NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — Pope Francis warned Kazakhstan’s bishops on Thursday against fueling nostalgia for the past, as one of his traditionalist critics here did just that by suggesting that Francis’ participation in an interfaith conference could imply papal endorsement of a “supermarket of religions.”
The warning from Bishop Athenasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana, was perhaps to be expected, given he is one of Francis’ most vocal critics, regularly calling out what he considers to be Francis’ doctrinal ambiguities and overly progressive bent on issues such as homosexuality and interfaith outreach.
Francis began his third and final day in Kazakhstan by meeting with bishops, priests and nuns in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral in the capital Nur-Sultan. Later Thursday he was to give a concluding address to a government-sponsored interfaith gathering that was expected to insist that religion must never be used to justify war — a call that was coming against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Catholics in Kazakhstan number around 125,000 in the country of 19 million, the majority of whom are Muslim or Orthodox Christian. On Thursday, Francis urged his priests and bishops to find grace in the church’s small size and not be fixated on rigid rules and regulations or nostalgia for the church’s past tradition.
“The faith was not passed down from generation to generation as a set of ideas to be understood and followed, as a fixed and timeless code,” Francis said. Because of the church’s small size, she needs people of other faiths, he said.
“May we realize, in a spirit of humility, that only together in dialogue and mutual acceptance, can we truly achieve something good for the benefit of all. That is the special task of the church in this country: not to be a group bogged down in the same old way of doing things, or withdrawn into its shell since it feels small, but a community open to God’s future.”
In the audience was Schneider, who has joined other traditionalist and conservative cardinals and bishops in criticizing several of Francis’ signature gestures and what they say are his doctrinal ambiguities on issues such as divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and interfaith relations.
In particular, Schneider joined American Cardinal Raymond Burke in criticizing a 2019 document Francis signed with the grand imam of al-Azhar university in Cairo which, among other things, said that all religions are “willed by God.” Some Catholic critics say the idea could lead to relativism that would accept that all religions are equally valid paths to God, when the Vatican holds that Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.
The so-called “Human Fraternity” document was held up as an example of “great historical significance” by Kazakhstan’s president at the start of the interfaith conference.
Speaking to reporters before Francis’ visit to the cathedral, Schneider defended his criticism as respectful, “fraternal” advice to Francis, borne out of love and providing “true help for the church.”
“This is normal because we are not employees of the pope,” he said. “We are brothers. We have to say with respect when we recognize something is a danger for the entire church. This is a help.”
He welcomed Francis’ visit to Kazakhstan, which has been hosting an interfaith conference gathering Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist and other faith leaders to promote dialogue as a force for peace. But Schneider warned that Francis’ participation in such a big international event could call into question what he said was the Catholic Church’s unique role in providing the sole path to salvation.
“The congress as such has a good aim to promote mutual respect and understanding in the world today. But it has also a danger because it could give the impression of a ‘supermarket of religions’ and this is not correct because there is only one true religion, which is the Catholic Church, founded by God himself,” Schneider said.
Schneider urged the Vatican to reconsider participation in such international events in the future and instead focus on building relationships at a more local level.
Despite his criticism, Schneider had a significant role to play in Thursday’s event at the capital’s cathedral: He helped push Francis’ wheelchair down the aisle of the cathedral at the start of the meeting and introduced a line of dignitaries who met the pontiff afterward, serving as translator, and bid Francis farewell as his little white Fiat 500 pulled away.
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