Assisi Revisited
Has Pope Benedict Reversed Himself?

Dr. Stephen McInerney

(POSTED September 29, 2006) It has often been rumored among segments of the traditional Catholic diaspora that Cardinal Ratzinger had, for one reason or another, been opposed to the inter-religious prayer meeting convened by John Paul II in Assisi in 1986. That meeting shook the Catholic world. Whether one was for or against it, all were agreed that the event was revolutionary.

A little over a decade later an earthquake shook the city where St Francis had received the divine command to rebuild the Church, a Church which today has ruptured (ironically, though predictably) along the fault-line of the ecumenism promoted with such zeal by Pope John Paul II. Other gatherings of various shapes and sizes, orchestrated on the same model, have taken place here and there ever since. And each time, traditional Catholics have been scandalized by the rank indifferentism and even objective sacrileges that have taken place.

 “That event released energies”, Andrea Riccardi said earlier this month at the opening of the 20th Interreligious Prayer Meeting for Peace.  Yes, indeed it did – but is the nature of those “energies” holy or diabolical? We do not need to look far for the answer. Recall the words of Cardinal Oddi, reflecting on the event in 30 Days (as quoted in the Great Façade):

On that day, I went as the Pontifical Legate for the Basilica of St Francis, and I saw true profanations in some places of prayer. I saw Buddhists dancing around the altar, on which they had put Buddha in the place of Christ, and they were burning incense to the Buddha and venerating it. A Benedictine protested – he was thrown out by the police. I did not protest, but my heart was scandalized. Confusion was apparent on the faces of the Catholics who were attending the ceremony. I thought: if at this moment the Buddhists were to distribute bread consecrated to Buddha, these people would be capable of agreeing to eat it, perhaps with a greater devotion than when they receive the Host

No doubt Cardinal Ratzinger, like Cardinal Oddi, did object to certain activities in Assisi in 1986 – in his heart, at least, if not in public. How could any Catholic not?

So the rumors have circulated. And so, when he was elected Pope in April of last year, many in the ranks of traditional Catholicism rejoiced – here was the man who would not only free the traditional Mass; here was the man who would also put a stop to the ecumenical excesses of his predecessor. We have waited in vain for the first of our hopes to be realized, and it is with a heavy (if not-yet broken) heart that we learn from Zenit news (2006-09-04) that not only has the Holy Father not declared the end of false ecumenism (that is, ecumenism undertaken with any intention other than bringing all to the bosom of Holy Mother Church), but that he has instead publicly endorsed the project his predecessor inaugurated in 1986.

 “When we are together to pray for peace, it is necessary that prayer be developed according to those different ways that are proper to the different religions,” the Pope said on Sept 4, in a message to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first inter-religious gathering in Assisi. “This was the choice made in 1986 and this choice cannot but continue to be valid also today. The convergence of diversity must not give the impression of being a concession to that relativism that denies the meaning itself of truth and the possibility to attain it” (Zenit 2006-09-04).

Non-traditional “conservative” Catholics will find nothing to object to in this statement by Pope Benedict XVI. Isn’t this, after all, proof that the Pope is desperate to avoid the danger of relativism? A Pope desperate to avoid the dangers of relativism, however, would not endorse, in any way, an event at which, as Fr Brian Harrison has so cogently argued in the Latin Mass (“John Paul II and Assisi: Reflections of a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ ”, Latin Mass Christmas 2005; Winter 2006), his predecessor objectively violated the First Commandment (has the magnitude of this scandal never dawned on the Catholic hierarchy?). The fact that the Holy Father needs to warn us of the possible dangers of joint-prayer with non-Catholics and non-believers is proof enough that such events have overwhelmingly been interpreted in an indifferentist-light. Otherwise, why is there always a need for such warnings?

Popes of old warned us also – they warned us to keep away from such events at the risk of putting our eternal salvation – and our membership in the Church – in jeopardy. Popes of old warned us of the dangers of indifferentism that such events by their very nature (not contrary to their nature) entailed. What has changed? What are we to make of those warnings now? Have the fears of the Popes who made them not been justified?

What, then, are Catholics to make of Pope Benedict’s comments? “Be sober and watch”, St Peter tells us. Sobriety is something traditional Catholics need to remember, particularly in these dark days. It is easy to jump to false conclusions. Most of us are not theologians. But what are we, the lay faithful, supposed to make of this latest endorsement of inter-religious prayer (heavily qualified, yes, but an endorsement nonetheless)?

The Holy Father, as anyone who is familiar with his writings on the liturgy can attest, is acutely aware of the power of symbols and gestures. Does he not then realize that his verbal warnings against the dangers of syncretism are nothing compared to the impression conveyed by the symbolically-potent act of inter-religious prayer meetings which, as we know, have facilitated the offering of idolatrous worship on Catholic altars in Assisi and numerous churches around the world?

Do not mistake me: I am all in favor, for example, of the Australian Parliament reciting the Our Father at the start of each new session of parliament; and I imagine most Americans would be in favor of prayer in state schools, even though this means, in both cases, that Catholics pray with non-Catholics. However, these examples of prayer with non-Catholics are clearly distinct from a situation in which the Church Herself – through the Sovereign Pontiff – calls the religions of the world to come together to pray for Peace. The gods of the pagans are demons – so we learn from Scripture and Holy Tradition – but now the Holy Father endorses inter-religious prayer meetings at which the prayers offered by Catholics to the One True God take place alongside (if not with) the idolatry of various non-Christian sects.

Our Lord said that His Holy Name would divide people, that Peace could only be found through Him, with Him and in Him, but the Pope sees prayer – to any god – as potentially transcending such divisions, and this is the most puzzling and troubling part of his statement (which I will attempt to comprehend below).

Here are his words: “prayer does not divide but unites, and constitutes a determinant element for an effective pedagogy of peace, based on friendship, mutual acceptance [and] dialogue between men of different cultures and religions.” Friendship, mutual acceptance – these are relative goods, depending on how they are defined and on what ground they are built (we should certainly not seek hostility for its own sake with our non-Catholic and non-Christian neighbors, nor seek to bludgeon others, this is all true). Yet if the Pope were merely trying to encourage what John Senior called “the difficult virtue of tolerance”, why not simply say as much? However, since when has prayer – to any god or idol – ever been seen as the ground on which such tolerance is based? How, if all participants are being sincere, can lasting peace ever grow out of prayers offered to multiple gods – all of whom, apart from the One True God, are demons?

 “The best of us are prone to sophistry when an obvious truth contradicts a strong desire”, John Senior wrote in his marvelous essay “What is a Christian Culture?” (The Death of Christian Culture, 1978), concluding later in the same essay that “Peace at the price of one’s reason can only be that ‘evil peace’ St Augustine speaks of as the violent enforcement of injustice. No. It is very much in the interest of everyone that clear distinctions be kept… If we are to love one another as ourselves, it is one another we must love, not ourselves pretending to be others, all the while pretending others to be ourselves.”.

Dr Senior was here discussing the dangers of those ambiguous joint-statements, signed by Catholic and Protestant theologians, intended to blur the doctrinal distinctions between the two religions for the sake of an easy peace. No doubt the Holy Father would agree with Senior’s warnings, as many of his statements reported by Zenit show. However, if ambiguous “joint-statements” are dangerous, how much more dangerous are ambiguous actions, which, as the cliché goes, speak louder then words. And what hope then is there for ambiguous words in the face of ambiguous actions?  For, even while warning against indifferentism, the Holy Father’s words are ambiguous and seem actually to endorse the idea that there is a peace based on prayer which transcends religious divisions. How else are we to interpret this statement, “religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project that exceeds them all”? Notice the modernist and Freemasonic nuance, intended or not: the “earthly project[…] exceeds them all”. Really? All of them? Is it possible that an “earthly project” could exceed even the divinely-commissioned project of the Catholic Church to convert the world? What does the Holy Father mean by “exceed”? Can anyone explain this? When the Supreme Authority of the Church speaks on prayer, a subject intimately connected to our eternal salvation, we, the Catholic faithful, have a right to expect clarity and precision.

The Pope’s words could probably be explained as referring to joint humanitarian projects (which raises a host of other questions I will not go into here); but if so, why not say so? More to the point, though, why say any of this at all? What of the Social Reign of Our Lord? How does it measure up to this “earthly project” that supposedly exceeds all the world’s religions, of which the Vicar of Christ speaks? And does not the very encouragement of inter-religious prayer meetings, however they are conceived, amount to an invitation – from the Vicar of Christ himself – to false religions to pray (to demons in some cases) alongside those who offer prayers to the One True God. Here, perhaps (and I certainly am not suggesting that Pope Benedict intends this) is a classic example of the ambiguity Pope St Pius X discerned in the work of modernist theologians – bits of truth mixed up with ambiguities that can be (and are) interpreted in any number of ways. If there is an “earthly project” that exceeds the divisions of all religions, does this not logically imply that the divisions among the religions are in fact the cause of strife? And does this not lead to the Freemasonic conclusion that religious differences are in fact the problem in the world, and that therefore these divisions should be abolished through the very syncretism the Pope fears? If the Freemasons cannot get everyone to dissolve their religious differences in the first instance, they might still succeed in getting them to give that impression, and by giving that impression to each other it is not long before the once-zealous will give that impression to themselves. If the law of prayer is the law of belief, what other conclusion can we draw?

Truth mixed with error is far more dangerous then error pure and simple. Without the truth contained in the Holy Father’s statements, the potentially dangerous ambiguity of an “earthly project that exceeds” all the world’s religions would be ineffectual. I realize – and feel – how awful it is to query the words of the Pope in this way, a man put over us – put over me – by God, but what are we to do when Holy Tradition is neglected (when not being ridiculed) and when false ecumenism seems as always at the top of the agenda of the Church’s authorities? We are repeatedly told not to judge our superiors; and it is in this spirit that I have attempted to ask questions rather than assert facts. And so I will end with another question. In the face of growing apostasy and confusion, can we – should we – dare we remain silent for the sake of an easy peace in and outside the Church?

Dr Stephen McInerney is an English Literature professor at a Liberal Arts College in Sydney. He’s also a published writer who has contributed work to major Australian newspapers and intellectual journals such as the Australian newspaper, Quadrant and the Bulletin.