Month: September 2003

Orthopraxis & Orthodoxy

“Orthopraxis” is a word that I’ve encountered a lot when reading texts on Catholic social thought. As to what the word really means, depends on who you ask. Many of those advocating what is called “liberation theology” conceive of orthopraxis in opposition to orthodoxy, prioritizing the former over the latter as the starting point of orthodoxy. In an article on “theocentric Christology”, Paul Ritter explains his understanding of ‘orthopraxis’ from the perspective of liberation theology:

For liberation Christology, as for liberation theology in general, praxis is the foundation and touchstone of theory. This means, according to these theologians, that one can really know who Jesus is, one can know the meaning of his titles, only in the concrete following of Jesus, only in the practice of the Gospel. Furthermore, liberation theologians hold that it is not necessary to have crystal clarity and certainty in one’s theory or doctrine about Jesus before one commits oneself to living his message. Orthodoxy, in other words, will flow from, and constantly have to be reexamined in, orthopraxis. 1

From Ritter’s perspective, one could say that we arrive at orthodoxy (“right knowledge”) by way of orthopraxis. Or as one Catholic blogger has put it:

“The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy” 2

Granted that we are called to live the gospel, and not just merely study it in the context of the classroom or the pulpit, this understanding of “orthopraxis” begs the question: what would Jesus do? What does it mean, exactly, to live the gospel in various circumstances in everyday life? As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it would be incorrect to prioritize right action over knowledge, as the former presupposes the latter. He raises this question in his address to the Latin American bishops in 1996:

Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way? The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. 3

Later on in the address, Ratzinger notes that orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism. According to Ratzinger the traditional conception of orthopraxis in Indian religions had something in common with the early Christian church:

In the suffix doxia, doxa was not understood in the sense of “opinion” (real opinion). From the Greek viewpoint, opinions are always relative; doxa was understood rather in its meaning of “glory, glorification.” To be orthodox thus meant to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified. It refers to the cult and, based on the cult, to life. In this sense here there would be a solid point for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.

In his address to the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy in June of last year, Ratzinger returned to the alleged opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy:

For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action. Indeed, when this distinction is made, there generally is a suggestion that the word orthodoxy is to be disdained: those who hold fast to right doctrine are seen as people of narrow sympathy, rigid, potentially intolerant. In the final analysis, for those holding this rather critical view of orthodoxy everything depends on “right action”, with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion. For those holding this view, the chief thing is the fruit doctrine produces, while the way that leads to our just action is a matter of indifference. Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word “orthodoxy” not to mean “right doctrine” but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.

They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God’s will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent. 4

Not all of those occupied with Catholic social thought and justice embrace the prioritization of orthopraxy over orthodoxy criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger. Robert Waldrop, who maintains the Catholic social justice website JustPeace.Org, defines orthopraxis as: “rooted in the belief that Christian orthodoxy will yield, as its fruit, a Christian “orthopraxy”, a way of being and living that is consistent with the social justice imperatives of the Catholic faith.”

However, just because Mr. Waldrop and Mark & Louise Zwick of the Catholic Workers share the orthodox Catholic faith of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree on how that faith is manifested in concrete practice in everyday life, especially in the world of business and economics.

  1. “Theocentric Christology” Theology Today July 1983 Vol. 40, No. 2.
  2. “Liberation Theology”, posted by ‘jcecil’ on Thursday, May 22, 2003. Part of ‘J. Cecil’s Progressive Catholic Reflections’, making unconventional use of the blogging medium to “advance progressive Catholic views.”
  3. “Current Situation in Faith & Theology”. Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  4. Eucharist, Communion & Solidarity. Lecture by H. Em. Card. Joseph Ratzinger at the Bishops Conference of the Region of Campania in Benevuto, Italy. June 2, 2002.
Advertisements

Orthopraxis [vs.] Orthodoxy?

“Orthopraxis” is a word that I’ve encountered a lot when reading texts on Catholic social thought. As to what the word really means, depends on who you ask. Many of those advocating what is called “liberation theology” conceive of orthopraxis in opposition to orthodoxy, prioritizing the former over the latter as the starting point of orthodoxy. In an article on “theocentric Christology”, Paul Ritter explains his understanding of ‘orthopraxis’ from the perspective of liberation theology:

For liberation Christology, as for liberation theology in general, praxis is the foundation and touchstone of theory. This means, according to these theologians, that one can really know who Jesus is, one can know the meaning of his titles, only in the concrete following of Jesus, only in the practice of the Gospel. Furthermore, liberation theologians hold that it is not necessary to have crystal clarity and certainty in one’s theory or doctrine about Jesus before one commits oneself to living his message. Orthodoxy, in other words, will flow from, and constantly have to be reexamined in, orthopraxis. 1

From Ritter’s perspective, one could say that we arrive at orthodoxy (“right knowledge”) by way of orthopraxis. Or as one Catholic blogger has put it:

“The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy” 2

Granted that we are called to live the gospel, and not just merely study it in the context of the classroom or the pulpit, this understanding of “orthopraxis” begs the question: what would Jesus do? What does it mean, exactly, to live the gospel in various circumstances in everyday life? As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it would be incorrect to prioritize right action over knowledge, as the former presupposes the latter. He raises this question in his address to the Latin American bishops in 1996:

Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way? The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. 3

Later on in the address, Ratzinger notes that orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism. According to Ratzinger the traditional conception of orthopraxis in Indian religions had something in common with the early Christian church:

In the suffix doxia, doxa was not understood in the sense of “opinion” (real opinion). From the Greek viewpoint, opinions are always relative; doxa was understood rather in its meaning of “glory, glorification.” To be orthodox thus meant to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified. It refers to the cult and, based on the cult, to life. In this sense here there would be a solid point for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.

In his address to the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy in June of last year, Ratzinger returned to the alleged opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy:

For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action. Indeed, when this distinction is made, there generally is a suggestion that the word orthodoxy is to be disdained: those who hold fast to right doctrine are seen as people of narrow sympathy, rigid, potentially intolerant. In the final analysis, for those holding this rather critical view of orthodoxy everything depends on “right action”, with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion. For those holding this view, the chief thing is the fruit doctrine produces, while the way that leads to our just action is a matter of indifference. Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word “orthodoxy” not to mean “right doctrine” but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.

They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God’s will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent. 4

Not all of those occupied with Catholic social thought and justice embrace the prioritization of orthopraxy over orthodoxy criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger. Robert Waldrop, who maintains the Catholic social justice website JustPeace.Org, defines orthopraxis as: “rooted in the belief that Christian orthodoxy will yield, as its fruit, a Christian “orthopraxy”, a way of being and living that is consistent with the social justice imperatives of the Catholic faith.”

However, just because Mr. Waldrop and Mark & Louise Zwick of the Catholic Workers share the orthodox Catholic faith of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree on how that faith is manifested in concrete practice in everyday life, especially in the world of business and economics.

  1. “Theocentric Christology” Theology Today July 1983 Vol. 40, No. 2.
  2. “Liberation Theology”, posted by ‘jcecil’ on Thursday, May 22, 2003. Part of ‘J. Cecil’s Progressive Catholic Reflections’, making unconventional use of the blogging medium to “advance progressive Catholic views.”
  3. “Current Situation in Faith & Theology”. Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  4. Eucharist, Communion & Solidarity. Lecture by H. Em. Card. Joseph Ratzinger at the Bishops Conference of the Region of Campania in Benevuto, Italy. June 2, 2002.

St. Blog’s – Notable Posts

Weekends are usually when I have time available to read other people’s blogs and do a little blogging of my own. Here’s some of the content (some recent, some dated) that I found of interest in my weekend perusal of St. Blog’s:

  • Very thought-provoking discussion taking place at William Luse’ Apologia debating the moral justification of Paul Hill’s murder of an abortionist. Well worth reading.
  • Dale Price sees Gibson’s The Passion as a contemporary Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “a work whose symbolic import may well outweigh its artistic merits”. Initially it was about the merit of Jewish concerns about how they are portrayed; it is now the focal point in the “civil war” between progressive & conservative Catholics over the soul of the American Catholic Church.
  • John Da Fiesole’s Disputations responds to the question — posed elsewhere on St. Blogs — as to whether God is Catholic. Minute Particulars “tempers our pontifications” with citations from the 4th Lateran Council and St. Thomas Aquinas.

  • I’ve referred to Sandra Meisel’s article Swinging at Windmills
    a number of times in blogging on the radtrads. In “The Conspiracy of Sandra Meisel” (Rerum Novarum 9/17/03), Shawn I. McElhenney documents some rather curious similarities in phrasing between Meisel’s article and some writings of his own back in 2001. Mere coincidence? — You be the judge.

  • Marking his 6 month anniversary as a Catholic, Sean Roberts notes: “It’s been said that one of the hardest things about being Catholic is other Catholics. The truth of that statement hits home more and more these days. . . .” Having recently moved from a traditional Byzantine-Catholic parish to what a “liberal Catholic” parish (that is to say: populated by lovers of bad music, hand-holders during the “Our Father” and promoters of of “goofy social justice causes”), he realizes:

    I would walk around feeling smug, pitying all these poor souls who had no idea what true religion was, not realizing what a pharisee I was becoming. Only one thing troubled me… if they were only barely Catholic, why was their love for God so palpable?

    I’ve come to realize that making the move to St. Elizabethan was the exact thing I needed, though not for the reasons I originally thought. I’m a better Catholic for coming because I’ve learned just how big the Church is. I’m on the opposite side of just about every imaginable spectrum from most of the Roman Catholic parishioners of St. Elizabeths, but, by golly, these guys are Catholic and to be in Communion with the Pope means that I am in Communion with them as well.

    Thank you, Sean, for a good reminder to all of us.

  • Summa Contra Mundum makes the case that in most cases downloading copyrighted music is a mortal sin.
    Meanwhile, The Old Oligarch directs readers to the works of Palestrina, available at DoveSong’s MP3 Library, which also offers selections from a variety of genres ranging from Western Classical to World (Indian, Chinese, Indian, Persian) to Gospel (Black, Southern, Applachian and Bluegrass) to early Jazz & Pop from the 30’s to the 50’s.

    Granted, Dovesong’s intentions are higher than that of your adolescent, but as they admit on their homepage:


    This music is not published by The DoveSong Foundation, Inc. and is being made available for educational purposes only. We do not sell this music, nor do we own any copyrights. We do make payments to licensing organist ions, however.

    Are such payments sufficient enough as to relieve them of their guilt in file-sharing? Perhaps Summa Contra Mundum enlighten us as to their spiritual standing.

  • Speaking of The Old Oligarch, he recently blogged on The Insightful Hazards of Being a Lay Theologian, recalling some experiences which lead him to conclude that “Ex Corde Ecclesiae is so completely, absolutely correct to insist that the Church’s theologians swear their fidelity to her.”

The Fight for Terry Schindler Schiavo

Judge Greer has ordered the forced starvation of Terry Schindler Schiavo to begin on October 15, 2003, at the request of her husband, Michael Schiavo.

Terri has been confined to a nursing home in what has been called a ‘persistent vegetative state’ due to brain damage from a “sudden collapse” in 1990. (This charge is disputed by videotaped evidence that Terri responds to stimulus, such as her presence of her parents).

Terri was awarded $750,000 from this suit and an additional $250,000 from a separate malpractice lawsuit. The money was awarded to Terri for her care and rehabilitation and to be placed in a Medical Trust Fund.  Terri’s husband received his personal award money and Terri’s medical fund money in early 1993. From the date he received the award money in 1993, Michael Schiavo has denied Terri any rehabilitation treatment. Michael Schiavo has confined Terri to a nursing home (currently, Terri is in a Hospice facility) where she is ‘maintained.’ 1

Michael Schiavo claims his wife would not want to live this way and has been petitioning to have the feeding tube removed since 1998. He is currently living with another woman to whom he has announced his engagement — because Terri has no will, in the event of her death he would inherit what is left of Terri’s $750,000 medical fund, which he currently uses to pay for his legal bills.

Terri’s parents are fighting to save her life. Their efforts are impeded by the fact that her husband has withheld all medical and neurological information and will not permit any doctor to examine Terri other than the doctors he selects.

Even more disturbing is the fact that there appears to be criminal play behind Terri’s “collapse.” According to this article:


But Terri’s parents have questions about the circumstances of the reported heart attack that caused Terri’s brain damage, questions they believe should cast doubt on Michael Schiavo’s fitness to be Terri’s guardian. They point to an emergency room “admitting summary” from the night the brain damage occurred, which noted that Terri had a “rigid neck.” One physician reviewing the records stated that the only other patient he had treated with a similarly “rigid neck” had been the victim of strangulation.

The parents also believe a bone-scan report supports their theory that Terri’s brain damage is the result of an assault and not a heart attack. The parties in the dispute hotly contest the bone scan, which was completed 53 weeks after the event that led to the brain damage.

Three physicians have testified that, based upon the bone scan, Terri appeared to have been physically assaulted. The injuries they identified included “trauma to her ribs, her pelvic area, L1 vertebrae, spine, both knees and both ankles…a broken femur and a broken back.” 2

According to a petition to Governor Bush, Terri’s husband has recently petitioned the court to have Terri’s body cremated immediately following her death. The Schindler Family believes Terri’s cremation is a maneuver her husband will utilize to destroy evidence of his criminal acts.

[Thanks to Michael Dubruiel by way of Times Against Humanity for the news].

Additional Links:

  1. Source: http://www.terrisfight.org.
  2. Florida Woman to Be Allowed to Die Despite Family’s Wishes, by Jeff Johnson. CNSNews.com August 05, 2003

Ratzinger, John Hick & Religious Pluralism

[A reader inquired this past week] Q: I’ve been reading your page about CDF activities, especially with regard to unorthodox theologians. . . . I’m wondering if you could provide me an informal estimate about the percentage of CDF cases that specifically involve authors writing on Eastern religions, interfaith dialogue, and the like. It seems as if most of the ones mentioned on your page got nailed for that, and I’m wondering if it’s representative of a trend, or has more to do about which investigations would be interesting to the press.

Just as liberation theology was identified by Ratzinger as one of the “most urgent challenges for the faith of the Church” during the political turmoil of the 80’s, in this time he has directed his attention to the Christian encounter with Eastern religions, especially as it occurs in the context of interfaith dialogue and the development of a “theology of pluralism.” This was the focus of his famous address on relativism and theology to the bishops of Latin America in 1996. 1

After touching briefly on the diminishing threat of liberation theology with the downfall of Marxist systems of government, Ratzinger focuses on the issue of relativism as the prevailing philosophy of this age. Relativism “[presents itself] as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom.” While a certain degree of relativism is certainly acceptable in political affairs (“There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative — the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people — cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies”) it is dangerous when applied as a method to religion and politics, which often leads to a denial of absolute truth. As the investigations of the Congregation have shown, some of those participating in interfaith dialogue and writing about the Church’s encounter with other religions have become increasingly susceptible to relativistic assumptions, which in turn lead to a downplaying or outright dissolution of the claims of Catholic doctrine.

In his address, Ratzinger offers a critique of the “pluralist theology of religion” as expressed in the thought of the movement’s founder, Protestant theologian John Hick, who advocates a Copernican Turn from “Christocentrism” to “Theocentrism.”. 2

Hick questions (or rather, denies) Christianity’s claim on absolute truth, or that absolute truth can be conveyed in limited mediums such as church, dogma and sacrament. To affirm that we can grasp truth in doctrine and the sacraments elevates them to the category of the Absolute, which is reserved exclusively for God. Wrestling with the existence of competing and often-contradictory claims to truth by various religions, Hick resorts to a Kantian distinction between noumena (the “thing in itself” — never directly knowable) and phenomena, or that which is indirectly perceived by us through our individual subjective and quite limited experience. Humanity’s perception of the divine is thus mediated through the “conceptual lens” of our religious traditions. 3 As Hick puts it in a recent essay posted to his website:

“If we accept the distinction between the divine reality as it is in itself and as variously imaged by us, Christian doctrines are about the ultimate divine reality as conceived by us, in distinction from that reality as it is in itself. And the different truth-claims of the different religions are claims about different manifestations of the Ultimate to different human mentalities formed within different human cultures and different streams of religious history. . . . In other words, what are called the conflicting truth-claims of the religions do not in fact conflict, because they are claims about different human awarenesses of the divine, made possible by the fact that, to quote Aquinas again, things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower.” 4

Christians, says Hick, can affirm that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” for us, while conceding that what may be ‘true’ for us may not necessarily be true for adherents of another religion, which has “equal validity.” The salvific unity of Christ and the Church, indeed any claim to absolute truth by way of divine revelation is nullified, and the Christian call to conversion and mission takes a backseat to dialogue, which assumes a dominant role. Returning to Ratzinger’s critique:

In the relativist meaning, to dialogue means to put one’s own position, i.e., one’s faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of the others. Only if I suppose in principle that the other can be as right, or more right than I, can an authentic dialogue take place. According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank and therefore are mutually relative. Only in this way will the maximum cooperation and integration between the different religions be achieved. The relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus becomes a central commandment of religion.

Ratzinger sees an affinity between the religious relativism of John Hick and the negative theology (i.e., “negative” in terms of metaphysical pressupositions) of the Asian religions, for whom “the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live; it always manifests itself in relative reflections and remains beyond all worlds and notions in an absolute transcendency.” Hicks refers to interfaith dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus & Sikhs, and years spent in the heartlands of those religions, as particularly influential in his philosophy of religion. According to Ratzinger, there is a mutual benefit attained from this encounter:

The two philosophies are fundamentally different both for their departure point and for the orientation they imprint on human existence. . . . Nonetheless, they seem to mutually confirm one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism. The areligious and pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can get a kind of religious consecration from India which seems to give its renunciation of dogma the dignity of a greater respect before the mystery of God and of man. . . . In turn, the support of European and American thought to the philosophical and theological vision of India reinforces the relativism of all the religious forms proper to the Indian heritage.

Understood in the context of an encounter between the East and the West, relativism appears to be “the real philosophy of humanity” — those resisting it are portrayed as not only as enemies of democracy and tolerance, but “cultural imperialists” as well in their prioritization of West.

I could go into further explication of Ratzinger’s address, but James V. Schall, S.J., has already written an excellent review of his speech in its entirety: On Understanding Contemporary Intellectual Movements: Cardinal Ratzinger on the Modern Mind. Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCVIII (October, 1997), 6-14, reproduced courtesy of Traditional Catholic Reflections.

Kieth E. Johnson notes that “I am convinced that Hick has put into scholarly language what many people intuitively believe–namely that all religious paths ultimately lead to the same destination.” A number of theologians that were investigated by the Congregation are engaged in developing a “theology of religious pluralism” and acknowledge Hick’s influence. Earlier this month a conference on pluralist theology was held in Birmingham, England, featuring John Hick and other pluralist theologians, including Paul Knitter of Xavier University, Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight of Weston School of Theology. 5 Understanding Ratzinger’s criticisms of John Hick can help us understand his concerns about pluralist theology, and why he believes this issue is critical for the life of the Church today.

Finally, other materials relevant to this discussion:

  • Interreligious Dialogue & Jewish Christian Relations Produced for a session of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, Paris. It first appeared in Communio 26 (1997), and was republished in Many Religions, One Covenant. Ratzinger addresses the Christian encounter with the “mystical religions” and the proper goals of interreligious dialogue.
  • Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the salvific unity of Christ and the Church.
  • Perils of Pluralism, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept 15, 2000. Brief history of Vatican opposition to relativism among world religions. See also the RFC’s CDF page for further details on individual theologians.

  1. “Current Situation in Faith & Theology”. Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  2. Ratzinger recommends a work by K. H. Menke, Die Einzighei Jesu Christi im Horizont der Sinnfrage (Freiburg 1995) as an excellent introduction to the works of John Hick & Paul Knitter. Unfortunately it is exclusively in German. However, Ratzinger also refers directly to Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent as representive of their thought on religious pluralism.
  3. Kieth E. Johnson evaluates Hick’s use of the Kantian distinction to resolve this dilemma in John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis and the Problem of Conflicting Truth-Claims.
  4. Is Christianity the only true religion, or one among others?, by John Hick. A talk given to a Theological Society in Norwich, England, and posted to his personal website.
  5. “Smashing the idol of religious superiority”, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept. 19, 2003. Mr. Allen also covered the pluralist issue in the Sept. 12 and Sept. 5 and recent columns of “Word from Rome”.

Joseph Ratzinger, John Hick and Religious Pluralism

A reader inquired this past week:

I’ve been reading your page about CDF activities, especially with regard to unorthodox theologians. . . . I’m wondering if you could provide me an informal estimate about the percentage of CDF cases that specifically involve authors writing on Eastern religions, interfaith dialogue, and the like. It seems as if most of the ones mentioned on your page got nailed for that, and I’m wondering if it’s representative of a trend, or has more to do about which investigations would be interesting to the press.

Just as liberation theology was identified by Ratzinger as one of the “most urgent challenges for the faith of the Church” during the political turmoil of the 80’s, in this time he has directed his attention to the Christian encounter with Eastern religions, especially as it occurs in the context of interfaith dialogue and the development of a “theology of pluralism.” This was the focus of his famous address on relativism and theology to the bishops of Latin America in 1996. 1

After touching briefly on the diminishing threat of liberation theology with the downfall of Marxist systems of government, Ratzinger focuses on the issue of relativism as the prevailing philosophy of this age. Relativism “[presents itself] as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom.” While a certain degree of relativism is certainly acceptable in political affairs (“There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative — the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people — cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies”) it is dangerous when applied as a method to religion and politics, which often leads to a denial of absolute truth. As the investigations of the Congregation have shown, some of those participating in interfaith dialogue and writing about the Church’s encounter with other religions have become increasingly susceptible to relativistic assumptions, which in turn lead to a downplaying or outright dissolution of the claims of Catholic doctrine.

In his address, Ratzinger offers a critique of the “pluralist theology of religion” as expressed in the thought of the movement’s founder, Protestant theologian John Hick, who advocates a Copernican Turn from “Christocentrism” to “Theocentrism.”. 2

Hick questions (or rather, denies) Christianity’s claim on absolute truth, or that absolute truth can be conveyed in limited mediums such as church, dogma and sacrament. To affirm that we can grasp truth in doctrine and the sacraments elevates them to the category of the Absolute, which is reserved exclusively for God. Wrestling with the existence of competing and often-contradictory claims to truth by various religions, Hick resorts to a Kantian distinction between noumena (the “thing in itself” — never directly knowable) and phenomena, or that which is indirectly perceived by us through our individual subjective and quite limited experience. Humanity’s perception of the divine is thus mediated through the “conceptual lens” of our religious traditions. 3 As Hick puts it in a recent essay posted to his website:

“If we accept the distinction between the divine reality as it is in itself and as variously imaged by us, Christian doctrines are about the ultimate divine reality as conceived by us, in distinction from that reality as it is in itself. And the different truth-claims of the different religions are claims about different manifestations of the Ultimate to different human mentalities formed within different human cultures and different streams of religious history. . . . In other words, what are called the conflicting truth-claims of the religions do not in fact conflict, because they are claims about different human awarenesses of the divine, made possible by the fact that, to quote Aquinas again, things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower.” 4

Christians, says Hick, can affirm that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” for us, while conceding that what may be ‘true’ for us may not necessarily be true for adherents of another religion, which has “equal validity.” The salvific unity of Christ and the Church, indeed any claim to absolute truth by way of divine revelation is nullified, and the Christian call to conversion and mission takes a backseat to dialogue, which assumes a dominant role. Returning to Ratzinger’s critique:

In the relativist meaning, to dialogue means to put one’s own position, i.e., one’s faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of the others. Only if I suppose in principle that the other can be as right, or more right than I, can an authentic dialogue take place. According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank and therefore are mutually relative. Only in this way will the maximum cooperation and integration between the different religions be achieved. The relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus becomes a central commandment of religion.

Ratzinger sees an affinity between the religious relativism of John Hick and the negative theology (i.e., “negative” in terms of metaphysical pressupositions) of the Asian religions, for whom “the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live; it always manifests itself in relative reflections and remains beyond all worlds and notions in an absolute transcendency.” Hicks refers to interfaith dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus & Sikhs, and years spent in the heartlands of those religions, as particularly influential in his philosophy of religion. According to Ratzinger, there is a mutual benefit attained from this encounter:

The two philosophies are fundamentally different both for their departure point and for the orientation they imprint on human existence. . . . Nonetheless, they seem to mutually confirm one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism. The areligious and pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can get a kind of religious consecration from India which seems to give its renunciation of dogma the dignity of a greater respect before the mystery of God and of man. . . . In turn, the support of European and American thought to the philosophical and theological vision of India reinforces the relativism of all the religious forms proper to the Indian heritage.

Understood in the context of an encounter between the East and the West, relativism appears to be “the real philosophy of humanity” — those resisting it are portrayed as not only as enemies of democracy and tolerance, but “cultural imperialists” as well in their prioritization of West.

I could go into further explication of Ratzinger’s address, but James V. Schall, S.J., has already written an excellent review of his speech in its entirety: On Understanding Contemporary Intellectual Movements: Cardinal Ratzinger on the Modern Mind. Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCVIII (October, 1997), 6-14, reproduced courtesy of Traditional Catholic Reflections.

Kieth E. Johnson notes that “I am convinced that Hick has put into scholarly language what many people intuitively believe–namely that all religious paths ultimately lead to the same destination.” A number of theologians that were investigated by the Congregation are engaged in developing a “theology of religious pluralism” and acknowledge Hick’s influence. Earlier this month a conference on pluralist theology was held in Birmingham, England, featuring John Hick and other pluralist theologians, including Paul Knitter of Xavier University, Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight of Weston School of Theology. 5 Understanding Ratzinger’s criticisms of John Hick can help us understand his concerns about pluralist theology, and why he believes this issue is critical for the life of the Church today.

Finally, other materials relevant to this discussion:

  • Interreligious Dialogue & Jewish Christian Relations Produced for a session of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, Paris. It first appeared in Communio 26 (1997), and was republished in Many Religions, One Covenant. Ratzinger addresses the Christian encounter with the “mystical religions” and the proper goals of interreligious dialogue.
  • Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the salvific unity of Christ and the Church.
  • Perils of Pluralism, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept 15, 2000. Brief history of Vatican opposition to relativism among world religions. See also the RFC’s CDF page for further details on individual theologians.

  1. “Current Situation in Faith & Theology”. Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  2. Ratzinger recommends a work by K. H. Menke, Die Einzighei Jesu Christi im Horizont der Sinnfrage (Freiburg 1995) as an excellent introduction to the works of John Hick & Paul Knitter. Unfortunately it is exclusively in German. However, Ratzinger also refers directly to Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent as representive of their thought on religious pluralism.
  3. Kieth E. Johnson evaluates Hick’s use of the Kantian distinction to resolve this dilemma in John Hick’s Pluralistic Hypothesis and the Problem of Conflicting Truth-Claims.
  4. Is Christianity the only true religion, or one among others?, by John Hick. A talk given to a Theological Society in Norwich, England, and posted to his personal website.
  5. “Smashing the idol of religious superiority”, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter Sept. 19, 2003. Mr. Allen also covered the pluralist issue in the Sept. 12 and Sept. 5 and recent columns of “Word from Rome”.

Johnny Cash. 1932-2003


I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,

traveling through this world below.

There’s no sickness, no, toil, nor danger

in that bright land to which I go.

I’m going there to see my Father

and all my loved ones who’ve gone home.

I’m just going over Jordan, I’m just going over home.

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me,

I know my way is hard and steep.

But beauteous fields arise before me,

where God’s redeemed their vigils keep.

I’m going there to see my mother,

she said she’d meet me when I come.

So I’m just going over Jordan, I’m just going over home.
I’m just going over Jordan, I’m just going over home.

Johnny Cash. 1932-2003