By James Likoudis, President-emeritus
Catholic United for the Faith


N. B.  The following is Mr. James Likoudis' rebuttal to Robert Sungenis' unwise and misinformed criticism of Pope John Paul II's Interfaith Peace and Prayer Meetings at Assisi. It was originally published as an article on the World Wide Web by "TCR Catholic Reflections & Reports ©" (

TCR Note: Neither Mr. Likoudis nor TCR wishes to get into an endless debate with Robert Sungenis, not long ago a celebrated convert to Catholicism, who has been showing an intemperate and unbalanced understanding of the Faith recently. We will not here treat Mr. Sungenis' public views regarding the earth being the physical center of the universe and other odd developments. Once a reply has been made using Catholic principles which are certain, which Mr. Likoudis has done very effectively, it is then up to the one who opposes those certain principles to work out his own salvation "with fear and trembling," as St. Paul said. Private judgment is an abyss that many have fallen into throughout history. Even if our response on this matter ends here, however, our prayers will not.  —  the editors

I have no intention of writing a book in reply to Mr. Robert Sungenis and his various assertions concerning Pope John Paul II, and will have to content myself with these observations.

  1. I repeat here that I am not in agreement with Mr. Sungenis’ criticisms of Pope John Paul II and [Sungenis' opinions on] the Assisi Interfaith Prayer Meetings.

  2. Mr. Sungenis is mistaken in thinking that I "will not question any of his words or actions" and that I must support every single thing he says and does. I have not and do not. The Pope can well be mistaken with regards to his personal opinions on doctrinal matters and can be wrong in his decisions regarding the pastoral administration and government of the Church and in disciplinary and canonical measures as well as on matters outside the sphere of faith and morals. Every informed Catholic knows this. What I will not do is what certain so-called "traditionalists" and "non-traditonalists" delight in doing, i.e., engaging in PUBLIC CRITICISM AND DENUNCIATION of the Vicar of Christ on earth – which only adds to furthering the ignorance and confusion concerning Catholic doctrine that is already pandemic.

  3. Those who engage in such PUBLIC CRITICISM of the Pope, even questioning his orthodoxy may not be among the formal dissenters who dissent from definitive Catholic teachings but they too do a serious disservice to the Church in also weakening the spirit of fidelity and unshakeable obedience due the Pope as the visible head of the Church Militant. In a Letter to a troubled correspondent, the saintly convert- founder of CUF, H. Lyman Stebbins, wrote:
    "What you say is certainly true about those within the Church who are weakening it most dreadfully. You go on to say there is nothing to be feared from intense research if it is done in a spirit of sincerity and honesty! I would add, ‘AND IN PRIVATE’."
    It is this latter comment which reflects the spirit of "reverence" due the pastors of the Church and especially him who is the Chief Pastor, together with "consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons". (Canon 212-2, 3 as quoted by Mr.Sungenis).

  4. However, with regards to Canon Law provisions and CDF documents justifying the laity bringing their doctrinal concerns to the attention of the Church’s sacred pastors, such do not envisage broadcasting one’s theological difficulties and perplexities coupled with criticisms of the Pope over the Internet! The laity are to bring their doctrinal problems to Church authorities using the Church’s own institutions and procedures. There is always, moreover, the recourse of forwarding private correspondence to the Pope and discussions with those Roman Congregations that have the appropriate competence on specific issues.

  5. Mr. Sungenis notes: "The warfare of today against the Catholic Church is worldwide." Indeed, it is. But this ought not to be translated into warfare also against the Vicar of Christ on earth and accusing other Catholics of "papolatry" for refusing to take part in public protests against him, and especially when all too many "traditionalists" appear fixated in an "hermeneutics of suspicion" that enhance outrageous charges about an "Evil Pope".

The wise words of the Servant of God, Cardinal John Henry Newman are apropos here:

"There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but discover in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence that is more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ; he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he needs account. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would his father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God."

It is this spirit of "docile reverence" towards the Successor of Peter that has always motivated the members of CUF, and not allowed them to ever raise their voice publicly to denounce and "resist" the Vicar of Christ for allegedly violating the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, Vatican II, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding prayer and pagans.

Mr. Sungenis’ grievances against Pope John Paul II:

"There is no Tradition supporting Assisi. Not even Vatican II supported Assisi. The issue is whether Pope John Paul II has the authority, based on Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, to teach and encourage pagan religions to pray to their false gods for worldly concerns, and to force Catholics to participate alongside of them. Since [pagans] have received the ‘mystery’ of Christ in the Incarnation, they have no more excuses for worshiping and praying to their false gods. We heard the pope tell him [the Voodoo priest] to continue in his pagan arts, and to consider his prayer as already being in communion with God, and not a word about him having to repent and accept the God of Christianity. In fact, the pope apparently believes that the pagans have no need to convert, since they already know God well enough to pray to Him, via their own gods, for world peace, and need not be concerned about whether they have received salvation in the first place. Isn’t the definition of a ‘pagan’ one who does not have communion with ‘god’? If he has communion with God, then he would not be a pagan, would he? The very reason we call them ‘pagans’ is that they don’t have communion with God. They have communion with their false gods. According to [St.] John, we’re not supposed to let these people in our house or give him a greeting, let alone pray with them. And if we do not abide by John’s advice [2 Jn. 9-11] , then we ‘participate in his evil deeds’. That is precisely what the pope is doing at Assisi – forcing Catholics to participate in their evil deeds."

The above constitutes a severe indictment. One may wonder whether Mr. Sungenis prohibits his non-Christian friends from entering his home or giving them a greeting. But are his criticisms of the Pope for violating the injunctions of Scripture and Tradition true? Is it true that "According to Pope John Paul II, there is no difference in praying to the true God as opposed to praying to one’s false god, since both prayers apparently go the same individual"? Is it true that for Pope John Paul II, "In essence, pagan idolatry is not really pagan idolatry any longer. It is just another means to reach the true God, in whatever form it comes. No wonder the pope didn’t tell them to convert to Christianity. Why should they if they already have access to God and all His blessings via their false god?"

The teaching of Vatican II and the many addresses of Pope John Paul II concerning evangelization and the Church’s missionary obligations are the best answer to Mr. Sungenis’ distortions concerning the Church’s outreach to pagan idolaters in today’s world. They, too, including Voodoo practioners, are included in "the universal design of God for the salvation of the human race". In Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, there is a deepened recognition that the religious strivings of non-Christians represent human endeavors to find God, but that they do involve the workings of Divine Providence, and serve as a "preparation for the Gospel" ( AG 3). True, "these initiatives need to be enlightened and purified" but the religious rituals and practices of non-Christians possess "elements of truth and grace" and constitute "a sort of secret presence of God" (AG 9). Catholic missionaries must make themselves "familiar with the national and religious traditions" of the peoples to whom they have been sent, "and gladly and respectfully uncover the seeds of the Word which lie hidden in those traditions" (AG 11). These and other passages in Vatican II indicate that there is a working of the Holy Spirit in the religious traditions, teachings, rules, and practices of non-Christians and Who may already have sown "the seeds of the Word" that are to be actualized by missionaries into a complete act of faith in Christ and His one Church. These positive "seeds of the Word" may be mixed with serious errors such as belief in many gods but the profound religious sense exhibited by some pagans can serve as "pedagogy toward the true God".

Contrary to Mr. Sungenis’ unduly monolithic, harsh, rigid, and severe appreciation of pagans (ignoring certain positive indications of the "rays of truth" found among them which Fathers and theologians across the centuries have acknowledged) , Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, 2, stated:

"The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and life, those rulings and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons : prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture."

In line with previous Catholic thought noting that pagan religions contain worthwhile elements and that there are mysterious invisible bonds of grace which relate them to the Source of all grace, our Savior Jesus Christ, Pius XII in his encyclical Divine Praecones declared that " The Church has never treated the doctrines of the pagans with contempt and disdain; rather she has freed them from all error, then completed them and crowned them with Christian wisdom."

Moreover, Vatican II and the post-conciliar Popes have not compromised the need of Catholics to preach the entire Gospel to both non-Catholics and non-Christians. On May 31, 1995, Pope John Paul II delivered an Address, noting:

"For those who are not ignorant that the Church has been established as necessary by God through Jesus Christ, there is an obligation to enter the Church and remain in her in order to attain salvation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 14). For those, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, ..salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. n. 10). It is a ‘mysterious relationship" : mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her; it is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church founded by the Savior.

With respect to the prayer of pagans, the comments of a great traditional theologian, Cardinal Jean Danielou, on prayer are applicable:

"The essential religious act is prayer. It is through prayer that we reach up to God and that we make proper response to the signs coming from God. Prayer, a protestation against the world, an avowal of our helplessness, is the act by which we ask God’s assistance to help us rise out of our misery and provide for our wants. Prayer is the primordial religious fact.

All pagan religions attain some knowledge of God. However, since they have not the Revelation of God Himself, they focus on the wrong object and often turn out to be gross caricatures of religion, although they sometimes arrive at truly noble ideas. All that is good in these religions come from God, in respect to whatever intuition they can have of Him through the signs that He gives to them. On the other hand, all their vagaries and all their inadequacies ensue from the uncertainty and confusion which is endemic in them. There is something immeasurably moving in the thought of this great portion of humanity, religious at heart, groping after God but seeking Him in darkness,’ in tenebris’, as the Canticle of Zacharias says, and sometimes failing to find Him because those whose mission it is do not bring Him to them, or present Him only in caricature." (The Salvation of the Nations, 1949).

Mr.Sungenis’ views of paganism simply focus on the dark and negative aspects of pagan religion- those aspects which betray the influence of sin and the devil — and fail to emphasize the "rays of Truth" which reveal the presence of that "Unknown God" (Acts 17: 23) who has not totally abandoned these "offspring of God" (Acts 17: 28-29). Across the centuries God our Father did not "leave Himself without testimony [among the pagans], bestowing blessings, giving rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14: 16).

What then of the false charge hurled against Pope John Paul II, that he has failed to preach the Gospel to the pagans at Assisi, and has perverted the Gospel of Christ? It is a pity that Mr. Sungneis has been unaware of the teaching of the Church concerning evangelization which was so splendidly set forth in Paul VI’s seminal encyclical "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (On Evangelization in the Modern World). Therein the Pope explains the meaning and content of evangelization and all the latter’s "richness and complexity". He writes that "It is impossible to grasp the concept of evangelization unless one tries to keep in view all its essential elements." He speaks of an "initial stage of evangelization" wherein the Christian gives witness to a fundamental human solidarity with others who are in need of an encounter with Christ.

"Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live. Why are they like this? Why do they live this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization." (21)

Pope Paul VI explains further that this "first stage of evangelization" is "insufficient because even the finest witness" needs the explicit proclamation of "the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and Mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God." From all the above, it should be clear that with the Assisi encounters Pope John Paul II as the Successor of the Fisherman has engaged in a legitimate "initial act of evangelization" manifesting the Church’s reaching out in love to assist in the "development and liberation" of man. His predecessor Paul VI had already recalled that "it is impossible to accept that in evangelization one could or should ignore the importance of the problems so much discussed today, concerning justice, liberation, development and peace in the world. This would be to forget the lesson which comes to us from the Gospel concerning love of our neighbor who is suffering and in need." (E. N. 31)

The theological tradition of the Church, as clarified and deepened by Vatican II and modern Popes concerning Evangelization and its various stages, makes allowance for prudence and patience as to the time and manner of explicitly proclaiming Christ’s conversion-bringing message of repentance and salvation to pagan peoples. The stage of "an initial act of evangelization" is not to be despised by those with an intemperate zeal to convert people who are, moreover, harshly accused of having no knowledge of the true God at all. At Assisi, Pope John Paul II was merely putting into practice the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great in his letter to the Bishop of Naples in 602 :

"Those who sincerely desire to bring those outside the Christian religion to correct faith should be earnestly engaged in displays of courtesy, not harshness, lest hostility drive away those whose minds a clearly thought out reason could challenge. For whoever acts otherwise, and wants to keep them away from their customary practice of rites under this pretext, is shown to be more concerned with his own interests than those of God." (Denz.-Hun, 480).

Moreover, in fact, Pope John Paul II has not failed to take an appropriate opportunity to preach the Gospel to those at Assisi. In his January 24, 2002 Address to the representatives of the World Religions (posted on the Vatican Website), John Paul II openly declared:

"In his death on Golgotha, Jesus bore in His Flesh the wounds of God’s Passion for humanity. Bearing witness to the heavenly Father’s loving plan, He became our peace, who has made us both one, and had broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2: 14)."

Thus, gathering the representatives of world religions in a common effort to overcome the "dark clouds of terrorism, hatred, armed conflict", the Pope preached Christ as the true source of peace. How sad that Mr. Sungenis who has such admirable talents, has failed to see this.

It is too bad that Mr.Sungenis did not take the opportunity to obtain a copy of Cardinal Arinze’s book "Church in Dialogue" (Ignatius Press, 1990) [unfortunately out of print now] which would have corrected his repeated assertions that Catholics had joined "side by side with pagans in prayer for things that are not concerned with the latter’s salvation." Speaking of the 1986 Day of Prayer at Assisi, the Cardinal observed:

"Each religious family or tradition was fully respected. There was no attempt at a common prayer for all. Prayer is based on belief. Since beliefs are different, the formula chosen for the celebration was ‘being together to pray’, not ‘praying together"." As for peace and other human goods being a "mundane" matter not connected with one’s salvation, we should reflect on the words of Jesus : "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matt. 5: 9). Surely, working for peace and collaborating with men of good will for noble ends has something to do with being blessed by God!

Mr. Sungenis’ views are not free from a certain exaggerated "supernaturalism" that overlooks certain legitimate natural goods and universal human values. He should reflect more on the fact that the partial truths found in non-Christian religious traditions, in so far as they reflect (however obscurely) the plenitude of truth that is in Christ, can be salfivic, not withstanding elements of falsehood.

The Assisi meetings with representatives of world religions, therefore, were striking manifestations of spiritual leaders (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, many others in addition to those of Traditional African religions) coming together to witness to help promote universal human values and common truths concerning that Transcendence and Holiness (whom we call God: that "ultimate and ineffable Mystery, which embraces our existence" Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, 1) . There was an edifying raising of mind and heart to the God of theism, to that "Unknown God" whom pagans dimly sense in their prayer and through their sacred ceremonies.

In conclusion, it is regrettable that Mr. Sungenis should give his support to those presently attacking the Pope for alleged violations of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterial teaching, and accusing him of religious indifference, and worse, but themselves lacking "prudence, reverence and charity" towards the Vicar of Christ.

© 2002, James Likoudis. All Rights Reserved. The above may not be published without explicit permission of the author.
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