.- Pope Benedict XVI’s call for world religious leaders to gather in Assisi, Italy to pray for peace has touched off a lively debate among Italian Catholic opinion leaders.
Critics of the Pope’s plan charge that it will create a false impression that all religious believers pray to the same deity or that there are no real distinctions among religious faiths.
The Pope announced his desire to revive the "spirit of Assisi" in remarks made on New Year’s Day. He said he planned to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's “World Day of Prayer for Peace,” held in the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint known for his concern for peace and inter-religious dialogue. Pope John Paul also hosted a similar event in Assisi in 2002.
A date for the new celebration still has not been set, although Pope Benedict indicated that it would be held sometime in October.
Each of the two previous gatherings garnered a mixture of criticism and praise. Criticism came from those who thought the event transmitted the impression that all participants, among them Hindus, Muslims, Animists and Atheists, were praying to the same God.
Detractors said it promoted relativism and religious syncretism, that is, a mishmash of contrary beliefs.
Before his election to the papacy, the future Pope Benedict may have had mixed feelings about the event as well. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did not take part in the Assisi event in 1986, but attended in 2002 at the request of John Paul II.
Now that Pope Benedict has announced the third such gathering, a new wave of criticism and defense has rolled in. The arguments being heard today often seem recycled from the earlier debates.
Initiating the debate in Italy was a group of nine intellectuals who made a direct, and very public, appeal to the Holy Father in the pages of Il Foglio newspaper on Jan. 11. The group, all obvious supporters of the Pope and his teaching, pleaded with him not to revive the "spirit of Assisi."
In spite of the words and intentions of those who promoted the inaugural event in 1986, the first encounter "had an undeniable repercussion, relaunching, precisely in the Catholic world, indifferentism and religious relativism," they said.
According to the group, it taught people "to archive" the teaching of the Church on Christ as the Savior and "had the effect of making many believe that everyone was praying to 'the same God,' only with different names."
Seeing Catholic priests sharing in certain rites with people of other religions conveyed the idea that "all rites are nothing but empty human gestures. That all conceptions of the divine are equal. That all morals ... are interchangeable," they argued.
The "spirit of Assisi ... casts confusion," they concluded.
Political and state channels as well as dialogue might be followed to bring about peace, they said, but they cautioned about giving those desiring "to confuse the waters and revive religious relativism" a platform on the anniversary of the 1986 occasion.
In the Milan-based daily newspaper Corriere della Sera the next day, historian, philosopher and religion scholar Alberto Melloni struck out at those who appealed against the meeting, calling them "zealous and disrespectful Catholics who seek to influence the Pope."
He called their appeal "attempted intimidation" that "aims to render the presence of Benedict XVI in Assisi qualitatively and quantitatively minimal."
It is an "audacious and mistaken move," he said, as "it's enough to know a little about the life ... of the intellectual character of Joseph Ratzinger to know that no conformism has ever tied his hands."
The debate raged on with another article in the Jan. 13 edition of Il Foglio, in which two of the scholars Melloni dubbed "zealous and disrespectful" called Melloni out as "brother censor."
One of the nine, Francesco Agnoli, whittled their appeal down to a single phrase. "We only posed a question: in going to Assisi does one run the risk of syncretistic interpretations?
"The question seems legitimate to me," he told Il Foglio.
"Today Assisi means one thing for the people: the Pope who prays together with the representatives of other religions to a presumed 'one God.' It is an image that undermines the idea of the doctrine that Christ is the Savior."
Agnoli pointed to Islamic fundamentalists who "exterminate Christians," or Hindus who "burn" them while professing equality among men. "Blessed be medieval times, when you could argue among Catholics, in fidelity to Christ and the Church," he concluded.
The open debate has attracted its share of commentators. Among those was Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli who pointed out through the online Bussola Quotidiana that the argument was partial. He found it strange that all reference to the second encounter, which followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, was omitted from discussion.
Appealing to the Pope on such a matter is a "hazardous" affair, he said. "The initiative, in the end, is not limited to being a concerned letter from those who ask the pontiff that risks and bad interpretations be avoided ... rather, (it reads) as the will to dictate the line to the Pope to prevent him from leaving the programs of his own pontificate.
This means, at the end of the day, that “they have made an idea of Benedict XVI that does not correspond to the reality, also because it was the Pope ... who decided to convoke Assisi III.”
Tornielli quoted Cardinal Ratzinger's own words to the magazine "30 Days" after the 2002 experience. On that occasion, the cardinal refuted the idea that it was an encounter that made all religions equal. "Rather," he said, "Assisi was the expression of a path, of an investigation, of the pilgrimage for the peace that is such, only if united to justice."
"With their testimony for peace, with their commitment for peace in justice, the representatives of the religions have begun, in the limits of their possibilities, a path that must be for all a path of purification."
Tornielli said that, in 2011, the conditions of religious freedom in the world could be the Pope's justification for running the "risks" of another "Assisi."
To those who would counter Pope Benedict's decision, the Vatican analyst said "you can not be in agreement with him, but it is unfair to seek to prove that the Pope is not in agreement with himself."