Thursday, May 24, 2007

Can the Pope Retract Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Freedom?

On May 13th, the last day of his trip to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI ignited a new firestorm of controversy, by telling a meeting of Latin American bishops “The proclamation of Jesus and his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.”

Eleven days after the remarks, Google finds 15,700 references to “imposition of a foreign culture.” Growing at a rate of over 150 per hour, the comments are overwhelmingly negative.

They accuse the pope of failing to lament the history of enslavement, massacres and destruction that marked the indigenous Americans’ forced conversion to Roman Catholicism by Portuguese and Spanish invaders—a history, explicitly recognized by John Paul II during previous visits, in which 15th Century popes drew a line from North to South Pole, giving Spain sovereignty over all lands discovered to the west and Portugal over all to the east—and of turning a deaf ear to written requests by several Indian groups who sought his help in defending their lands and cultures.

Attempting to find some silver lining to this episode, National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen suggested May 17th that the pope had again fallen victim to Prada-in-mouth disease—letting ill-considered language get in the way of a legitimate theological position. Allen wrote: “Because Christ came for all, Benedict reasoned, Christianity was not alien to pre-Columbian cultures; it was the fulfillment to which their religious experience pointed.”

But it needs to be asked if even the theological position is sound.

Alfred North Whitehead’s Theory of Limits provides an important tool for weighing the importance and accuracy of assertions. His oft repeated formula, “All things work between limits,” meant that the truth or falsehood of an assertion depends on its scope of useful application. In other words, a given assertion is true only within strict limits; if those limits are forgotten, the assertion begins to do the work of a falsehood.

Benedict forgot at least two important limits to his assertion that Jesus is the true fulfillment of indigenous cultures and religions.

The first is that Christians are by no means unanimous on what that concept means or how it should be unpacked. That Jesus is the fulfillment of non-Christian religions is an assertion that goes back to the earliest Fathers of the Christian church. But it may mean merely that those religions have teachings and practices which are compatible with teachings and practices of Jesus. It does not lead automatically to the belief that explicit conversion to Christianity is the only way indigenous peoples can be saved.

Catholics and others have sometimes asserted that there can be no salvation apart from belief in their specific version of Jesus. But Christians, and even Catholics, have never said this univocally or unequivocally. Catholics nuanced this view significantly in several documents at the Second Vatican Council, and it has been subject to ongoing debate in Christian theology schools for decades.

The second limitation on Benedict’s theology is that, with the Decree on Religious Freedom, approved overwhelmingly by the bishops at Vatican II after months of debate and proclaimed by the pope December 7, 1965, the Catholic Church explicitly and intentionally developed its teaching on evangelization—by characterizing violation of religious freedom as an unacceptable assault not only on the dignity of the human person but also on divine revelation itself.

The church’s position was unmistakable: “This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”

Vatican II spoke approvingly of Jesus’ commission to his followers, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19-20). But the church was careful to call even manipulative proselytizing an offense against human dignity: “…in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices, everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of ones own right and a violation of the right of others.”

The Council also said that forced conversion contradicted the behavior and will of the persuasive God personified in Jesus: “This truth appears at its height in Christ Jesus… He is also meek and humble of heart. And in attracting and inviting His disciples He acted patiently… His intention was to rouse faith in His hearers and to confirm them in faith, not to exert coercion upon them… He refused to be a political Messiah, ruling by force… He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it.”

Tension remained in the Catholic position on evangelization even after Vatican II. The Council did not successfully flesh out how missionary activity could be justified and carried forward while still being respectful of other religions. But the Council clearly drew the line at forced conversion as a legitimate means of spreading the gospel.

The largest failing of Benedict’s Brazil pronouncement is that it crosses that line. Condoning the savagery against indigenous peoples orchestrated by the 15th Century popes is not acceptable. Nor is appearing to condone continuation of that savagery where it is still being perpetrated—whether by multinational corporations, reactionary governments, or religious fundamentalists. Nor is suggesting that Western European culture is the one by which all others must be measured—and the only one from which others can learn.

Benedict can take such positions only if he retracts the Declaration on Religious Freedom enacted by Vatican II and Pope Paul VI. For reasons Vatican II articulated all too well, he lacks the authority to do so. If he tries to, much of the church will ignore him. Some Catholics will part company with him. Google already tells us what most of the world thinks.

The closest Benedict got to a legitimate point was a statement that has barely been quoted at all: “Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life.”

Benedict’s mistake, however, was his failure to apply this first of all to Europe, historically or today. The indigenous cultures of America welcomed the 15th Century Europeans with encounter and dialogue. Their reward was to have an alien culture and religion imposed on them by force, by Europeans truly “closed in upon themselves.” The victims rightly call this genocide.

More than one commentator has noted the irony that George W. Bush, no favorite of the Europeans, has actually done a better job addressing this issue than Benedict XVI. On the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, Bush decried the negative effects that European colonization had on the Indian tribes of Virginia. Queen Elizabeth II also used the occasion to express sorrow for the British role in oppressing Native Americans and Africans.

The other Europeans—and the European pope—also need to repent of the destruction of other cultures and religions. And they need to make clear to the world that their deepest, most enduring commitment is never to repeat it again.

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