On the late January morning I went to meet Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada, and, since last fall, the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops at the Vatican, I first paid a visit to the Vatican Museum. The two frescoes I found myself returning to over and over are well known but difficult to contemplate because they are high up on the palace’s ceiling. In one, by Raphael, Christ is on the cross deep in the background behind a broken Greek sculpture that seems ready to tumble over the edge of the painting, set on a sweeping and otherwise empty courtyard. The small painting is in counterpoint to Raphael’s great “School of Athens” fresco, in which Plato and Aristotle, amidst a host of other ancient philosophers, stroll through a palace, framed by an arch and an egg-shell blue, cloud-scudded sky. Plato points to the heavens; younger Aristotle gestures forward, a guide into the future. “School of Athens” is about the absorption of Greek thought into Christianity; the ceiling painting is about the triumph of Christianity over ancient pagan beliefs.
The other fresco that captivated me was Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” in which a bearded God appears to be pulling away from Adam, who is naked and leaning back on a green slope. Adam’s gaze is full of longing and grief as he reaches out, his finger nearly touching God’s; his sexual presence is so intense it’s hard to look at. “Creation of Adam” anticipates the canonical history that follows: separation from God, the fall and the expulsion from the garden, sin and the torments of desire, and the ultimate longing for grace.
Catholicism is an encompassing world-view: it provides a vision of both the course of human history and the history of the spirit, and that vision, like Raphael’s and Michaelangelo’s, is triumphal. It is impossible to understand a place like the Vatican without understanding that it sees itself not just as a favoured Roman location amidst the ancient teeming city, but as occupying a privileged nexus between the unfolding of human history and the divine. Which may be one of the reasons the church finds it so difficult to address its mundane and often disastrous history.
I met Cardinal Ouellet at the Casa di Santa Marta, a luxurious residence inside Vatican City built by Pope John Paul II early in his twenty-eight-year reign; it is where the College of Cardinals met to elect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI and where the next Pope will be elected. On my way through security along the northern side of St. Peter’s Basilica, just past the great, embracing arm of Bernini’s colonnade, I noticed a crowd of lay people spilling out one of the side doors of the palace, squinting in the winter sunlight. They were coming out of one of Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audiences and looked slightly dazed. They were there, I assumed, looking for contact with holiness and wisdom, just as the people crammed into the Sistine Chapel were looking for beauty and genius (despite loud speakers booming from the upper reaches of the ceiling “This is a holy place, please remain silent”). It struck me that virtually everything about the way we are now makes the experience of transcendence difficult if not unimaginable. I waited for Cardinal Ouellet in a small, elegant sitting room, and I was startled when he finally arrived. Dressed in dark slacks, a sweater and a jacket, a crucifix hanging around his neck, he was hardly an avatar of history but a sturdy sixty-six-year-old man with short white hair who spoke to me in a heavy Quebecois accent.
“So, what are you doing here?” he asked, sitting down. “Are you a Catholic?”
The question, which was reasonable enough, made me uneasy, since in some sense I had no idea what I was doing there.
“No, I’m Jewish.”
“Ah,” he said, looking pleased, as though relieved I hadn’t blurted out I am an apostate atheist or I am a Marxist committed to historical materialism. “I was part of the Pontifical Commission on Christian Unity,” he went on, “and we refer to Jews as ‘our elder brothers.’”
“Why would Jews be discussed in a commission on Christian unity?”
“It’s an acknowledgement of everything Christianity and Judaism have in common,” he said.
“What about Islam?”
He hesitated, cleared his throat. “Islam is completely different.”
Fifty years ago this December, Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council in Rome, regarded by many as the most important reevaluation of the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in 1545 (where the Church responded to the Protestant Reformation). According to Michael Attridge, professorof theology at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and an expert on Vatican II, “John XXIII woke up one morning and realized that the church and modern society had drifted too far apart and a council had to be called.” Secularization had been in progress for decades, if not centuries, but as of the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, its overt effects had yet to fully manifest themselves: churches and seminaries were still full, the divorce rate was low, the sexual revolution and feminism were clouds on the horizon, and gays and lesbians were at the back ofthe closet. The church was not yetin crisis, but what John XXIII grasped was something deeper: the Second World War and the Holocaust were not only death blows to traditionalEuropean society but also evidence of an unprecedented moral and spiritualfailure. The society that emerged from this was suspicious of institutions andhistory, and oriented toward materialgain and personal fulfillment. With the collapse of colonialism in Africa, Indiaand Asia, Europe also ceased to be evenremotely ethnically or religiouslyhomogenous.
Vatican II addressed an impressive variety of issues facing the church—the liturgy, the nature of revelation, the relationship between the church and individual cultures and modern society in general—and among the resulting documents was one ponderously titled, “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: Nostra Aetate.”Nostra Aetate, as the decree is known, opens with a description of the questions people turn to religion to answer. “Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stirs the hearts of men,” it says. “What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, where are we going?”
After applauding the spiritual strivings of Buddhists and Hindus, Nostra Aetate goes on to exhort the faithful that “through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve, and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values among these men.” The document also renounces the anti-semitic readings ofthe Gospels. Nostra Aetate became, the day it was released, one of the original calls for what we now refer to as “inter-faith dialogue.”
The terms “inter-faith” and “inter-faith dialogue” seem to crop up frequently these days. There are inter-faith centres, inter-faith communities, and even inter-faith schools of theology in virtually every major city in North America. Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams go to inter-faith conferences.
But what is inter-faith dialogue? In the Christian context, at least as reflected in decrees like Nostra Aetate, and in claims like “Jews are our elder brothers,” inter-faith dialogue carries with it a theological position. In the nineteen-sixties, this approach tended to divide into inclusivism, exclusivism and pluralism. Inclusivism holds that truths manifest in all religions are covert expressions of Christ; exclusivism maintains that Christianity offers the only path to religious truth and salvation; and pluralism embraces the idea that all religions are equally legitimate expressions of the divine. But what is typically thought of as inter-faith dialogue today tends to shy away from the issue of larger theological truths.
“I know that the connotation of inter-faith dialogue earlier in the twentieth century was about compromise, which is why it was anathema to the Orthodox,” Rabbi Aaron Levi, an Orthodox Rabbi in Toronto and the founder of the Makom downtown Jewish community, told me. “But to my mind now it’s not contentious. I think that deeply held values are attainable both my way and through community.” For Vancouver’s Bern Barret, an Anglican Minister for over fifty years, the governing aim of inter-faith dialogue is also building community as well as promoting peace and justice. “One of the things that made me do more inter-faith work was 9/11,” he told me. “Especially the negative things many people in our church were saying about Muslims. To the Muslims I say that they have had a further expression of faith through Mohammed, and to the Jews I say that we both come from an Abrahamic tradition that shares ethical concerns. I get around any differences by seeing how they are working toward justice, love and peace.”
For Barret, Christianity is less important than aspirations toward peace and justice, focussing on what he calls the relational. “By that I mean an approach to belief or faith that leads to something more important, which is how we relate to one another. I don’t think that Christianity is the only way, it just happens to be the way that I grew up.” Though less radical than Barret, Bill Phipps, a minister for the United Church in Calgary, echoes similar notes. “Part of my impulse is to work as much on an inter-faith basis as I can—I’m always looking for a common church of Canada,” he told me. “I got into the ministry to be an actor in social change.”
On the other hand, for Dr. Aisha Sherazi, a former research biologist and school principal who has conducted inter-faith workshops in Ottawa schools, Islam is largely a personal matter. “I think that sometimes people take religion too literally,” she said. “I don’t think that either people or religions are fundamentally different. I think the soul is multifaceted and it comes down to how you can be the best person you can be spiritually. When I converted from the Hindu religion to Islam, I didn’t pass judgment on others.”
“Catholics have always had more trouble with inter-faith issues than Jews,” Rabbi Levy pointed out, “because Catholicism claims to be the universal religion. Jews never wanted to convert others, and most of the time they weren’t in a position to anyway; their main concern was about others trying to convert them. There was, however, a thirteenth century Rabbi in Provence named Menachem Meiri who argued that any religion that has a solid ethical system is not idolatrous, and in a way that’s the basis of inter-faith relations.” While Rabbi Meiri went to often implausible interpretive extremes to argue that Christians are not mere pagans to be avoided, the smiling, preternaturally serene Cardinal Ouellet—who spoke to me with his hands folded on his lap, only occasionally giving in to the temptation to glance at the big silver watch on his wrist—has been know to become almost petulant when he speaks of the primacy of the Christian family. In an address he gave last spring at the Vatican’s John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, he concluded, “The Christian family shows that the truth of man and the truth of God are inseparable, and the rejection of that alliance pushes us toward the nihilism of which our age has much bitter experience.” For Ouellet, Christianity is universal; outside of it lies nihilism and misery.
While Pope Benedict XVI, more than any previous Pope, has renounced anti-semitic readings of Christianity and has extended a hand to Jews—his recently published book, Jesus of Nazareth, argues at length against the responsibility of Jews for the death of Jesus—he has also pulled that hand back by condoning traditional prayers for the conversion of the Jews. For Benedict XVI and those like him, religion isn’t ultimately about cultural expression or personal choice or fulfillment, but higher truths. According to Solange Lefebvre, a professor of theology and sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, the pursuit of inter-faith dialogue intensified after the events of 9/11, not just because of the ugly stereotypes imposed upon Muslims, but also because religion had become associated with violent fanaticism, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. This perception was exacerbated by pro-atheist polemics like Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. With its emphasis on shared values, community, social justice and personal fulfillment, the ethos underlying the inter-faith movement is a perfect fit for our liberal, democratic, multi-cultural, and largely secular society. But understood this way, can religion still engage the questions so aptly put in Nostra Aetate in 1965? “What, finally, is the ultimate mystery that encompasses our existence? Whence do we come, and where arewe going?”
“People understand that our click click click culture is shallow and not enough,” Bishop Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, told me, whereas, “the Pope thinks in terms of five hundred years.” Yes, I thought, but contemporary life plays out in years and months, news cycles in hours and minutes. “People will come back to the church,” the Bishop added, “because holiness and beauty equal truth.” I understood that he believed this. But then it may be that we no longer have the time or the patience or even the courage to take holiness and beauty and truth seriously.
While I was speaking with Cardinal Ouellet in the Casa di Santa Marta, I found myself wondering what it would be like to believe God created the world, that God manifested himself in human history, that human beings and human history have a higher purpose. Cardinal Ouellet grew up in a pious Catholic family in northern Quebec; I grew up in Los Angeles where the closest thing to the idea of holiness was drinking gin and tonics by the pool. “I can’t say I’ve ever had a crisis of faith,” the Cardinal said, looking me in the eye as if he knew that not only have I never had faith or even understood what it is, I have also never known the kind of inner peace he exuded. Cardinal Ouellet’s Christianity isas pure and universal as the fathers ofthe early church, and his model is Pope John Paul II, who was beatified lastyear and will almost certainly become a saint. “I was with him [John Paul II] on a plane back from Armenia whenhe was already extremely ill,” he said.“We were all incredibly exhausted, butstill he asked for his breviary andbegan to pray. He was a holy man and there was a light emanating from him, a grace.”
After I left Cardinal Ouellet at dusk, I decided to explore Vatican City—after all, I had a name tag and a pass. There was a park nearby with palm trees, soaring pines, flowers, and a chapel, so I headed in that direction. Is it really enough, I wondered, to aspire to be a good person, to promote social justice? Were those things I had ever deeply cared about? Could a faith in man alone qualify as inter-faith, as holy in some way? I thought about the Pope, in the palace beside me, bedecked in royal robes, kneeling in prayer or pouring over obscure texts by early patriarchs in the original Greek. I thought about the sublime frescos of Raphael and Michaelangelo. I thought about how Gregory the Great, the sixth century Pope buried in a vault below St. Peter’s Basilica, described a vision St. Benedict had near the end of his life: “He stood at the window and prayed earnestly to almighty God. While he was looking out, in the middle of the dark night, he suddenly saw sunlight pouring down from above and driving all the darkness of the night away…The whole world was held before his eyes, as if brought together in a single ray of sunshine.”
I reached the edge of the garden. There was no single ray of sunshine, just the darkness settling in. Two men in suits with discreet earpieces approached me—closing time—and soon I was at the Vatican City’s front gate. Passing through, I practically ran from St. Peter’s looming dome, across the river, into the labyrinth of old Rome, and to an Irish Pub that was, it turned out, located near what was once the Jewish Ghetto. A rugby game played on the many televisions inside, and pints were flowing freely.