Vatican must reach out to others

K G Suresh

Courtesy: The Pioneer | March 18, 2013 


The world has a lot of expectations from Pope Francis. But the spotlight, as far as the East is concerned, will be on how well he conducts inter-faith dialogues with Islam and Indic religions. His predecessor appeared less than enthusiastic on the issue.


An estimated 1.2 billion Catholics across the world rejoiced when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new Pope, the first Jesuit and the first Latin American in modern times to lead them.


After Pope Benedict XVI abruptly exited, there were expectations that the time has now come for a Black or Brown (read Indian) Pope. Nevertheless, with his simple lifestyle and his care and concern for the sick and the poor, Pope Francis has given a ray of hope to the Catholic community, which in recent times has been confronted with a host of issues ranging from corruption and internal fighting to sexual abuse by priests, abortion, gay marriages et al.


While Pope Francis is personally opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion, in the days to come he would have to reconcile with changing viewpoints in the socially conservative church. For instance, in the United States alone, 90 per cent of Catholics use contraception. Spain has already legalised abortion and homosexuality.


Other issues confronting the Church, particularly in the West, is the gradual decline in Church attendance. The youth are increasingly either turning away from religion or converting. In France, experts are already ringing the alarm bell, with scores of young Roman Catholics converting to Islam every year. Moreover, there is an acute shortage of priests.


There is also growing resentment among the laity and the intellectuals even in devout Catholic societies such as Italy against the opulence of the Church. As it battles economic recession, the country's civil society is demanding among other things imposition of tax on Church income and property. It is said that one-fifth of the total property in Italy is directly under the control of the Church.


In countries such as India, the Church confronts the major challenge of assimilating into its mainstream converts from the so-called lower castes, who continue to face discrimination within the Church notwithstanding the equality promised to them in their new religion.


Even as the Catholic clergy has been vociferously demanding reservation for Dalit Christians, community leaders such as RL Francis of the Poor Christian Liberation Movement have been vehemently opposing it and demanding parity within the Church hierarchy.


“We converted to Christianity in the hopes that we would get self-respect, dignity, and equality. Why are they calling us Dalit? We are Christian only”, he says, adding, “In India, Dalit Christians are leading a frustrating life within the Church system. But, no Pope has acknowledged this fact. We hope the new Pope will have the will-power and faith to change the system from top to bottom.”


But with the spectre of clash of civilisations looming large and ever growing conflicts on religious lines, the Pope's biggest challenge would be the manner in which he deals with non-Christian cultures and religions including Islam and the Indic religions.


Catholic-Muslim ties are at their lowest denominator in recent times. In 2006, Pope Benedict sparked an uproar across the Islamic world when he reportedly cast aspersions on Prophet Mohammed.


In the words of Mahmud Azab, an adviser on inter-faith for the head of Al-Azhar, one of the most respected Islamic seminaries in the world, “The resumption of ties with the Vatican hinges on the new atmosphere created by the new Pope. The initiative is now in the Vatican's hands.”


Senior Al-Azhar cleric Mahmoud Ashour was quoted as saying, “relations with the Vatican should be based on the principle that religions “complete one another, rather than compete.”


This demand for parity finds echo among the Hindu community across the globe too. The Hindus and followers of other Indic religions are hoping that under Pope Francis, the Church will begin a new era of mutually respecting religions and other pluralistic traditions as divinely inspired paths as well.


In a pluralistic world, it is essential that the Church respects pluralism and inter-faith ties based on earlier initiatives with Nostra Aetete, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.


The Declaration of Nostra Aetete, signed in 1965, was the first papal document to state, in reference to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is holy and true 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”.


Many Hindus view the tenure of Pope Benedict as one of lost opportunities for dialogue with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, and marred by controversy fuelled by Pope Benedict's own public remarks and actions. Apart from his comments on the Prophet of Islam, while visiting Brazil, in 2007, he claimed that indigenous pre-colonial South American populations had all along been “silently longing” for Christianity. He also widely promoted the use of the Tridentine Mass in Good Friday prayers which explicitly calls for the conversion of Jews to Christianity. In 1997, prior to his papacy and as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he denigrated Hinduism as a religion of “false hope” that guaranteed salvation based on a “morally cruel” concept of reincarnation resembling a “continuous circle of hell”, and Buddhism as “autoerotic spirituality”.


Hindu organisations in India have for long maintained that predatory proselytisation campaigns where education, medical care, humanitarian aid, employment or other allurements are predicated on conversion to Christianity, vitiate the sensitivities of communities and spark conflicts. In the past few years, such campaigns have fuelled tensions which even led to violence in some cases.


A major breakthrough in these areas of potential conflict was achieved in the dialogue among different faiths held in Amsterdam in December 2008. Intellectuals associated with the Global Foundation for Civilisational Harmony (India) supported and worked with its patron Swami Dayananda Saraswati in debating and concluding the historic inter-faith document, 'The Faith Human Rights Statement', signed by all religious leaders on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The signatories to this document, including the leaders of the Abrahamic faiths, declared that they shall mutually respect each other's faith. While emphasising the importance of the freedom of expression, they resolved to “deplore the portrayals of objects of religious veneration which fail to be properly respectful to the sensibilities of believers”. They further agreed that “the freedom to have, to retain and to adopt a religion or belief of one's choice, without coercion or inducement, is an undeniable right”. This declaration is a major step to remove the mistrust between the proselytising and non-proselytising traditions.


Pope Francis has had deep experience in inter-religious relations in Argentina. He co-authored a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, titled, 'Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra'. Regarding inter-religious discussions, the then Cardinal Bergoglio wrote: “Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person's point of view, opinion, and proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth.”


One sincerely hopes that in his new avatar, the Pope builds meaningful and substantive relations with non-Catholics and non-Christians alike based on mutual respect, tolerance and pluralism, to create a more harmonious world.


(KG Suresh is a senior journalist based in Delhi) 


more videos