06/14/2006, 00.00
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Card. Dias: "Pope has moral authority to talk about religious freedom anywhere"

In a long commentary published today, the cardinal explained the origins of the religious and moral authority of the successor of Peter, mistaken by the Indian government to be a "fisher of fish, not of men".

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – The Pope, Vicar of Christ and head of the universal Church, "has all the right to comment about the situation of religious freedom anywhere in the world" and this right of his "is recognised by millions of people worldwide who listen to his voice in ethical, moral and doctrinal matters".

The Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias, new prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, has returned once more to the controversy surrounding comments made on 18 May by Benedict XVI about religious freedom in India. He had referred to "disturbing signs of religious intolerance in some Indian states".

After these words, spoken when the new ambassador of India to the Holy See presented his credentials, Rajnath Singh, chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP – India's largest political party with nationalist-fundamentalist tendencies], responded to the Pope, describing his comments as "unjustified" and saying it was "conversions that caused religious problems in the country, not the laws that prohibit them."

In Madhya Pradesh, a state dominated by the BJP, several groups of integralists burned photos of Benedict XVI on 20 May to protest his "interference in India's internal affairs". This issue has returned to the fore of India's political scene, where complaints are still being heard about "papal interference".

The director of the social communications office of Mumbai diocese, Fr Tony Charangat told AsiaNews: "In India, there is apparent misunderstanding about the political role of the pope on the one hand and his moral authority on the other. The government has not understood the comments of Benedict XVI were not coming from the Head of State of the Vatican City but from the Holy See, which has a very different kind of authority."

To explain this point fully, the cardinal wrote a sort of "instruction manual" to help non Catholics grasp the dual nature of the vicar of Christ on earth and from where his moral authority comes from.

AsiaNews has republished substantial extracts of the reflections of Cardinal Dias:

In some of the reactions to Pope Benedict XVI's recent remarks on freedom of religion in India, he was criticised for intruding into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation and for acting as the head of the Vatican City-State. Besides the considerations which have been previously made on 27 May (see India: Cardinal Dias replied to fundamentalists: "Personal conversion regards man and God alone") it would seem wise to clarify - from a Catholic perspective - certain notions about the role he plays in the world at large as Christ's Vicar on earth and as the first citizen of the Vatican.

Biblical Background

We must go back to the Sea of Galilee some 2,000 years ago when Jesus, who had just finished addressing a multitude of people from the barque of Peter, bade him to launch out into the deep and to lower the nets for a catch. After a moment of curious surprise - at a request coming from a carpenter-preacher to a seasoned fisherman who had toiled all night and caught nothing (was it, perhaps, an unwarranted interference with his competence!) - Peter cast down the nets and, all confused by the big haul he made, fell at Jesus' feet and begged Him to go away from a sinful man. But Jesus reassured him saying: "Do not be afraid; henceforth, you will be a fisher of men". This change, from fisherman to a fisher of men, is indeed significant. Later on, Jesus would explain the meaning of this new office with another metaphor: "You are Peter, the rock, and on this Rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you will bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you will loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". After His resurrection, Jesus confirmed Peter in this office saying: "Feed my lambs.. Feed my sheep", notwithstanding the fact that Peter, in a moment of weakness after Jesus' arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, had thrice denied that he ever knew Him. Being God-made-man, Jesus' flock is the whole human race, for whose sake He died on the Cross at Calvary.

The Holy See

It is gratifying to note that, in a world where human, moral and ethical values are being constantly tossed high and low on the stormy seas of life, Jesus wished that Peter be, like a lighthouse on a rock, His authoritative spokesman - His Vicar on earth - enlightening the course of humanity. And so it has been all down the centuries till today through Peter's successors, the Popes. The moral and spiritual authority vested in the Pope is normally referred to as The Holy See: the term "see" (which means seat) symbolically signifies the chair from which teaching is officially imparted, laws are promulgated and judgements pronounced, something akin to the stools of the tribal chiefs in Africa, the thrones of the kings in Europe and the places from where Indian gurus teach their disciples with authority.

Strictly speaking, the Holy See or the Apostolic See is the ministry of the Pope who has a double sovereignty: as Pastor of the universal Church and as Head of the Vatican City-State. In a broad sense, the Holy See includes the departments (dicasteries) of the Roman Curia which collaborate with the Pope in the governance of the Church (can. 361 in the Code of Canon Law). The Holy See is thus the central governing body of the Catholic Church, whose head is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, and it is precisely in the exercise of this function that it enjoys international recognition. The Holy See is also the supreme authority of the Vatican City-State, as will be explained further below. The Pope has a special place in the comity of nations, and he is universally acknowledged as an authoritative point of reference when he speaks on dogmatic, spiritual, moral and ethical issues: these statements are not always infallible, except when he speaks ex cathedra. He commands the respect of all the nations, even of those who disagree with his views. In this he represents the Holy See, and not the Vatican City-State. His pronouncements are mainly on human rights, life and death issues, morality in and out of marriage, questions of justice, truth and peace.

The Holy See, not the Vatican City, maintains diplomatic relations with 174 nations and participates in various international organizations. Foreign embassies are accredited to the Holy See, not to the Vatican City, and it is the Holy See that establishes treaties and concordats with other sovereign entities and, when necessary, even on behalf of the Vatican City. Due to the very limited territory of the Vatican, embassies to the Holy See are located outside that City-State in the Italian part of Rome. Italy too has its own Embassy to the Holy See. While the Vatican is a subject of international law and is a member of some international organisations, like the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Holy See participates in many entities, both governmental and non-governmental, as a member, observer or permanent representative, e.g. United Nations Organization (UNO), The European Council, United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAE), etc.

As the Holy See does not have any political or commercial ambitions to further, it is much appreciated by everyone for its supra-national approach and its substantial contribution to the international community's quest for world peace and security, especially since there are matters and values which transcend national boundaries and which concern the world body of nations as a whole. Among these are human rights issues, wars and consequent refugee problems, terrorism, child labour, drug trafficking, air-flight safety, maritime fishing, etc. Common policies on these matters are often drawn up in declarations and statements having a universal character: e.g. the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights wherein it is stated: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (Art.18).

The Vatican City-State

The place where the Pope resides at present is a very small territory in Rome, called the Vatican. Rome has always been the normal residence of the Popes, albeit in various locations, because the tomb of Peter, the first Pope, lies there on Vatican Hill. In times past, when the Italian peninsula was made up of many feudal states, some of them paid allegiance to the Pope as their temporal sovereign. But, when the Papal States were suppressed after the invasion of Rome by the troops of the King of Piedmont in 1870, the Pope was "confined" to the Vatican Palace. It was then that some uncertainty arose among jurists as to whether the Holy See, without territorial sovereignty, could continue to act as an independent personality in international affairs. The State of the Vatican City was therefore created with the signing of the Lateran Pact between the Holy See and the Italian Authorities on February 11, 1929 to "ensure the absolute and visible independence of the Holy See" and "to guarantee to it an indisputable sovereignty in international affairs" (quotes from the treaty). Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Holy See's former Secretary for Relations with States, said that the Vatican City is a "miniscule support-state that guarantees the spiritual freedom of the Pope with the minimum territory".

The Catholic Perspective

To summarise the Catholic perspective exposed above: The Holy See has existed ever since Peter was mandated by Christ to take care of His flock, which is the whole human race. The Vatican City-State exists since 1929. It would, therefore, be wrong to attribute to the Pope as head of the Vatican City-State the statements he makes in virtue of his authority as Christ's Vicar on earth (Holy See): just as if, in the case of Peter cited above, one would confuse the fisherman and the fisher of men in him. People everywhere are normally quite aware that the Pope's role as head of the Church is quite distinct from that of first citizen of the Vatican: for instance, when they listen to the Pope's speeches or when they react to various papal events, such as the sight of the hundreds of thousands of persons who come to Rome from the five continents wishing to attend a papal audience; the anxiety of the millions around the globe who followed the radio and television bulletins for over a week as Pope John Paul II's life was slowly ebbing away and the sadness which prevailed all over the world when he died and at his funeral service; the enthusiasm with which countless of persons witnessed the election and inaugural ceremonies of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Re-reading Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on religious freedom in India - which were made within the context of a speech filled with appreciation of and praises for the Indian nation - one cannot but sense the Holy Father's deep concern at the negative attitude taken by certain politico-religious groups vis-à-vis the innate fundamental rights of the Indian people, which are also enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are guaranteed in the Indian Constitution and reflect the spirit of India's founding fathers. This is fully within the competence of the Pope (Holy See). His observations, however, are all the more relevant when one considers the deep yearning of the Indian soul as expressed in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "from untruth lead me to the truth, from darkness lead me to the light, and from death lead me to immortality".

While sincerely appreciating the "seeds of the truth" which are found in all religious traditions and which await their full blossoming, Christians believe that only Jesus Christ can fully satisfy the inner longing of the human heart to pass "from untruth to truth" because He is the Truth; "from darkness to the light" because He is the Way and the Light of the World, and "from death to immortality" because He is Life in abundance.

In fact, in reply to a question posed by the Apostle Thomas at the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" (Jn 14:6). And it was precisely Thomas who, in God's providence, would later bring this Good News of Jesus Christ to the Indian sub-continent.

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