate he created, and we have to wonder where responsibility lies.

All that said, I believe my argument about the unbalanced philosophy of religion stands. The faith is full of paradoxes: three and one, virgin and mother, communion and sacrifice. The paradox with other religions is that they have traces of the Word and yet provide an obex to conversion. We cannot serve truth by suppressing either side of this paradox.

Many thanks for your comments.

Ogard said...

Ches, "I'm less happy with those activities which lend themselves to indifferentist interpretations or to the kinds of errors that prompted such documents as Dominus Jesus."

Could you be more specific.

K Gurries said...

Ches, you make some good points. But I am not sure we can point to any single "event" (like Assisi) as evidence that the Pope is promoting a false philosophy of religion. If we view Assisi in isolation then it can and will lead to such misunderstandings. The reality is that Assisi is only one small part of a broader picture. You are spot on when you say that the destructive aspects of other religions should not be air brushed. I would not expect these to be especially highlighted at an Assisi event -- where the stated objective is the promote prayer for peace. The desctructive religious elements will be treated in their proper place. A recent example can be found in the latest papal encyclical (CV, 55). I think it is too much to expect perfect "balance" from every isolated meeting or event. Otherwise, every meeting with a foreign dignitary or religion would have to be coupled with a rebuke to provide the balanced perspective. The balance will be found in the whole and not in every particular. My humble opinion...but I do like your style and approach here.

Ogard said...

K GURRIES, I think you are right although I wouldn’t use the “destructive elements” language. Have never ventured to go into details of other religions, except the Eastern Orthodox and Islam, and as far as I understand these, there are no destructive elements.

But whatever the case, the fact is that the Church is for ever bound to spread the Gospel to all nations, while the times when that was possible with the help of civil authorities are now over.

On the other hand, a BETTER APPRECIATION OF CONSCIENCE, in which: “one (he) is alone with God” and “according to it (which) he will be judged” (GS 16) and never allowed to violate it (“if one acts against conscience one is certainly in the wrong”), because it is an individual’s “last and the best”, even if he is in error, “judgement concerning what one should choose” (Grisez, vol. I, p. VI, and 78, interpreting S. Th. 1-2, q. 19, aa. 5–6), RAISES TWO PROBLEMS FOR US.

First, granted that those who belong to other religions are as certain that they are on the right path as we are certain, we have to be aware that their conscience forbids them, as our conscience forbids us, to expose themselves to influence of whatever kind that might endanger their faith, in other words: to compromise their conscience. Second, granted that it is immoral to incite others to act contrary to their conscience, it seems clear that we must refrain from actively trying to convert anyone, as different from a situation in which his conscience is perplexed and he is himself asking for help because he doesn’t feel at ease with the religion in which he happened to be caught.

So, how to evangelize the world? I think we should change the aim of conversion, from persuading somebody to “join the club” to bringing him as close as he is prepared to go, or as far as God provides him with grace, to the fullness of faith of the Catholic Church, even if he is unlikely ever to reach the stage of “joining the club”.

How to bring him closer? Certainly not by our secret will to bring him into the club – it would be off-putting, and even an obstacle to conversion at any time in the future - but by acknowledging, with gratitude to God, any truth and good he is in possession already, willingness to discover more of it in a sincere dialogue, because that cannot be but the good of our Faith; and supporting it by any possible means at our disposal, because thus far he has already been converted or, in a sense, he has never been a non-Catholic.

That constitutes the healthy base on which he can build if interested, and it goes without saying that requires our own conversion, because who among us can claim to be materially better Catholic than he is, as different from being formally in the club.

I think this is the aim of the meetings like so much maligned one in Assisi. So, I don’t see anything “deeply scandalous use of the churches of Assisi during the 1986. Consecrated sanctuaries being used for Buddhist rites, for example” as CHES sees it, if the Blessed Sacrament had been removed (more scandalous is when the church is used for purpose other than religious in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament).

There are no false religions: all of them are defective forms of life due to our neglect of duty to spread the Gospel, but the aim of all of them is to honour the Creator, or to seek Him.

(note: after I have made this comment ready for posting I noted the Assisi III post, and will comment it sepatately on its own place)

Ches said...


Apologies, I answered this yesterday but Blogspot managed to loose my comment somehow.

In short, Ogard, I'm talking about participation in rites or liturgies which are specifically not Christian. John Paul casting maize flour on dried marrow skins or pouring out water near an animist sanctuary have got to rank as bizarre ways of evangelizing unbelievers - I take it that inter-religious activity has that goal. By the same token, Benedict's prayer in the Blue Mosque I find deeply confused in its symbolism.

Ogard said...

There is in my PC file a comment intended to be a follow up on KGurries (above yours here), which too must have been messed by the Blogspot or whoever. See the note above my Easter greeting in the Post Assisi III.

I don't think the JP's example would mislead anybody, but it will definitely show the "unbelievers" that he respects their faith and v.v. There is nothing specifically non- Christian in it, although it is not specifically Christian either. What is specifically Christian is a respect to persons, and the respect for what they believe, whether we agree with them or not.

Likewise, the BVI's prayer in the Blue Mosque. I hope we would not dispute that Allah is the Arabic name for God, as Jahveh is the Jewish name for God, whom we call the Holy Trinity, or God "in general" (as "different" trom God the Father). So what is wrong in praying to God in the Mosque?

I would suggest to any Catholic to learn by heart the first verse of the first Sura, and pray it occasionally. If you wish, I'll post it.

Ches said...

Sorry, Ogard, I find that view hopelessly simplistic. To take just the example of Pope Benedict, our prayers, as Christians, are specifically shaped by the Christological character of our religion, because Christ is our High Priest. In this light, to pray publically in a Mosque where this unique character of Christ is categorically denied gives a very confused representation of what we think is important. How can we go to God? That is the question. Such an action seems to suggest the Islam is yet another acceptable path. So let the pope go and dialogue. But let him avoid anything that smacks of this equivocation.

Ogard said...

But Ches, you can pray even laudly without explicitly referring to Christ as God, say: Hail Mary, or My Dear Angel. And what you pray interiorly you can pray everywhere, including the Mosque. Particularly, because the latter is built for the prayer to God, and we know that Christ is God.

"to pray publically in a Mosque where this unique character of Christ is categorically denied gives a very confused representation of what we think is important" -- The Mosque is morally indiffernt place - it is just a buliding. If you can offer a Mass in a hotel hall, in which, perhaps the evening before, a morally dirty function was held, why can't you offer a prayer in the Mosque, in which Moslems prostrate in devotion to the same God as we do in our own way? As for the "confused representation" who is confused? I am not; are you? and if yes, have you got a wrong notion of Chirst by this event?

Ches said...


The question is not about whether one can offer a prayer in a mosque. The problem is what that signifies about how we view the universe and our relationship with God.

But since you ask, "why can't you offer a prayer in the Mosque, in which Moslems prostrate in devotion to the same God as we do in our own way?" I wonder whether you are not unconsciously shifting your religious perspective for the sake of being irenic.

When WE pray, it is not OUR way but the way GOD himself has shown us. The very fact this distinction has escaped you in your argument should worry you enormously.

Ogard said...

The mosque is a conventional sign, not the natural one; so, one can make it signify whatever one wants to. I know of one church which is now a cathedral while it used to be a pagan temple, and it must have been the case with many when Christians took over the Roman Empire. Have I misunderstood you? What you mean by “how we view the universe and our relationship with God”?
The Moslems pray to God whom they know, in part, from contacts which Mohammad had with Jews and Christians; supported by reason which can lead everyone to the knowledge of God without Revelation, D1806. Although that knowledge is not explicitly Trinitarian, the latter is materially present in the true concept of God; in other words, the Moslems pray to the Holy Trinity as the Jews do, as the Apostles did, and our children as well as “children”.
Verses 1,2. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The beneficent, the merciful = Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
3, 4a. Master of the day of judgment. Thee do we serve, = Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
4b,5. thee do we ask for help. Guide us on the right path = Give us today our daily bread,
6. The path of those whom thou has favoured = And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation,
7. Not of those who earn thy anger, nor those who go astray = but deliver us from evil.
NOTE: According to one Hadith (oral tradition of Mohammad’s sayings), “those who earn thy anger” are the Jews (allegedly hostile to the Moslems), and “those who go astray” are Christians (because they have made God of what is merely a prophet, i.e. Jesus).
I see no syncretism in trying to identify in Islam the truly Catholic elements, and those which although different from what is Catholic superficially, can be seen as Catholic in substance or compatible with it. Three things are required for conversion of a Moslem:
1)Catholic Faith in its fullness, which doesn’t mean for him to start from scratch, but to build upon what is already materially Catholic in his faith;
2)to give up what is INCOMPATIBLE with the Catholic Faith;
3)and our own conversion, in the sense of readiness to receive him as he is with all elements which are his own but yet fully COMPATIBLE with the Catholic Faith.
The latter might turn out to be enriching the Catholic Faith, as the Bible, the Fathers and the Doctors were enriched by extra-Jewish and extra-Christian elements: Pagan mythology and religious ritual, Socrates, Plato and Stoic ethics, and generally Neo-Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy.
Each one of us has to come to terms that our own, as individual, notion of the Catholic Faith, does not infallibly express the Faith of the Church. We receive it from various sources and what we make out of it is our own, not necessarily the Faith of the Church, and grows on this pilgrimage, unless we allow it to lapse or retard. A frequent example of the latter is the entrenchment in the frame of his own views, with an unwillingness to be self-critical.
What do you mean by: by prayer “the way GOD himself has shown us”?

K Gurries said...

Ogard, I do think the Pope has the right and duty to point out the "destructive elements" within non-Catholic religious traditions. The Church can serve to purify conscience (even for non-Christians) without doing violence to conscience (coercion). As I noted above, there is a good example of this found in the latest encyclical. Of course, all of this is related to pastoral/prudential matters. The Pope will probably not be very effective by only poining out the negative. Nor will he be effecitve by only highlighting the positive (what we have in common). There is a healthy balance to strike. That is why I stop short of condemning Asissi altoghether. But it has to be viewed within the context of the whole if it is to be properly understood.

Ogard said...

K Gurries, just to start with the “destructive elements”, we must not rush our judgments on destructiveness, because we are outsiders. What appears to us as a cockle could be only the surface of what is in reality; and what is the case we cannot know without help of the insiders, and we will never know it if we do not establish a sincere dialogue with them, and we will never establish it unless we approach them in the way that is acceptable to them, and we will never make ourselves acceptable to them, if do not get rid of our superiority complex, and make them see Christ in us without mentioning Him by name. The Church in her visible aspect cannot purify their conscience unless her children are not purified themselves. That is how I see it although the encyclical mentioned might help me change my mind. Is it on the Internet, and can you identify the passages?
I think that the healthy-balance-to-strike talk is a useless exercise, because it is not ourselves who dictate the terms of accepting a dialogue. They will listen, and have a full right to do so, only if it is acceptable to them. On the other hand, we have no right to cease the evangelization, and we have ceased if we approach them in the way which is, by all reasonable standards, likely to be rejected. That way would be like washing the hands.

K Gurries said...

Ogard, the Magisterium certainly has the competence to judge what is and what is not in accordance with natural and positive divine law. That would include the duty/right to point out aspects of other religious traditions that contradict the natural moral law. Pope Benedict called out specific destructive aspects (destructive to authentic human development) within various religious traditions in his latest encyclical. I wrote about it here (and include the relevant links to the encyclical)...

ogard said...

K Gurries
Thank you for the information, but I see nothing there that would clash with what I said.
In point of fact the assertion "Christianity, the religion of the God who has a human face, contains this very criterion within itself” (CV, 55), is exactly the point I made: one think is the Chistianity, another what each one of us makes out of it. Unless we make in our human faces the image of Christ, there is nothing we can give to others that they would find it worthwile to raconsider their position.

It is not the matter of what "the Pope has the right and duty to point out" but how should he make others to listen to start with; it is not the matter of whether he has the "competence to judge what is and what is not in accordance with natural and positive divine law", but of whether the others are willing to listen about it at all.

If they are offered the Faith in the terms of rights and competence, and they refuse to listen, it is our fault, not theirs.

But generally, it doesn't seem to me from the passages provided that the topic is relevant to the missionary activity at all; it looks like an attempt to explain the doctrine of DH, in view of the way how it is misunderstood by the SSPX.

K Gurries said...

Ogard, I am certainly not suggesting that this is an either/or scenario. This is a both/and. The Magisterium does have the competence and right/duty to teach what is and what is not compatible with the laws of God (including natural moral law). At the same time -- it will not be heard unless proposed with an active charity -- since charity makes the truth credible.

ogard said...

K Gurries, you are right, but my point is exactly the charity, which can't be exercised if the Church fails to establish a contact, and an attempt to esstablish it is bound to end in a failure unless it starts on purely human level without spices of our superiority complex.