B16: Is this pope a Universalist?

Benedict English ColorHistorian Martin Marty once told me that many people have a definition of “ecumenism” that goes something like this: “I don’t believe very much and you don’t believe very much, so we must have a lot in common.”

The same thing, of course, goes for interfaith dialogues as well. There are people involved in these kinds of talks whose point of view, as an Episcopal lawyer who researches religious liberties issues once told me, could be summed up with another old saying: “You know, there are people out there who just don’t love everyone the way that they should, and I hate people like that.”

Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI has a reputation for not fitting into either of those camps. And the Baltimore Sun does not seem to be very happy about that. However, hang on, because we need to look at a Sun story that includes a very fitting twist that offers a glimpse of actual religious tolerance. So keep reading.

Here is the top of the daily story in the Sun by Matthew Hay Brown, which very much blazes its own trail from the rest of the daily coverage:

With his visits to a synagogue and a mosque, his acknowledgment of the sins of Christians against Muslims and Jews, and his decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, Pope John Paul II won the appreciation and trust of believers of other faiths the world over.

His successor, meeting today with leaders of other faiths during his first American visit, is developing a very different kind of reputation. In his three years as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI has alienated other Christians with his repeated assertion that his is the one true church. A 2006 address in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence set off riots in Muslim countries. And Jews continue to protest his endorsement of a prayer for their conversion.

To some Catholics, those are the forthright moves of a stalwart defender of the faith. But critics, inside the church and out, say his words and actions may be complicating already delicate relations with other religions.

“He has a very, very high Christology, which is to say there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. And the only path to Jesus Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, ” said Catholic scholar Rosann Catalano, associate director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. “If that’s your starting point, it seems to me, there is not an openness to the possibility that the other — the one who is not you — can be a blessing.”

There are all kinds of nuances missing in that, especially the fact that the lede focuses on issues that are not directly linked to either Christology or salvation. It’s the same old framework that pits Pope John Paul II against his close associate, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. For a really good look at the complexities of that issue, see the Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled “The Year of Two Popes.”

The Sun has, however, raised the right issue — which moves us right into the heart of the dreaded “tmatt trio.” (Cheers!) For the pope, the first two questions would be relevant:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Do NOT reach for the mouse yet, to click “comment.”

Trust me, I am well aware that the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on other world religions have evolved a bit in the past generation or two. This issue has come up before here at GetReligion. I know who Karl Rahner is, thank you, and the meaning of the term “anonymous Christian.”

The folks at the Sun can rest assured that Benedict XVI knows who Rahner is, too.

rainbow vestments 03The question, for the pope, is how he can reconcile ancient Christian teachings with a strong commitment to religious liberty and tolerance. I predict we will hear more about that at the United Nations this week.

It’s amazing, to me, that there are journalists and other public critics who are convinced that Benedict needs to slash away at the doctrines of his faith, yet they would freak out if he made the same demands of the leaders of other world religions.

There are, of course, other religious leaders who have spotted this paradox. To the credit of the Sun team, one of them shows up in this analysis piece — let’s call it what it is — about the pope’s visit. Here is a crucial passage. See if you can spot the dynamic that is at work here, a dynamic I am not sure if the reporter realized was there.

Jewish and Muslim participants in today’s meeting say their conversations with the church remain productive.

“We’ve seen an utter transformation in this critical relationship in just four decades without parallel in the 2,000 years prior,” said David Michaels, director of intercommunal affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “We’ve seen so much progress in such a relatively short period of time that I think the Catholic-Jewish relationship can and should serve as a model.”

Still, he called Pope Benedict’s approval of the prayer for the conversion of the Jews for the Latin Mass on Good Friday “a cause for real hurt and concern. … We will be raising it, moving forward, with our Catholic partners at various levels.”

Not all Jews are as concerned. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who will be representing the Orthodox Union at the meeting, sees the prayer as an internal matter.

“We would not be so brazen as to tamper with another religion’s liturgy, and we would expect that other religions would not tamper with our liturgy,” the former leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore said.

What is the subtle point? Note that Weinreb is from the Orthodox Union, which means that he is used to having believers on the left — Jewish and otherwise — tell him that his fellow Orthodox believers need to edit their rites and practices in order to fit into modern life.

Does Weinreb agree with Benedict on these theological issues? Of course not. But, clearly, the rabbi is committed to religious tolerance. His voice was an essential part of this story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Andy

    Mr. Brown wrote:

    A 2006 address in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence set off riots in Muslim countries.

  • Andy

    Sorry, I got cut off. I only meant to ask whether the sentence above was meant to be funny.

  • Jerry

    Maybe we need to define tolerance to mean being willing to let someone else make very stupid mistakes without going off the deep end ourselves?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Is it traditional Jews, Muslims or Christians that you are calling stupid, or all of the above?

  • Dave

    Jerry writes:

    Maybe we need to define tolerance to mean being willing to let someone else make very stupid mistakes without going off the deep end ourselves?

    The biological definition of “tolerance” works very well in this instance, in my opinion: The ability to put up with something that irritates you.

  • Mark Ruzon

    This is off-topic, but B16 is a vitamin, and in my opinion it is not a very respectful way of referring to the pope.

  • Laura

    I agree whole heartedly with the Orthodox Rabbi in the article. Look, I know that some protestant Christians think I’m going straight to hell because I’m Catholic, and if they believe that going to church every Sunday and saying a prayer for my soul is the right thing to do, then that’s fine with me. I need all the prayers I can get. If people of other religions believe that I worship a false god and that I’m part of some weird cult, that’s fine with me too. I’ll pray for their conversion just as they’ll pray for mine. The bottom line is, I like the Good Friday prayer. I mean, if it hurts people’s feelings, what can I do… I’m sorry? I don’t know what else to say cause I can’t change what I believe.

  • Julia

    The Good Friday prayers are not calls directed at people, telling them they should convert. They are prayers to God to help people find the Catholic belief of God for their own good. By the way, there are similar prayers on Good Friday for other Christians and pagans, not just Jews.

    What is at the bottom of this, I think, is the whole “relativity” thing that pervades our consiousness. Realistically, each of us believes our opinions are correct. Sometimes we try to convince others of our opinions.

    We have seen an awful lot of political debates over the past few months. I’ve never heard any of the candidates give up and say “whatever”. Each thinks their opinion is correct.

    I think the Jews still have a prayer whereby a male thanks God that he was not born a woman. Where’s the outrage over that?

    I have a Jewish sister and two Jewish in-laws. My sister would not have converted if she didn’t think the Jews had it right. She and my in-laws are not offended that I still think being Catholic is the right way to go. Why would I want to belong to a religion if I didn’t think its teachings were the right ones?