Transforming Interreligious Relations
Catholic Responses to Religious Pluralism in the United States
- ISBN: 9781626983939
- Published By: Orbis Books
- Published: October 2020
Labor-intensive to prepare and encyclopedic in its results, Leo D. Lefebure's Transforming Interreligious Relations: Catholic Responses to Religious Pluralism in the United States does religious studies an enormous service. From their tenuous presence at the founding of the United States to their prominent position today, Catholics and their Church have undergone many "transformations," so Lefebure’s book is by definition interpretive.
Part 1 of this volume recounts Catholic relations to the religious Other in the US from the beginning through to the Second Vatican Council—almost two hundred years marked by mutual hostility between Catholics and (broadly-speaking) "Protestants." It then analyzes the attitudinal sea change brought about by Vatican II, and the Council's positive opening up to ecumenism and interreligious encounter. Lefebure acknowledges the dismaying misdeeds committed by some Catholics and sometimes their institutional Church, and for this frank admission he is to be commended. He also exposes horrendous crimes by the US government few non-indigenous Americans know about: its genocide of Native Americans in California (1846-1873), for example (whereas of course they have heard copiously about the crimes of the Spanish there). Alas, one of the book’s shortcomings is that it often fails to expose the attitudinal "exceptionalism" that Catholics in the US absorb from their fellow countrymen. Catholic spokespeople in the US, often either excessively "rightist" or excessively "liberal," tend to lecture down to both the global Catholic population and to other religions. (Indeed, the book’s frequent reference to "American Catholics" instead of "Catholics in the US" is a subtle indication of the same exceptionalism: anyone who knows South America well is all too familiar with South American resentment of this "appropriation" of an adjective proper to two continents). Worse still is the tendency to be "more 'American' than Catholic" (as when—on moral grounds—John Paul II decried the invasion of Iraq and Pope Francis protested military intervention in Syria, but Catholic pulpits remained silent).
Part 2 examines Catholic engagement with the indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans (and their descendants), Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other groups. One of the winsome features of Lefebure's history is that even someone familiar with US Catholic history is bound to learn something distinctive—sometimes both edifying and eye-opening at the same time. For example, the Lakotan convert Black Elk's celebration of the Eucharistic feast day Corpus Christi , while remaining in every way orthodox, took place in the context of the Sun Dance. His canonization process has now begun (80, 82).
Part 3 analyzes new theological approaches to pluralism after Vatican II, singling out bellwethers like David Tracy, Robert Schreiter, M. Shawn Copeland (African American theology), Robert Goizueta (US Hispanic theology), Francis X. Clooney (comparative theology), and Peter Phan (Asian American theology). Subsequent chapters treat interfaith readings of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. These lead up to chapter 12, where Paul VI is cited—in an address to non-Christian religious leaders—calling for a "sacred communion" among them "for the sake of the human race" (313). The chapter demonstrates how this "sacred communion" plays out in the US, and how Indian, African American, and Hispanic Catholic identities figure in this pluralist scenario. Chapter 13 redeploys the traditional three stages of ascent towards God, correlating via purgativa (purgative way) with healing, via illuminativa (illuminative way) with charity, and via unitiva (unitive way) with "openings" towards the "original unity" (of which Thomas Merton often spoke, and Lefebure cites him in this context).
As informative as Lefebure's work is, its very density sometimes hides some serious flaws. If the Marxist slogan is "look for the contradiction," the deconstructionist's slogan is "look for what is systematically excluded" (that is, for deconstructionists, the excluded is missing because it exposes much messiness or worse). Deconstruction would show that Catholics in the US are even more bitterly divided than Lefebure suggests, this situation directly impacts interreligious relations (in 2016, 50 percent of Catholics voted for Trump vs. 46 percent for Clinton; in 2020, 47 percent for Trump vs. 52 percent for Biden) and that moral issues are very involved (e.g. the priorities of anti-abortion and nationalism vs. those of racial justice and openness to refugees). The result is that the dialogue between Catholics and the religious Other is subverted by a "subtext" reshuffling such an alignment transversely, so Catholic rightists and Other (religious) rightists fight Catholic progressives and Other (religious) progressives (see Sam Adler-Bell, "The Radical Young Intellectual Right Who Want To Take Over the American Right," The New Republic, Dec. 2021). In the preponderance of cases, the former alliance opposes dialogue with other religions, and the latter commends it.
Given that Buddhism rejects belief in a creator-God, that Islam and Judaism reject the Christian Trinity, and so on, dialogists have been seeking alternative grounds of commonality, such as Raimon Panikkar's "cosmic Christ" (164, 307), Merton's "cosmic Sophia" (310), and Charles R. Meyer's "universal activity" of the Holy Spirit (350). Closer analysis would show, however, that these so-called common grounds remain lopsided in favor of one religion or another. While of course learning from other religions (as we should!), Donald Mitchell (189) and James Fredericks (191), and others too, conclude that there are insurmountable differences between the religions. Paul Heck's "search for common ground is fundamentally an act of hope" (150), but hope is a movement of the will towards a future good and not a common ground. (Besides, religions profess belief in "future goods" that differ.)
A deconstructionist could ask, "Doesn't it make more sense to accord the founding beliefs of each religion their due place even though they may contradict the founding beliefs of another religion, and then to note that these contradictory beliefs generate similar effects? Thus Theravadin Buddhist compassion and Christian compassion are very similar though they are generated by contradictory founding beliefs, namely, the doctrine of 'no self' in the Theravada case, and 'God-as-agápē' in the Christian case." Whereas the quest for interfaith "common ground" is exasperating because religions at bottom contradict each other, the fruits of these contradictory founding doctrines are often similar. In short, if one upends the model of "common ground," interfaith dialogue becomes relatively successful. A well-known Zen capping phrase is surprisingly relevant: "The marks are on the balance arm, not on the scale pan." Pure difference determines the convergence on the balance arm. Most applicable is the Derridean maneuver, that irreducible differences can erect likenesses. Nonetheless, while drawing from many internationally known theorists, Lefebure disregards Jacques Derrida's potentially helpful approach.
The well-known Latin adage "non multa sed multum" ("not quantity but quality") is of course a compliment, and "non multum sed multa" ("not quality but quantity") usually a deprecation. Lefebure's 416-page book is that rare resource, a work having both "multum et multa" ("quality and quantity") and thus has much to recommend it.
Robert Magliola is an affiliate at Istituto "Vangelo & Zen," Milano, Italy; professor of philosophy and religions at the Assumption University of Thailand.Robert MagliolaDate Of Review:June 21, 2022