Saturday, November 26, 2005


Ex Corde Gregoriam

The problem with relativism is not that it rejects absolutes, it's that it relativizes what is absolute and absolutizes what is relative.

Friday, November 18, 2005


John Paul The Great Missionary Pope

Bust of Pope John Paul II outside of the Urakami Cathedral Nagasaki, Japan
On my recent trip to Japan, I decided to pass the time during the 11+ hour flight from LAX to Tokyo by rereading John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”. My first reading of thatgreat book about 11 years ago was my first real exposure to the thought of the recently-deceased pontiff; during which time, I was having great difficulty reconciling the idea of Catholicism being the only true religion (naturally bound up with this of course was similar difficulty with the teaching of no salvation outside the Catholic Church) and the fact there is religious and spiritual truth in religions (namely Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism) outside the formal boundaries of the Catholic faith and Christianity in general.

I will never forget how helpful this book was in enabling me to begin to reconcile what superficially appeared to be irreconcilable. The care and skill with which the pope dealt with that difficult and oftentimes painful question impressed me deeply. First was the way he rooted his response not in his own opinion and insight, but in the authoritative teaching of the Church. He cites Vatican II’s Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) which states:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (NA#2)

Let me stop there for a moment. Discovering the fact that the Church even recognizes truth and holiness in other religions was, by itself, a ground breaking discovery for me. Until that time, I had labored under the misconception that in laying claim to being the only true religion meant the Church was saying that unless it bore the marks of explicit formal Catholicism, it had no religious or spiritual value. Unfortunately, I am not the only one who was taken in by that error. In fact, some, if not many well-meaning Catholics have been (and still are) likewise misled. Such an idea flies in the face of Church teaching expressed not only by Vatican II, and subsequent magisterial statements, but also what the Church said prior to VCII. For instance, Pope Pius XII said the following in 1950:

Now Catholic theologians and philosophers, whose grave duty it is to defend natural and supernatural truth and instill it in the hearts of men, cannot afford to ignore or neglect these more or less erroneous opinions. Rather they must come to understand these same theories well, both because diseases are not properly treated unless they are rightly diagnosed, and because sometimes even in these false theories a certain amount of truth is contained, and, finally because these theories provoke more subtle discussion and evaluation of philosophical and theological truths. (Humani Generis #9)

John Paul II’s efforts in regards to non-Christian religions are an amplification, in principle, of what his predecessor called for in the above-cited quote.

While by no means ignoring or glossing over the vast differences between Catholicism and non-Christian religions the pope, by recognizing what is “true and holy” in these other religions, draws some much-needed parallels:

“YOU SPEAK OF MANY RELIGIONS. INSTEAD I will attempt to show the common fundamental element and the common root of these religions. The Council defined the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions in a specific document that begins with the words ‘Nostra Aetate’(‘In our time’). It is a concise and yet very rich document that authentically hands on the Tradition, faithful to the thought of the Earliest Fathers of the Church. From the beginning, Christian Revelation has viewed the spiritual history of man as including, in some way, all religions, thereby demonstrating the unity of humankind with regard to the eternal and ultimate destiny of man. The Council document speaks of this unity and links it with the current trend to bring to bring humanity closer together through the resources available to our civilization. The Church sees the promotion of this unity as one of its duties: ‘There is only one community and it consists of all peoples. They have only one origin, since God, whose providence, goodness, and plan for salvation extend to all….Men turn to various religions to solve the mysteries of the human condition, which today, as in earlier times, burden people’s hearts: the nature of man; the meaning and purpose of life; good and evil; the origin and purpose of suffering; the way to true happiness; death; judgment and retribution after death; and finally, the ultimate ineffable mystery which is the origin and destiny of our existence. From the ancient times up to today all the various peoples have shared and continue to share an awareness of that enigmatic power that is present throughout the course of things and throughout the events of human life, and, in which, at times, even the Supreme Divinity or the Father is recognizable. This awareness and recognition imbue life with an intimate religious sense. Religions that are tied up with cultural progress strive to solve these issues with more refined concepts and a more precise language” (Nostra Aetate 1-2)

Here the Council document brings us to the Far East--first of all to Asia, a continent where the Church’s missionary activity, carried out since the times of the apostles, has borne, we must recognize, very modest fruit. It is well known that only a small percentage of the population on what is the largest continent believes in Christ.

This does not mean that the Church’s missionary efforts have lapsed¾quite the opposite: that effort has been and still remains intense. And yet the tradition of very ancient cultures, antedating Christianity, remains very strong in the East. Even if faith in Christ reaches hearts and minds, the negative connotations associated with the image of life in Western society (the so-called Christian society) present a considerable obstacle to acceptance of the Gospel. Mahatma Gandhi, Indian and Hindu, pointed this out many times, in his deeply evangelical manner. He was disillusioned with the ways in which Christianity was expressed in the political and social life of nations. Could a man who fought for the liberation of his great nation from colonial dependence accept Christianity in the same form as it had been imposed on his country by those same colonial powers?

The Second Vatican Council realized this difficulty. This is why the document on the relations between the Church and Hinduism and other religions of the Far East is so important. We read: ‘In Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it through an endless bounty of myths and through penetrating philosophical insights. They seek freedom from the anguish of the human condition, either by way of ascetic life, profound meditation, or by taking refuge in God with love and trust. The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadequacy of this malleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination’ (Nostra Aetate 2)…

The words of the Council recall the conviction, long rooted in Tradition, of the existence of the so-called semina Verbi (seeds of the Word), present in all religions. In the light of this conviction, the Church seeks to identify the semina Verbi present in the great traditions of the Far East, in order to trace a common path against the backdrop of the needs of the contemporary world. We can affirm that here the position of the Council is inspired by a truly universal concern. The Church is guided by the faith that God the Creator wants to save all humankind in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man, inasmuch as He is the Redeemer of all humankind. The Paschal Mystery is equally available to all, and, through it, the way to eternal salvation is also open to all.

In another passage the Council says that the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible structure of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 13), making use of these very semina Verbi, that constitute a kind of common soteriological root present in all religions.

I have been convinced of this on numerous occasions, both while visiting the countries of the Far East and while meeting representatives of those religions, especially during the historic meeting at Assisi, where we found ourselves gathered together praying for peace.

Thus, instead of marveling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them.

At this point it would be helpful to recall all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship. It seems that those who practice them are particularly close to Christianity, and among them, the Church’s missionaries also find it easier to speak a common language. Is there, perhaps, in this veneration of ancestors a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of Saints, in which all believers—whether living or dead—form a single community, a single body? And faith in the Communion of Saints is, ultimately, faith in Christ, who alone is the source of life and of holiness for all. There is nothing strange, then, that the African and Asian animists would become believers in Christ more easily than followers of the great religions of the Far East.

As the Council also noted, these last religions possess the characteristics of a system. They are systems of worship and also ethical systems, with a strong emphasis on good and evil. Certainly among these belong Chinese Confucianism and Taoism: Tao means eternal truth—something similar to the ‘Word’—which is reflected in the action of man by means of truth and moral good. The religions of the Far East have contributed greatly to the history of morality and culture, forming a national identity in the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and Tibetans, and also in peoples of the Southeast Asia and the archipelagoes of the Pacific Ocean.

Some of these peoples come from age-old cultures. The indigenous peoples of Australia boast a history tens of thousands of years old, and their ethnic and religious tradition is older than that of Abraham and Moses.

Christ came into the world for these peoples. He redeemed them all and has His own ways of reaching each of them in the present eschatological phase of salvation history. In fact, in those regions, many accept Him and many more have in implicit faith in Him (cf. Heb 11:6). (Crossing the Threshold of Hope pp. 77-83.)

But it is a grave error to think, as the pope alludes to above by mentioning that “[t]he Church is guided by the faith that God the Creator wants to save as humankind in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man, inasmuch as He is the Redeemer of all humankind” that the elements Catholicism shares in common with these other religions can be understood in a syncretistic sense. Picking up where I left off above in quoting the Council document on non-Christian religions that goes on to state, “[I]ndeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.”(NA#2)

Again, this is a point that John Paul II has stressed over and over again in various speeches, such as those delivered at Assisi in 1986 and 2002 and in various magisterial documents such as Dominus Iesus promulgated by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith at the pope’s request. In the same “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” cited at length above, the Holy Father draws clear contrasts between Christian faith and these other religions, Buddhism and Islam namely. With Buddhism, the pope points out that while it offers a doctrine of salvation, its understanding what salvation is concretely is radically opposed to the Christian understanding of it. The former understands salvation in a negative sense in that it entails a total detachment from external and material reality which is viewed in this system as being the source of all evil, like that of Manichæism or Gnosticism that have a material vs. spiritual dualistic theological approach. Christian theology (apart from which its soteriology cannot be properly understood), on the other hand, sees the external and material reality as good because they come from the hand of God as does the spiritual. As to Islam, he seconds, in his own voice, the Council’s respect and “high regard” for the religiosity of Muslims. However, he goes on to explain that, in contrast to the Old and New Testaments, Islam “ completely reduces Divine Revelation.”
He goes on to say:

It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammed. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity. (ibid. pp.92-93)

If it is in Christ the “find the fullness of religious life” and “in whom God has reconciled all things in Himself”, then it is only in Christ (and by extension in the Church He founded) where men ultimately find their salvation. The Holy Father summed it up this way: “Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the Cross of Christ.” (ibid. p. 73) I will never forget how much this simple phrase helped me tie together those three ideas that seemed so irreconcilable. It is this light that the idea how those who, through no fault of their own (i.e. invincible ignorance), do not accept Christ or his Church before death, can be saved makes sense. {1} It is my contention that either at some point in this life or at that moment such people pass through the portal of this life into the next he will be clearly presented with this truth and have to make a decision in that regard. The question I have about such cases is the same as the question the pope posed:

Will he be willing to accept the truth of the Pascal Mystery, or not? Will he have faith? This is yet another issue. This Mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of “the vine” and “the branches’ in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 15:1-8), the Pascal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual. (ibid pp73-74)

A 1949 Holy Office Letter “On the Ecumenical Movement” , in reassuring prospective Protestant converts to the Church said: “It should be made clear to them that, in returning to the Church, they will lose nothing of that good which by the grace of God has hitherto been implanted in them, but that it will rather be supplemented and completed by their return. “ In the same light, it can said to those non-Christians that they lose nothing “true and holy” in their religious traditions, but embrace them all the more by accepting "the truth of the Pascal Mystery".

Stopping “before the Cross of Christ” is not only a prerequisite of salvation. It also says something significant about the life of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). His life was an 84 year “stop before the Cross of Christ.” This fact was recognized by those outside the Catholic fold as well as by those within it. On the occasion of the pontiff’s death, the non-Catholic Rush Limbaugh, who summed it up thus, “The life Pope John Paul II was about one thing: the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

I also have no doubt that his unwavering witness to Christ struck a chord deep into the hearts of those non-Christian religious leaders who he reached out to in dialogue, although the latter my not have been fully cognizant of it. Despite the fact that same religious leaders often took umbrage with John Paul II’s insistence on the faith of Christ and the Catholic religion He founded being the only true religion, they still accepted the pontiff’s invitation to Assisi {2} for an interfaith prayer meeting on two separate occasions. It shows that they saw in John Paul II’s witness to Christ as His Vicar, true religious leadership, albeit imperfectly.

If the day that the Far East, in its rich ancient cultural heritage, converts to the true faith ever comes to pass, history will show that the efforts of the great missionary Pope John Paul II played an essential part in bringing that to fruition.


{1} Those who wish to portray Pius IX’s “it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry” as meaning that it would “unlawful” for the Magisterium to gain a deeper understanding of the issue of invincible ignorance are clearly mistaken. The fact that the issue was taken up in a dogmatic constitution of an ecumenical council over a hundred years later disproves that notion.

{2} I would urge readers to look at Cardinal Ratzinger’s (Pope Benedict XVI) assessment of the Assisi interfaith prayer meetings I posted to the Lidless Eye Inquisition.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Your (trying to be) humble host at the A-Bomb hypocenter Nagasaki, Japan circa November 2005. The Atom Bomb drop on Nagasaki, like that on Hiroshima, stands as an example of how cruel the good must be at times in it's triumph over evil.

For further explanation click here and here.

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