Specifically, it would be a watershed event if the new pope would reorient the Church's policy towards other faiths, and implement this change in the structure and practice of the Church.
Thus far, the most generous official posture of the Vatican towards non-Christians has been laid down in the "Lumen Gentium," a doctrinal statement emerging from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This document, now part of the official teaching of the Church, makes a rather grudging and highly qualified concession to other faiths. It says that God is the Savior who wills that all men be saved, and then it makes the following patronizing statement: "Those also can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience."
This statement has not improved interfaith relations on the ground, for three reasons. Firstly, Lumen Gentium does not recognize non-Abrahamic faiths such as Hinduism to be worthy of respect as equals; it merely recognizes that all men as individuals do have conscience. Also, it presupposes the Christian view that the human condition requires "salvation."
Secondly, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council suffered a big setback when Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) issued an updated doctrine called "Dominus Jesus." This edict clarified that the "truth of other religions" was limited compared to Catholicism, and no others could be considered on par with it. This rejection of genuine pluralism implies that other faiths can help prepare a person up to a point only, while the Church alone can fully implement religious truth, its
doctrines taking precedence over all others wherever there is discrepancy. This posture allows many churchmen to speak from both sides of their mouths. It means that other faiths' legitimacy depends on the extent to which they can be mapped onto Catholic dogma about the nature of the human problem ("sin") and the nature of the solution ("salvation through Jesus"). (See my earlier blog, "Tolerance isn't good enough.")
Thirdly, there is no Church mandate or structure in place that would allow for such a significant change of attitude. Such a shift would have to entail, among other things, the denunciation of aggressive and manipulative missionizing of the sort that tells people they are "going to hell" if they are not Christians. (According to many Catholic views, some of them still held, all one billion Hindus and Buddhists -- yes, even Gandhi and the Buddha and all the dharma saints and sadhus, parents, ancestors and children -- have followed a "false" faith, the consequence of which is eternal damnation in hell's inferno.) The new pope should reject the right and competence of any religious body to pass such sweeping judgment on other faiths. The theological basis for the dramatic change I seek would lie in directly addressing the problem to which my work repeatedly calls attention: the "history centrism" which leads the Abrahamic religions to claim that we can resolve the human condition only by following the lineage of prophets arising from the Middle East. All other teachings and practices are required to get reconciled with this special and peculiar history. By contrast, the dharmic traditions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism -- do not rely on history in the same absolutist and exclusive way. This dharmic flexibility has made a fundamental pluralism possible which cannot occur within the constraints of history centrism, at least as understood so far. (See my book, Being Different, for a
detailed explanation and comparison of Abrahamic history centrism and dharmic approaches.)
While I recognize that the centrality of revelation through history is a core value in the Abrahamic faiths, I would point out that not only does it cause problems for non-Abrahamic faiths, but among the Abrahamic traditions as well. Their respective rival claims cannot be reconciled as long as they cling to a literal account of the Middle Eastern past, an insistence that this past
is absolutely determinative of religious truth.
This is a very serious and complex conversation that needs to start in order to bring a new level of interfaith collaboration, one that moves beyond rivalry and platitudes. The new pope could champion such a conversation. What I would like to see is that the Catholic Church advance its ideas towards what may be considered as Vatican III, rather than regress backwards and retreat from the beginning that was made in Vatican II and slide into the doctrine of Dominus Jesus.
The next pope will need to have not only the skills of a corporate turnaround executive who can implement deep administrative reform, but also those of a "big thinker" -- someone with theological vision, in-depth appreciation of other faiths, and the courage to re-examine long held attitudes in his Church.
In my view, such a person will not be identified on the basis of the identity politics and ethnicity issues that the media is currently promoting. As an Indian, I am by convention a "person of color," yet it matters not whether the new pope is black, brown, white, red or yellow of skin. What does matter is that he should undertake house cleaning on such issues as punishing
sex abusers and corrupt churchmen, and bringing diversity of theological perspective more than diversity of ethnic identity.
Of course, I support the recent galvanization of victims' groups, concerned citizens and the legal community to demand accountability for the notoriously opaque Church governance. It is good that individuals with purportedly divinely ordained authority are finally being taken to task by ordinary humans seeking dignity and reason. But I am disappointed that the demands have focused on internal and administrative changes only.
If the Vatican would drop claims of exclusivity over religious truth, and reexamine dogmas such as the Nicene Creed, it would pressure other denominations of Christianity to follow suit. The Vatican, after all, is the single largest corporate institution of any religion in the world. The moral pressure on others would be huge if the Pope were to champion a new world order among all faiths in earnest, and not as a gimmick to increase his own flock. Once Christendom becomes genuinely pluralistic, Islam and other exclusivist religions would be under pressure to follow suit. The leader of the Catholic Church can thus change the world.
Being realistic, however, I do not expect to see a Gorbachev-like new pope who would challenge the Vatican as radically as Gorbachev challenged the Soviet empire. But let this historic opportunity not get lost. The conversation must begin.
If anyone questions the propriety of my raising this issue on the grounds that I am an outsider to the Catholic Church, let me simply say that as a world citizen I am a stakeholder in the outcome of this process. I do not think the Vatican can continue to operate with respect and legitimacy if it fails to attend to voices such as mine.