Catholic Support For Controversial Movement Grows Despite Hierarchy's Opposition
By Lee Penn
The Christian Challenge (Washington, DC)
November 14, 2003
THE VATICAN stands firmly against it.
Nonetheless, Catholic support for it has spread worldwide, beyond the usual
array of dissident Catholic theologians, priests, and religious orders.
"It" is the eight-year-old, controversial interfaith venture, the United
Religions Initiative (URI), founded by liberal California Episcopal Bishop William
Swing. Far from including only the major ancient religions, the URI has
opened its doors to "spiritualities" of all sorts, including those of the pagan,
occult and New Age genre. Some critics point to evidence that the URI will act
to distill from these many belief systems a one-world religion. Though still
relatively unknown, the URI has grown to 201 chapters and more than 15,000
adherents around the world, and has attracted some major benefactors.
At Rome in 1996, Bishop Swing received a firm rebuff from Cardinal Arinze,
who was then the head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.
According to Bishop Swing, the Cardinal "said that a United Religions would
give the appearance of syncretism and it would water down our need to
evangelize. It would force authentic religions to be on equal footing with spurious
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who worked under Cardinal Arinze (and is now
his successor), pointedly ignored Bishop Swing's invitation to attend the 1997
URI summit conference.
Since then, the Vatican has restated its opposition to the URI. In a June
1999 letter to Homiletic & Pastoral Review, a magazine for Catholic priests, Fr.
Chidi Denis Isizoh of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said:
"Religious syncretism is a theological error. That is why the Pontifical
Council for Interreligious Dialogue does not approve of the United Religions
Initiative and does not work with it."
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in June 2000, "Swing found that the
Vatican wanted nothing to do with his organization."
MANY CATHOLICS, however, are not following the Vatican lead. Open supporters
of the URI in the episcopate have included Cardinal Paul Evaristo Arns (the
retired Archbishop of S?o Paulo, Brazil), Archbishop John Baptist Odama (from
Uganda), Thomas Gumbleton (auxiliary Bishop of Detroit), and Archbishop John
Quinn of San Francisco (the retired Archbishop of that city).
William Levada, the Archbishop of San Francisco, has not officially stated
support for the URI. Nevertheless, the Archdiocese of San Francisco is--in
practical terms, if not formally--cooperating closely with the URI. Diocesan
spokesman Maurice Healey agreed that "through its actions, the Archdiocese has
viewed the URI positively." Fr. Gerard O'Rourke, director of the Office of
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco,
has been an enthusiastic supporter of the URI from its beginning; he served on
the URI Board of Directors until 2002.
The Jesuit leaders of the University of San Francisco (USF) also support the
URI. Fr. John Lo Schiavo, S.J. (Chancellor of USF) served through 2000 on the
URI Board of Directors. In April 2001, Fr. Steven A. Privett S. J. (current
president of USF) praised Bishop Swing's "realization that dogma divides and
action unites" when he introduced Swing to the Commonwealth Club of San
Francisco. The Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J., (President of USF from 1991 through
2000) donated to the URI in 2000.
Sister Bridget Clare McKeever, director of the Office of Spirituality for the
Catholic diocese of Salt Lake in Utah, publicly endorsed the URI in 2001.
The Catholic Diocese of Oakland, California, donated to the URI in 2000--the
only Roman Catholic diocese yet to go on the record as doing so.
URI activities have also been supported by Catholic Relief Services, the New
Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, the Leadership Conference of
Women Religious, the Religious Orders Partnership (associated with Global
Education Associates), Pax Christi USA, and many orders of nuns.
John Borelli, Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),
said in November 2002, "Since the Archdiocese of San Francisco is involved in
the URI, the Catholic Church is involved."
In March 2003, Borelli said, "My advice to Gerry O'Rourke from the start is
that all kinds of interfaith activities are beneficial and he should be
involved in the URI if he feels it is a worthwhile project." Borelli added that
there has been "no formal communication from the Vatican to the USCCB about the
URI." Thus, the USCCB bureaucracy is a de facto supporter of the URI.
Catholic support for the URI is worldwide. Five of the 37 URI Global Council
members are Catholic, including Fr. James Channan, of Pakistan (a Consultor
for the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with Muslims and prior
Vice-Provincial of the Dominican "Sons of Mary" order), and Fr. Dr. George Khoury
(President of the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of the Greek Catholic Church, in
Other prominent Catholics who have endorsed the URI include Fr. Thomas Michel
S.J. (director of the Jesuit Secretariat for Interreligious Dialogue); Fr.
Joseph Wainaina (who has been the National Pastoral Coordinator for the Kenya
Episcopal Conference); and Fr. Albert Nambiaparambil, who served in the 1990s
as Secretary of Interreligious Dialogue for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of
India. Catholics in Belgium, Brazil, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Uganda,
Zimbabwe, and other countries have taken leadership roles in local and regional
URI activity. Dissenting theologians supporting the URI include Paul Knitter
(senior editor at Orbis Books and professor of theology at Xavier University),
Leonard Swidler (professor of "Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue"
at Temple University), and Hans K?ng.
Sources available upon request. Permission to circulate the foregoing
electronically, or reprint it, is granted, provided that there are no changes in the
headings or text.