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Rome sends mixed signals on Jesuit contributions

Rome sends mixed signals on Jesuit contributions

Author: John L. Allen Jr.
Publication: National Catholic Reporter
Date: April 27, 2001

Although media shorthand often makes "the Vatican" sound like a monolith, in fact, the headquarters of the Catholic church, like bureaucracies everywhere, is run by people with sometimes clashing views.

Nowhere was this clearer in recent weeks than at a conference at Gregorian University, where an influential Vatican figure publicly defended a Jesuit recently rebuked by another Vatican official for his work in interreligious dialogue and missionary work.

Lauds for the Jesuit, Fr. Jacques Dupuis, and for other Jesuit contributions to the field came just weeks after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal authority, had publicly rebuked Dupuis. The praise from Vatican officials also occurred against the backdrop of Ratzinger's recent document Dominus Iesus, which criticizes approaches to religious pluralism set forth by Dupuis and other Jesuits.

Ratzinger is the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's top doctrinal agency.

The Vatican official defending Dupuis at the April 4 and 5 conference was Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Fitzgerald said April 5 that he wished "to put on the record a debt of gratitude to Fr. Dupuis and his pioneering work."

"I had the honor of being present in this hall during a presentation of Fr. Dupuis' book," Fitzgerald said. "Some have spoken of ambiguities, but since theology is a developing science, it is only natural that various theories will be presented, discussed and brought into a synthesis."

The conference marked the Jesuit-run Gregorian University's 450th anniversary.

Meanwhile Cardinal Roger Etchegaray issued a more oblique, but no less significant, endorsement of the approach to both theology and mission work that has characterized the Jesuits in the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

"I would like to be a witness, to pay tribute to a very famous Jesuit, Fr. Pedro Arrupe," said Etchegaray.

[In 1981, Pope John Paul II suspended the rules of the Jesuit order to prevent the Jesuits from electing a successor to Pedro Arrupe as head of the order.] In part, the Jesuits were faulted for switching from making converts as the goal of missionary work to service and activism aimed at social justice. Etchegaray, who, like Arrupe, is of Basque ancestry, described Arrupe as "the forerunner of modern evangelism."

Etchegaray headed the office responsible for planning for the Great Jubilee Year of 2000. Officially retired at 77, he still serves as an ad-hoc diplomatic troubleshooter for the Vatican. Despite his age, his name appears on many lists of papabile, or candidates to be the next pope.

Etchegaray related a personal tie with the Jesuits by noting that he comes from a village in France where the sister of St. Francis Xavier lived. Xavier was one of the earliest Jesuit saints and a famous missionary. He was sometimes called "the apostle to the East."

"I am a globetrotter on behalf of John Paul," said Etchegaray, who in recent months has been entrusted with sensitive papal missions in Russia and China. "It is always a shock when I meet other religions. But I must say it has helped me to better understand the mystery of salvation offered in Jesus Christ."

Later Etchegaray came to the defense of another Jesuit once accused of deviations by Vatican officials, the 16th-century missionary Fr. Matteo Ricci. In the 16th century, Ricci made Christianity attractive to the Ming dynasty in China by blending it with Confucian beliefs and practices. That strategy was condemned by the Vatican.

Catholic writers on religious pluralism today often invoke Ricci as an example of someone who could be fully Christian without denying the validity of other religious pathways.

Etchegaray, who noted that he had visited Ricci's grave in China, said he hoped the Catholic church would someday recognize him as a saint.

Dupuis, suffering from a bad back, was not present at the conference. But reverberations from his case were in the air. His book Toward a Theology of Religious Pluralism was criticized Feb. 26 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a formal notice as expressing "notable ambiguities or difficulties" (NCR, March 9).

Dupuis argued in the book that while Christ is the unique savior of the world, other religions play a positive role in God's plan for humanity. Ratzinger's concern, according to most observers, is that such theories will lead to diminished missionary efforts as well as to a "one's as good as another" religious relativism.

Dupuis and several other Jesuit theologians were among the primary targets of Ratzinger's September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which reasserted the supremacy of Catholicism over other religions and Christian churches.

Those other Jesuits include Fr. Michael Amadaloss of India and Fr. Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka. In response to Dominus Iesus, Pieris warned in a Sept. 30 talk of "a Catholic fundamentalism raising its head among some members of the hierarchy in Europe, which is at once defensive against what is non-Christian and what is non-Catholic."

At the Gregorian conference, Fitzgerald praised the Jesuit contribution to the work of his office, noting the names of several Jesuit theologians, including Dupuis, who have contributed to official church documents.

Fitzgerald said theological investigation into religious pluralism should be encouraged. He noted that the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, in paragraph 22, describes followers of other religions as "partners in the paschal mystery" in a way that is "known to God." Noting that the document does not say "known only to God," Fitzgerald said he interprets it to mean that "God may choose to share this knowledge with us" through theological research.

Etchegaray was not the only presenter to comment on Jesuit missions in China. Jesuit Fr. Nicolas Standaert noted that Ricci and others were able to win over the Chinese not so much by theological discussion as by knowledge of mathematics.

Standing in the aula magna of the Gregorian, where so many famed theologians have studied and taught, Standaert dared ask if the Jesuits were perhaps putting too many eggs into the theological basket.

"Is the high number of theologians versus scientists in the society really the best preparation for mission in the modern world?" he asked. He suggested the society should turn out more people trained in other disciplines.

Whatever the merits of his argument, it's a safe bet Standaert could find at least one taker for the theory that there are too many Jesuit theologians working on religious pluralism: Cardinal Ratzinger.

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