Readers are no doubt aware of the encyclical published by the Vatican of Pope Benedict XVI re-affirming not just the pre-eminence of Roman Catholicism but also its status as the sole corporeal representative of Jesus Christ on Earth and declaring that all people who professed to be Christians but belonged to other denominations were in danger of foregoing salvation. Baptists, Lutherans, evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Episcopalians, and the many various and sundry others are "wounded" congregations and should return to the one, true church. A rather un-Paulian point of view for the Church that Paul founded, but no matter. What surprised me was the outcry from the other denominations, decrying this affront to ecumenical dialogue and good-faith relations between the disparate sects.
One does not rise to become the high priest of a cult – especially one with a billion adherents or so – by being pragmatic on the matter of its relative truth to other interpretations of its scripture. Pope Benedict XVI may have been doing harm to interfaith relationships, true, but he was hardly acting outside of his job description. Rather, he was fulfilling it. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary or unprecedented gesture; it’s rude and unseemly in this modern age, true.
Or is it? It would seem to me that such action was only to be expected from the man who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, presided over some of the most stringent enforcement of Catholic orthodoxy seen since the Inquisition. The worst aspects of the international situation can be ascribed to rigid adherence to orthodoxy. Fundamentalists, from Salafist jihadis to Orthodox Jews have set a whole swath of this world, from the Mediterranean coast to the Indian Ocean, on fire with bloodshed over ancient tribal and religious disputes. This translates into upsurges in intra-faith oppression as the fundamentalists seek to reassert control over their denominations as the One True Faith.
The United States has not been immune. While we have so far seemed reluctant to engage in schismatic conflict such as Europe experienced during the Protestant Reformation or the Muslim world experiences today, Christian traditionalism seems to be expanding its crusade against religious diversity from being against those who have no faith to those who practice unfamiliar faiths. Last week, for the first time in the history of this nation, a Hindu priest gave the opening prayer in the Senate. His monotheistic prayer was interrupted by Christian protestors.
Now, I’m firmly of the opinion that atheists who think that if they rid us of religion they will be ushering in an age of untold peace and intellectual prosperity are taking one too many hits off the peace pipe, if you catch my meaning. But, really, they have a larger point. At least without organized religion, human beings would have one less thing to get exercised about and kill each other over.
There are lots of good arguments for believing in a god, and there are many people who require, for reasons completely unfathomable to me, a spiritual life that delves into mysteries they can’t ever actually answer. That’s fine and dandy, and they’re probably ultimately issues that will never be resolved in a grand sense. But it’s completely legitimate to take someone who can make all the arguments they want for "a god," but then blithely steps around the matter of the scriptural interpretation they choose to regard as wholly and solely legitimate, and hold their feet to the fire. The larger difficulty of the grand metaphysical question – "God: Why or Why Not?" – obscures the very specific and far more difficult to shrug off question of "But why your specific religion?"
Which brings us full circle to Pope Benedict XVI. He’s simply doing what he should be doing: Telling everyone else that they’re wrong. But then, he shouldn’t be surprised when others say the same thing about his particular scriptural tradition. I have mentioned before that my wife was raised Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian denomination that takes the book of Leviticus very literally: God’s commandments are God’s commandments and you shouldn’t stop following them just because the Messiah appeared. My wife once stated, quite definitively and as though there were simply no question, that Catholics are not Christians. And you know what? That makes sense, based on her scriptural tradition. She was simply doing unto the Pope what the Pope would later do unto her.
But at least she was civil about it, and kept it to herself.
[This essay first appeared on James F. Elliott's blog Often Right, Rarely Correct—Ed.]