In a dimly lit Roman Catholic church on a recent Monday night in Manhattan, around a dozen congregants sit in the pews watching the Rev. Michael Holleran as he leads them in what is known as contemplative prayer. During this kind of prayer, one word of the congregant’s choosing is silently repeated over and over again. There is some singing, and some prayers said aloud throughout the hour-and-a-half-long worship. Every so often Holleran rings a bell three times, which is meant to awaken worshipers from “sleep and into a consciousness of God’s presence.” This form of prayer is often compared to meditation due to the silent repetition of one word and the focus required. Peace, love, truth; these are just a few of the word choices worshipers might repeat. If their mind wanders, they are instructed to return to the word.

Contemplative prayer was adopted by some Catholics in the 1970s and takes inspiration from faiths like Buddhism, so it’s no wonder that in addition to being a Catholic Priest, Michael Holleran is also a Buddhist Sensei.

Michael Holleran serves as the priest at the Church of Notre Dame, a Catholic church in Morningside Heights, but once a week he leads a Buddhist Zen Meditation session over Zoom. He practices double-belonging, a term coined in 2009 by Paul Knitter who wrote a book titled “Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian.” Knitter is a major influence on many Catholics who subscribe to Buddhist ideology. He insists the two faiths do not conflict with one another. The teachings in his book have spread to some, including professors of religion like Chad Thralls of Seton Hall University and Catholic priests like Robert Kennedy, based in New Jersey. They too have followed a life of double-belonging as outlined in Knitter’s book.

Buddhism and Catholicism have been compared to one another in the past. In 1870, The Atlantic, an American magazine that was first published in 1857, reported on the similarities between the two faiths. “The Tibetan lama listened respectfully to the Jesuit priest and replied, ‘Your religion is the same as ours,’” reported Lydia Maria Child.

Buddhism originated around 1,500 years ago. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama the faith spread from India to the rest of Asia and eventually the world. In the tradition life is seen as a cycle, entailing suffering and rebirth. Finally, one can achieve enlightenment and break the cycle. Catholicism traces its roots to Palestine in 30 CE following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that if you confess your sins and base your life around the 10 Commandments you’ll go to Heaven after you die. Some Catholic theologians insist that the two faiths do not conflict, but in fact, build on one another.

As Holleran has explored his religious identity, he says he has found a “vibrant synthesis” between Buddhism and Catholicism.

“I don’t see any conflict among any of these traditions,” he said. “If you’re actually going deep enough into what they’re really all about, that is to say, finding union with God, making the world a better place, transformation of your own consciousness, etc.”

For Holleran, this approach is specific to Catholicism and Buddhism and doesn’t necessarily extend to other faiths like Judaism and Christianity. A joint practice of those faiths might be harder to fit into the double-belonging theme.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Holleran, 72, joined the Jesuits at Fordham University, where he took a course in various religions and learned about Buddhism. Holleran eventually became a Carthusian Monk in France, a contemplative order. Today, as the priest at the Church of Notre Dame, he keeps his two faiths separate, that is until he leads the Dragon’s Eye Zendo Wednesdays on Zoom. During Zen meditations, Holleran mentions Catholic scripture or figures but doesn’t mention Buddhism during Catholic services. Some people attend both the contemplative prayer and the Zen meditation each week like Chad Thralls.

Professor Thralls, who teaches at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution, says that many of his students are excited to learn about faiths other than Catholicism. Therefore, whenever he involves Buddhism in his coursework, students are engaged. Holleran and Thralls cite theologian Paul Knitter as a source of inspiration in their journeys with double-belonging.

The Coining of the Term

Knitter, 83, began studying to be a priest in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, a major reexamination of Catholicism that took place in the 1960s. At the time, the Catholic Church encouraged students to learn about other religions in addition to Catholicism. This started his interest in other faiths and he began to question Christianity as the “superior religion.” Eventually, this inspired Knitter to write a book about how Christianity is just one of many traditions. From then on Knitter said he understood Christianity from a Buddhist perspective.

“It was as if I was wearing Buddhist glasses while reading Christian texts,” he said. Knitter was ordained a Catholic priest but then left the priesthood and became a professor of theology.

Knitter has questioned whether he is Christian or Buddhist in the past. Today, he is a member of a Christian parish and a Buddhist community. On the other hand, his faith identity has been a controversial topic in the academic community. Knitter says he has faced some backlash for preaching double-belonging. Many religious scholars think you cannot be both, but Knitter disagrees.

“Religions need each other to understand themselves,” he said.

This inter-religious study is called comparative theology, and it is more broadly accepted now in mainline Christianity. Knitter suggests this is likely because of the intercultural world we currently live in. In the 1980s Knitter and his peer, John Hick proposed a pluralistic understanding of religious diversity or as Knitter puts it “a pluralistic understanding of the world’s religions.”

During one of Chad Thralls’ recent lectures at Seton Hall University, he explained the first chapter in Knitter’s book to the students, then asked them some questions to see what they thought of it. He references Knitter each semester he can. To a room full of undergraduate students, all raised Catholic, he presents this prompt: “In the book, Knitter notes that one of his students questioned whether he was ‘spiritually sleeping around’ by practicing both Christianity and Buddhism. Is Knitter cheating on Jesus?” During that class discussion, Thralls says none of his students believed Knitter was.

Not every Catholic is on board with double-belonging and the ability to whole-heartedly practice two faiths. Another Catholic priest, the Rev. John D. Dreher, was outspoken about the matter in an article for Catholic.com. For him, the two are incompatible.

“In Catholic teaching, all men are creatures, called out of nothingness to know God. All men are also sinners, cut off from God and destined to death,” he said. “Eastern religions, in contrast, lack revelation of God as a personal Creator who radically transcends his creatures. Though possessing many praiseworthy elements, they nonetheless seek God as if he were part of the universe, rather than its Creator.”

Still, Holleran, who doesn’t mention Buddha during his Catholic services, is fairly open about his practice of both religions. His personal website plainly states his credentials as a former Carthusian Monk and Priest and as a Sensei. It also references Knitter and double belonging.

Holleran says he hasn’t received much backlash from anyone about practicing double-belonging. He continues to lead Catholic services and Zen meditations. Additionally, he gives lectures about the intersection of the two faiths to students every now and then.

Of the potential for backlash, he said “Mystics have been crucified in all traditions, not just Christian, Jewish, Muslim. They’re always a problem, a danger because they challenge the limitations of the institution.”

The New York Archdiocese has not replied to repeated requests for comment about whether double belonging is something they support among their priests.

The Retreat

On April 10th and 11th, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a retreat in which around 25 “Interfaith Fellows” from the university’s Center for Religion and Global Citizenry practiced a variety of faiths to better understand them. They met in person at Holy Wisdom Monastery, a Catholic Monastery of Benedictine nuns. During the retreat, they experienced contemplative prayer, Zen meditation, and Tibetan meditation, among other practices.

Paul Knitter was one of the event organizers. He says they focused on similarities and differences between faiths but argued that many have similar goals.

“Through the contemplative practice, we discover a larger self,” Knitter said. “We’re finding ourselves as part of a larger reality, which is called by different names. God, Nirvana, Allah, Gahe.”

Although none of the students definitely said they would practice double-belonging after the retreat, many said it was an enlightening experience.

In an ever-globalizing world, religions from the East and West build on one another, according to those who practice double-belonging. Scholarship has further spread this idea. “Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian” has outsold all of Knitter’s other books. He said he gets thank you emails once a month, even now. Regardless, Knitter doesn’t think most people will ever become pluralistic in faith, but they may become more open to the idea that some are. “People might be more open to learning from others,” he said.