On Feb. 13, 1999, then Cardinal Ratzinger, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit to St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, to deliver a message to US Catholic educators. Fr. P. Gerard O'Rourke invited me to attend as an interfaith observor. After the Cardinal's address Fr. Gerry led me downstairs to the reception and there introduced me to Cardinal Ratzinger.
The irony of our brief meeting was that only minutes before, Natonal Catholic Reporter's journalist (and now Vatican bureau chief) John Allen, Jr. had asked me for my reponse to the then-Cardinal's published comments that "Buddhism was an "autoerotic spirituality" that seeks "transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations." He asked me to comment on Cardinal Ratzinger's assertion that "Buddhism would replace Marxism as the church's biggest foe by 2000."
The portion of the text of the article ran as follows:
"Representatives of other religions in San Francisco’s highly-diverse population were in Ratzinger’s audience. The Rev. Heng Sure, a Buddhist, told NCR he had come to “explore the possibilities for dialogue.”
In 1997, Ratzinger riled Buddhists when he called the religion an “autoerotic spirituality” that seeks “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” He also suggested that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the churche’s biggest foe by 2000.
Despite this background, Sure was ready to be gracious. “I think maybe he hasn’t met that many Buddhists. Face to face it’s a very positive thing and there’s a lot of potential,” he said.
“I’ve known some Buddhists in very high places who find Catholicism kind of cryptic. As soon as they meet some Catholics they say, ‘Oh, my goodness, here’s a human being who has something to share’ and this may be the same kind of thing.”
As for the unfelicitous phrase "autoerotic spirituality" it turns out that the Cardinal's views were written first in a French Catholic journal, and in French, the phrase "auto-erotisme" means "self-absorption," or narcissism. Unfortunately, the English-language press heard it the term without benefit of translation and it came out sounding much more parochial than perhaps, it was intended.
The Cardinal looked like a shy and gentle man; he was clearly a scholar, and he had warm brown eyes. As Pope he may indeed get to meet more Buddhists and discover the blessing of interfaith understanding. I hope that In his new capacity as spiritual father of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics that he celebrates and encourages the many Roman Catholic leaders the world over who bring the universal love of Jesus Christ in person to non-Catholics, by joining whole-heartedly in dialogue and friendship.