Francis X. Clooney, S.J.January 14, 2012

Cambridge, Ma. Readers of this blog will have noticed over the years that I have no inside connections in Rome or in the Vatican. Most of what I know about such things I get by reading periodicals such as America, blogs at this site, and from the Jesuit grape vine. I’ve only been to Rome twice in my life, and my best memory was a day I escaped up to Assisi, a truly spiritual haven.

So I am not one you would look to for insights into the Vatican mind on things such as the selection of new cardinals. But bookish as I am, I can shed just a bit of light on one of the Pope’s recent choices, the Jesuit Karl-Josef Becker, who has for many years been a professor at the Gregorian University. Jim Martin introduced him to us a few weeks ago at this site, and you can find information about it at various websites. (Sadly, I have not had occasion to meet him myself.) 

I know of him rather from the volume that he co-edited in 2010 (Orbis Books) with Professor Ilaria Morali, Catholic Engagement with World Religions, a massive book 600 pages long. Dedicated generously to “our Christian readers and to followers of other religious traditions,” it arose, the editors’ Preface tells us, out of their travel in 1999 to a Catholic interreligious dialogue center in Japan. They went back twice more, and those visits gave them “the chance to experience firsthand not only the joys and difficulties of interreligious dialogue but also the complexity of the very often theologically rooted problems with which the Church’s mission in Asia is engaged, owning to new trends and conceptions inspired by the so-called theology of religious pluralism.” They found, the Preface tells us, that while religious diversity tempts us to a generic “cosmopolitanism with a religious tint” that is “purged of all those elements and aspects that make the Christian proposition, the Christian message, entirely singular and unique,” dialogue actually challenges us to balance our opening to the world with a rich and deep rediscovery of Christian tradition. They indicate that some dialogue partners they have encountered lament how in dialogue people sometimes feel obliged to push into the background their deepest convictions. I was glad to hear this, since it agrees with my own insight, that both dialogue and the serious study of another religion beg us to go deeper into our own tradition, our faith.

With about 15 major contributors, the book aims to put the theology of religions and starting points of dialogue on clear and solid Catholic teachings; it is intended, the editors say, for a wide audience: Catholics not familiar with the discussions of religions in the Church; Catholics in countries where they are regularly in contact with non-Christians; interested members of “other traditions.” After an introductory essay on the very idea of “religion,” four major sections follow: “the destiny of the non-Christian” as taught in tradition and Vatican teaching today (part I); the theological grounding required for clear thinking about religions (part II); a survey and critical assessment of the theology of religions after Vatican II (part III); “particular religions in their own right and in relation to Catholic faith.” (part IV)

This is not the place for an academic review of the book - which would necessarily be sharper-edged, raising more trenchant questions - but I do wish to recommend it to you, for two reasons: first, it is simply a thoughtful and solid theological work with many fine essays, a welcome addition to our ongoing conversations on the issues it raises; second, it tells us something about Fr. Becker, cardinal-to-be, and thus about how the Pope and the Vatican think about and wish to honor right thinking about religions. Again without attempting a review, I will point out just a few features that I, the non-Vaticanologist, find telling.

First, it is, as mentioned, a serious and solid theological work, not a work of sociology or just a work of history. Although Fr. Jacques Dupuis, SJ, still the leading figure in the theology of religions in our era, is treated with reservations at various points in the volume, it nonetheless reminds me of his work — solid, theological, serious about tradition and openness, and thus it stands as a welcome complement to his still relevant work.

Second, it is a very European work, concentrated in Rome, with just a few Asian contributors and, as far as I noticed, no (North or South) American or African contributors. I can hardly complain about this, since much theology done here in the United States, including by me, tends not to attend seriously enough to European thought, and so a counterbalance is fair enough. Nevertheless, the issues that drive theological reflection here in the USA and elsewhere in the world are understated, and so future studies will have to build on this volume and fill out the picture.

Third, section IV, mentioned above, offers essays, many of them very interesting, on “particular religions in their own right and in relation to Catholic faith,” but it is noticeable, as far as I can detect, that only one of the contributors is not a Catholic. (I welcome correction on this.) Again, as a scholar who is a Catholic and reflects on Hinduism, I can hardly throw stones. But since the section title highlights “in their own right” it would have been interesting to invite some of the best religious intellectuals in the various traditions to speak for themselves, even writing about their faiths in light of the first three sections of the book. The authors in those earlier sections could then in turn have revised their reflections in light of the comments of their non-Christian peers. But, having edited books myself, I realize that it is not always possible to bring about the more interesting conversations in so large a volume.

Finally, I think the volume is best taken as a preparation for complementary and more complicated Catholic theological reflections that, so to speak, “mix it up” more intimately with the religious ideas and doctrines, images and practices, of the other religions. The tendency of the volume, not only by demarcating part four as a separate section, is to allocate serious study of the religions to non-theological disciplines, which then are drawn upon for systematic, doctrinal Catholic thinking, among Catholics. It is good that the volume makes us think about this, whether and when the thought of the other “gets inside” our Catholic thinking. My own work — comparative theology (not mentioned in the volume, perhaps by design) — proceeds differently and less neatly; nevertheless, studying this quite respectable exemplar of the case for keeping things separate helps me to clarify what it is I do and don't do.

In any case, I do recommend the book to you. Look on the web for reviews of it, there must be some by now. It will be heavy going to read, however, so don’t run out and buy it unless you have time and energy for serious study. But it does shed light on our new Cardinal, and on how he and his colleagues and officials are thinking theologically about religions in Rome today.

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Murali Karamchedu
9 years 4 months ago
Fr. Clooney,
Would you consider reflecting upon aspects of  “the destiny of the non-Christian” as taught in part 1 of this book here in this blog?
Reply: Mr Manohar, this would be a large and academic task - the kind of thing an academic review would undertake. But read it, and see what you think. FXC
david power
9 years 4 months ago

The best and most original book that I have read  on Religion is a book called "The Religious Sense"  by Don Luigi Giussani.Another absolute diamond is Man is not Alone by Rabbi Heschel.
They will both reward generously any effort made.  
Crystal Watson
9 years 4 months ago
Interesting.  The wikipedia page on him states ... "It is widely believed ...that Becker was involved in the Vatican’s investigation of fellow Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis and his work on religious pluralism."
Craig McKee
9 years 4 months ago
A timely commentary, considering the recent papal call for a renewal of Catholic ''apologetics.'' One can but hope that, if nothing else, this new Jesuit cardinal will never again allow a fellow Jesuit to be raked over the coals the way +Father Jacques Dupuis was treated by the Vatican and then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

PJ Johnston
9 years 4 months ago
Thanks for the excellent book recommendation - I will definitely check it out.

Out of professional curiosity, are there any books you can think of within the field of comparative theology that work outside of the world religions paradigm?  "Religion" and even the "religions" are under increasing attack in religious studies as inappropriate heuristics, but just reading casually, I haven't seen very much of that discussion spill over into comparative theology and I'm trying to figure out why that might be.  (Perhaps the "religion" section you mention in this work will provide some guidance).

Is it generally supposed that it is impossible to do comparative theology (or even just plain theology) without "religion/religions" as organizing concepts?

Reply: PJ: Try for instance Michelle Voss Roberts' recent Dualities, on Mechthild and Lallesvari, two women mystics (Christian, Hindu) as the kind of book that does what you are looking for. I don't think though that much of the work in comparative theology requires a notion of "world religions," but instead, only that there is something to read, or see, as the site for beginning to compare. For a very good critique of the ordinary categories, see Hugh Nicholson's Comparative Theology and the Problem of Religious Rivalry. FXC
david power
9 years 4 months ago
@David Smith,

I would say "very" interesting idea.Like everything it is easier said than done but as it is a Jesuit blog there must be a method to be found.

" it's probably necessary to 'to push into the background [one's] deepest convictions', but that seems a small price to pay for learning, for growing.  Often here, both in the blogs and in the comments that follow them, there's a defensive attitude toward one's beliefs and a hostility towards others' beliefs.  I'm sure that it would be a healthy exercise - and practice - for us all to think of this part of theAmerica web site as a forum for dialogue, rather than for attack and defense.  I wonder what it might take to bring about such a change in attitude.  Might it help to set aside a separate, perhaps more formal area for 'dialogue'," 

The wonder part is the best.It will take a eureka moment to solve this quandary I am sure.
michael iwanowicz
9 years 3 months ago
Fr. Clooney,
I appreciate your frequent book recommendations – especially the recent reference to the book edited by Karl Becker – ‘Catholic Engagement with World Religions’.
This will be a significant addition to my weekly reading.  Thanks.

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