Any literary scholar will tell you that the key to interpreting a text is identifying its genre. It’s a point clearly applicable to news this week that Pope Benedict XVI has said that “interreligious dialogue, in the strict sense of the term, is not possible” -- a statement which, at face value, would seem to undercut 50 years of official dialogues with other faiths sponsored by the Catholic church, not to mention the theological vision of Nostrae Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on relations with non-Christian religions.
All Things Catholic
Ave been speaking and writing lately about U.S.-Vatican ties under Obama; I was at Colgate University earlier this week, for example, addressing students and faculty on this very subject. As fate would have it, my appearance coincided with a sharp reminder of the potential pitfalls in that relationship, in the form of some remarkably incendiary language from Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American who heads a Vatican court.
From the outside, it's tempting to conclude that a hard-line position on abortion prevailed among the U.S. bishops during their Nov. 10-13 fall meeting in Baltimore. That seems to be the impression people got from news reports; one prominent American Jewish leader called me on Wednesday, for example, to ask why the bishops were the first major group in the country to fire a "shot across the bow" of the incoming Obama administration.
For the record, nobody from the Obama transition team has solicited my advice about relations with the Vatican, and I would frankly be surprised if the question were yet on their radar screen. Others, however, are already speculating about how things might shake out; on Wednesday, for example, Reuters moved a story predicting a “tricky” relationship between Rome and the Obama White House because of the abortion issue. As a thought exercise, I decided to pen an open letter to the president-elect about U.S.-Vatican ties over the next four years.
Famed Jesuit theologian Fr. Karl Rahner once said of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that it marked the emergence of Catholicism as a "world church," no longer tied primarily to Europe or the West. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago asserted Wednesday evening that the late 20th and early 21st centuries have lent "empirical reality" to Rahner's claim.
So far, I've managed to avoid devoting a single "All Things Catholic" column to the 2008 elections. Secular politics isn't my beat, and anyway, it seemed desirable that there be a reporter left in America following something other than the stock market and Obama vs. McCain.
As the Oct. 5-26 Synod of Bishops on the Bible moves into its "sausage-grinding" phase, working on propositions that will be submitted to the pope and a concluding message to the world, it already seems possible to anticipate several of its conclusions, at least at a fairly high level of magnification.
From a distance, the Synod of Bishops on the Bible, currently meeting in the Vatican, may seem an oddly esoteric distraction from the unfolding global drama. After all, the world's economy is in meltdown, and America is facing a crucial election in just 25 days. Against that backdrop, bringing together 400 bishops, clergy, lay leaders, Bible experts and delegates from other Christian churches to discuss how fast lectors read scripture passages during Mass, or the precise sense in which the Bible is "inerrant," can seem like fiddling while everyplace other than Rome burns.
[Note: Beginning Monday, Oct. 6, John Allen will be filing daily reports from Rome about the Synod of Bishops. You can find his coverage at johnallen.ncrcafe.org.]
While the Vatican is most assuredly not a democracy, probably the closest thing it has to the trappings of democratic debate opens in Rome on Sunday with the 22nd session of the Synod of Bishops, this one devoted to The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.
I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, this week, as a keynote presenter at the biennial convocation of the Catholic Coalition on Preaching, a consortium of national organizations dedicated to excellence in preaching. My partner in crime is Dominican Sr. Barbara Reid, who teaches at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. (Personally, I get very nervous when journalists start preaching, so I was especially delighted that Reid was on hand to do the theological heavy lifting.)