Columban Fr Warren Kinne reflects on the eighth chapter of the Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti of the Holy Father Francis, on fraternity and social friendship.
Friendship and fraternity between people of different faiths have no doubt always existed, particularly at a neighbourly level. But through history, the relationship between religious traditions has usually come with conflict and tensions. Fraternity between religions is an idea that comes rather less readily to mind than the conflicts and tensions that have arisen between them. Even within Christianity itself, there have been massacres such as the French Huguenots and Catholics in France. When speaking of the history of inter-faith interaction, we are more likely to think of the bloody battles between Muslims and Christians in the Crusades, Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar or Muslim and Orthodox in Kosovo, than of round table dialogue and fraternity within the walls of the Vatican.
In the minds of many, “violence” is often associated with “religion” and cries of “God is Great” can be the chilling words that immediately presage malicious action. Christopher Hitchens, whom I once chatted with over a meal in Shanghai, is well known for his diatribe in his book “God Is Not Great”. Here he lists, as he sees it, all the reasons for his atheism, including the negative impact of religion in our world. So the Pope’s attempt to outline religion as at the service of fraternity in our world seems somewhat fanciful and utopian for many.
For the Pope, Religions are at the service of fraternity in our world, and aberrations like terrorism are not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts, as well as “policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression” (282-283). He dreams of a journey of peace among religions.
Ultimately, the foundation of the transcendent dignity of the human person, who is the visible image of the invisible God (273), is the starting point for the Pope on this issue. He says that if we remove God from a society, that society ends up adoring idols. The human conscience is desensitized, and we become distant from religious values, and individualism and materialistic philosophies can follow (275).
The Pope also speaks for freedom of conscience and for religious freedom (274), and I must say that when I read this, I rather considered that he is talking to countries in the Middle East with Muslim backgrounds where it is difficult for people in a minority faith, especially Christian, to practice their faith. I am also mindful that we had our own problems with these rights and have only slowly come around to what might be called a modern understanding of them. However, people like the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who took a degree in Canon Law in Rome after her term in office, now criticise Pope Francis. She thinks that the Church has a long way to go regarding human rights, especially those to do with freedom of conscience and religious freedom. She cites, for example, the difficulty of renouncing our own Catholic affiliation that was usually established at infant baptism and may subsequently have been renounced, but from the Church’s point of view, the “character” of the sacrament remains forever and ever. We cannot get away from our affiliation. Much of this understanding goes back to St Augustine and the issue of people wanting to “rejoin” the Church after they had “renounced” it during persecution. Today the question has arisen partly in regard to disaffiliation of Germans from the Church. This may be because of financial scandals or sex abuse, or just in order not to pay Church tax. In late August 2010, the Holy See confirmed that it was no longer possible to defect formally from the Catholic Church. Traditional Islamic and Christian theologies seem to not consider the possibility of “renouncing faith” and you cannot easily turn your back on your religion.
There is no doubt often a lack of good hermeneutics that deviates from the spirit of the religious teachings and a political manipulation of religions (285). Some Muslim and fundamental Christians take religious texts literally. This is certainly not helpful for inter-religious dialogue.
The goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love (271). It is not just for the sake of diplomacy or tolerance.
Pope Francis cites people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles de Foucauld (286) as people of different denominations and faith traditions who lived the journey of peace. For Pope Francis, a journey of peace is possible between religions (281).
Columban Fr Warren Kinne lives and works on the Gold Coast.
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