Assisi III—Kyrie eleison! An Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI

Assisi III—Kyrie eleison!

An Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI from a frater sejunctus parvulus

(1 Th 5:22)

(Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9)

Your Holiness,

A brief announcement you made on New Year’s Day has filled me with such foreboding that I am prompted to dispatch a letter in your direction. Given your seniority to me in age and office, and my respect for your distinguished theological oeuvre, I approach you in a humble and irenic spirit and affirm my willingness to retract any inaccurate statements I might unwittingly make.

Since it is unlikely that a missive from an obscure teaching theologian on a distant continent, sent by “snail mail,” would land atop the bulky pile of correspondence that doubtless daily lands on your desk, I am having recourse to the device of an “Open Letter” released in the form of a blog post. Because the topic to be addressed is a matter of common knowledge affecting the spiritual health of all of Christendom, it seems appropriate to raise it in a public forum.

Mindful of the danger of breaking the eighth commandment and of rushing to judgment without having ascertained all the facts involved, I nevertheless fail to see how, given the fateful, undeletable precedents set by your predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, at the interfaith gatherings over which he presided at Assisi in 1986 and 2002 (to which we may refer as Assisi I and Assisi II respectively), it will be possible, even for someone of your intellectual ability, to avoid committing (or appearing to commit), at the upcoming interconfessional—and interfaith—get-together in Assisi, acts of dreadful infidelity to Christ our Lord to whom, as St. Paul bears witness, the Una Sancta has been betrothed in Holy Baptism (2 Cor 11:2). Of course, if you have in mind for the agenda of the planned assembly an exposition of some edifying words that featured yesterday (11 January) in a volume of meditations selected from your writings, Assisi III will be a springboard for the “new evangelization,” rendering this communication redundant. It is unlikely, though, that representatives of non-Christian religions would travel from the ends of the earth to listen to you explaining how:

Respect for human dignity and regard for the human rights of every individual—these are the fruits of belief in the Incarnation of God. That is why belief in Jesus Christ is the basis of all progress. Anyone who renounces belief in Jesus Christ for the sake of a supposedly higher value renounces the basis of human dignity. It is from this Christian humanism, from the humanism of the Incarnation, that the uniqueness of Christian culture has evolved. All its specific characteristics are fundamentally rooted in belief in the Incarnation and disintegrate when this belief is lost.[1]

It has been widely reported that, in your days as Cardinal Prefect, you were troubled[2] by the blatant syncretism enacted under your predecessor’s eye and with his blessing at Assisi I, when, among many other acts in breach of the First Commandment, an idol of the Buddha was placed atop a tabernacle (!) to receive veneration from followers of the Eastern religion named after him. I have gleaned from your Truth and Tolerance (a volume that speaks so powerfully to contemporary, secularist Canada in its forgetfulness of lower and upper case truth) that, while you affirm the appropriateness of interfaith dialogue, you differ from your predecessor in drawing the line at the practice of interreligious prayer.[3] Have I been wrong to believe that you dissent from the approval and encouragement of interfaith, syncretistic prayer that John Paul II voiced in his first encyclical and went on to put into practice at Assisi I and Assisi II?[4]

I marvel at the skill displayed by Your Holiness in the first volume of your Jesus of Nazareth, where you summarized and responded to the three reasons set forth by Rabbi Jacob Neusner to explain why he would not have followed our Lord had he been present at the delivery of the Sermon on the Mount.[5] You set all members of the guild of Christian theologians a powerful and moving example as you made the good confession, while treating the rabbi himself with exquisite courtesy. In this book you have winsomely shown how, as St. Matthew sets forth our Lord as the “Torah in person,” the first Gospel attests the divinity of Christ no less vigorously than does St. John in the fourth; and all Christians are in your debt for your in-depth exposition of the passage to which you refer as the messianischer Jubelruf (“messianic joyful shout”),[6] which is sometimes known in Anglo-Saxon scholarship as the “Johannine thunderbolt in the synoptic skies.”

Remarkably, as you deal with the Johannine witness, you defend the authenticity (i.e., the ascription to the earthly Jesus) of those logia (the “I am” statements) in which our Lord manifestly employs the sacred tetragrammaton in the first person[7] and whose trustworthiness is dismissed by many exegetes. The bearing of these binding passages on the issue of religious syncretism is obvious.

As you simultaneously showered courtesy upon Rabbi Neusner while declining to give away the store (a feat that few theologians could carry off with such aplomb), so you are likely the only man on earth who could possibly gather representatives from all world religions together at Assisi and not commit blatant acts of syncretism that would nullify the good confession you have made in Jesus of Nazareth and (to name only one of your many other writings) in the section of your Principles of Catholic Theology where you politely but definitively demolish Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.”[8]

Having conceded this point, I beg Your Holiness to consider two factors.

First, in your scholarly refutations of Rabbi Neusner and Fr. Rahner, you operate on a lofty professorial level accessible to relatively few, and you exercise a nimble subtlety whose nuances are lost on the man in the street. Given that your every utterance is apt to be twisted into its opposite within moments of its issuance by a hostile press and an academic (and to some extent ecclesiastical) establishment that have long been baying for your blood, please bear in mind how the media will interpret your anticipated mingling with the representatives of other religions at Assisi this coming autumn: “Pope pushes the unity and equality of all religions!” Neither the press nor the average person will read and heed the fine print of any address(es) you may give in Assisi. The heart of Jesus once pierced and now pulsing with love for us will not rejoice over the caption I have just pictured.

Secondly, your decision to begin the first volume of your Jesus of Nazareth by showing how our Lord is the Prophet greater than Moses whose coming was predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15[9] would surely have as its corollary that, however much you urge the followers of other religions to join with Christians in promoting outward, civil peace among and within the nations of the world,[10] you would scrupulously avoid any words or gestures that may imply that our blessed Lord is but one among many “prophets” or “founders of religions” or that other religions are valid and viable paths to salvation. After all, Moses pronounced stern judgement against those of the people to whom the Prophet above all prophets was sent “who will not give heed to my words, which he shall speak in my name” (Deut 18:19; a judgment that surely falls also on those among the nations who despise the gospel proclaimed by the church). A learned fellow countryman of yours has, without personal rancour and with great (even ecumenical) charity and on the basis of much evidence, made a strong case to the effect that your much loved predecessor had (to say the least) a diminished appreciation of the effects of original sin on human nature, with the result that he even pictured non-Christian religions as proceeding from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and deemed them to be effective vehicles of salvation.[11]

Given your expert demolition of Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian,” and taking those pages of your Principles in tandem with the first part of the declaration Dominus Iesous of 2000 and the confession you have made in the first volume of your Jesus of Nazareth, I have the impression that moves to equalize the truth claims of the various religions and to acknowledge the non-Christian religions as valid paths to salvation would contradict the motif of the “hermeneutic of continuity” that you have stressed as an essential key for rightly understanding the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, some words you wrote in 1966 encourage me to think that any repetition of Assisi I and II would stand in sharp contradiction to your most deeply held convictions:

What pushed the great missionaries out into the world at the beginning of the modern age and filled them with holy disquiet was the awareness that salvation exists only in Christ and that the immeasurable millions of men who suddenly cropped up on the horizon from unknown worlds are delivered without rescue to eternal destruction apart from the message that weighs upon believers as a sacred imperative. …In the meantime an idea has increasingly prevailed, which was previously seen only as a rare exception, that God will and can save also outside the Church, even if not ultimately without her. An optimistic understanding of the world religions has lately been set forth in this regard, the consideration of which surely once again makes clear that not all favourite thoughts of modern theology have the stamp of biblical approval. For if anything may be called alien, indeed opposed to Holy Scripture, it is the contemporary optimism with respect to the religions of the peoples, the optimism that conceives these religions as factors for salvation and that cannot be squared with the way they are appraised in the Bible.[12]

It is reported that, at Assisi II in 2002, crucifixes were removed from (or, if immovable, veiled in) the rooms made available for non-Christian prayer. Just as we could not picture St. Paul consenting to this gesture (Gal 3:1), so we could not imagine St. Peter, in his bold post-Pentecostal preaching, proclaiming salvation as a given for the unevangelized, transmitted to them already by either the pagan cults of the Graeco-Roman world or even by Judaism inasmuch as it failed to heed the Prophet announced in Deuteronomy 18:15, who entered this world at Bethlehem.

Mindful of the danger of prejudging the event you are contemplating for October of this year, and with respect and gratitude for what you have given through your research, teaching, and writing not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to Christendom as a whole, and with the prayer that the Lord would continue to bring forth good fruits from your ministry as Bishop of Rome, yet supremely conscious of the need for all of us to emulate St. Polycarp in remaining faithful despite all pressure to our Lord and the one gospel issued from heaven for our salvation, I beg and implore Your Holiness not to “flee” from the good confession “for fear of the wolves” who, as you have indicated, threaten the integrity of every confession and segment of Holy Christendom.[13]

Gott befohlen.

John Stephenson

St Catharines, Ontario

Wednesday in the Octave of the Epiphany of our Lord, 12 January 2011

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year, Irene Grassl ed., (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 18f.

[2] In a work published in 2003 (and issued the following year in English translation), you spoke circumspectly of “undeniable dangers.” Joseph Ratzinger: Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004),107.

[3] See Truth and Tolerance, 99-106. Putting the best construction on the actions of John Paul II, you distinguish between “multireligious prayer,” which “cannot be the normal form of religious life ...[since it] almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith” (107; hardly a ringing endorsement on your part) and “interreligious prayer.” As you argue cogently against the latter in all circumstances, you insist that “no impression should be given [to non-Christians] that ‘religions’ are interchangeable, that the basics of Christian belief are not of ultimate significance and thus replaceable. To avoid misleading people in such ways demands that the Christian’s faith in the uniqueness of God and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ the Savior of all mankind be not obscured for the non-Christian” (109). Amen.


[5] Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (Doubleday, 2007), 103-122.

[6] Jesus of Nazareth, 339-344.

[7] Jesus of Nazareth, 345-355.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, tr. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 162-171.

[9] Jesus of Nazareth, 1-8.

[10] While declining to practice fellowship with deniers of the real presence, Luther foreshadowed the political developments of later centuries as he attested how “In civil matters we are glad to be one with them, i.e., to maintain outward, temporal peace” (AE 37:27; WA 23. 84: 32f.; That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, 1527). Yet despite the continuing doctrinal disagreements between the several confessions and the many sins of the members of Christ’s mystical body here on earth, no constituent part of Holy Christendom currently poses a threat to outward, civil peace between or within the nations of the world. Although lethal Hindu militancy has brought about martyrdoms of Christians in India in recent years, all sober observers are aware that Psalm 44:22, as referred to by St. Paul in Romans 8:36, is now being fulfilled through the increasing slaughter of Christians of all confessions under the aegis (and it appears with the widespread approval) of but one of the religions of the world.

[11] Heinz-Lothar Barth seems to demonstrate conclusively that the Assisi aberrations represented no “one-time going off the rails” on your predecessor’s part. Papst Johannes Paul II. Santo subito? Ein kritischer Rückblick auf sein Pontifikat (Dettelbach: Sanctus Verlag, 2007), 113.  Especially troubling is the catechesis for 9 September 1998: . Barth argues that the late Pope based his positive assessment of the salvific potential of other religions on a view akin to Rahner’s thesis “that man in his existence …is always already within this [saving] relationship [with God] whether he is explicitly aware of it or not,” a proposition that you refute in your Principles (Principles, 165). Barth quotes from a homily delivered by the then Cardinal Woytyla before Paul VI, which proclaims how “the Church of the living God unites all men who share in this wonderful transcendence of the human spirit in one or the other way” (Papst Johannes Paul II, 115). The context of this statement makes clear that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and also unbelievers partake in this vaguely conceived “transcendence.” If Barth’s analysis should stand, then Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa’s disturbing homily of Good Friday 2002 faithfully represents the mind of the Roman magisterium. See John R. Stephenson, “Reflections on the Malum Syncretisticum,” Logia XIII, 2 (Eastertide 2002): 17. I draw to your attention and invite your comment on how the Toronto Jesuit Tibor Horvath has interpreted chapter 16 of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in terms compatible with the drift of Assisi I and II: “Therefore, non-Christian religions too belong to the Church and can become the vehicle of Christ’s grace.” Jesus Christ as Ultimate Reality and Meaning: A Contribution to the Hermeneutics of Counciliar Theology (Toronto: Association of Concern for Ultimate Reality and Meaning, 1994), 49.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, Die letzte Sitzungsperiode des Konzils (Cologne, 1966), 59f.; quoted in Barth, 132f. Cf Hermann Sasse, “Salvation outside the Church? In piam memoriamAugustin Cardinal Bea,” Reformed Theological Review 28 (Jan/Apr 1969): 1-16; available also in German translation as “Heil außerhalb der Kirche? In piam memoriam Augustin Kardinal Bea,” in In Statu Confessionis, Friedrich Wilhelm Hopf ed. (Berlin & Schleswig-Holstein: Verlag Die Spur GMBH & Co., 1976) II: 315-327.

[13] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, Stephan Otto Horn & Vinzenz Pfnür eds., tr. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 267-269. A remark you make in the essay in question (“On the Ecumenical Situation”) is highly pertinent to Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” notion that appears to lie at the foundation of Assisi I and II, and one with which confessional Lutherans (in Your Holiness’ homeland those of my co-religionists of the konkordienlutherisch kind) are apt to agree: “We cannot put philosophical profundity in the place of the word that has been uttered and the rationality proper to it. God has spoken—if we think we know better, then we get lost in the darkness of our own opinions; we lose unity instead of moving toward it” (263f.).