The focus of inter-faith concern, at least for Catholics, has shifted from Judaism to Islam over the last decade. This is the observation made by John Allen in a recent article.
It doesn’t mean that the relationship between Catholics and Jews is less important. Islam, however, is where the bulk of the Church’s time and energy is being invested. Why? Allen gives four reasons.
First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, which adds up to 55 percent of the human population. For good or ill, the relationship is destined to be a driver of global history.
Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism such as the assault on Our Lady of Salvation, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.
Third, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006 unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim relations. The speech triggered a firestorm in the Islamic world […], yet it also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides of the relationship — most notably, it produced “A Common Word,” an initiative of 138 Muslim scholars, representing all the schools of Islam, acting together for the first time to outline common ground between Christians and Muslims.
Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Judaism generally does not have a large sociological footprint. This Southern cohort didn’t live through the Holocaust, and they generally don’t feel historical responsibility for it — seeing it as a Western, not a Christian, atrocity. Relations with Islam, however, are a front-burner priority, since many of these southern Catholics live cheek by jowl with large Muslim communities.
Allen goes on to reflect on four implications of this shift to Islam. One of them is particularly interesting for us in Britain after the Papal visit, where Pope Benedict was sometimes wrongly perceived to be against all forms of secularity and pluralism. It’s aggressive secularism that he is against, and not the idea of a secular society. What does that mean? Here is Allen’s analysis:
During Benedict XVI’s Sept. 2008 trip to France, he endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dubbed “positive laïcité” — a French term for which there is no exact English equivalent, though the usual translation is “secularism.” The basic idea is that religious freedom and church/state separation are positive things, as long as they mean freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.
The emergence of Islam as the church’s central interfaith preoccupation has turbo-charged support for “healthy secularism.”
Proof can be found in the Middle East. Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths, Israel and the Muslim states which surround it, the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. Their dream is to lead a democratic revolution in the region. That outlook reflects a basic law of religious life: secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.
Momentum towards healthy secularism in Catholic thought has implications well beyond the Middle East.
In both Europe and the States these days, there’s considerable debate about the political role of the church. Critics, including many Catholics, sometimes argue that bishops are “too political.” Americans, for instance, are still chewing over the role the U.S. bishops played in the health care reform debate.
If there is a force in Catholicism capable of balancing the scales, it’s likely to be the relationship with Islam, and the perceived need on the Catholic side to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. That points to a keen irony: The specter of shariah might do more to give Catholic leaders pause about blurring church/state lines than a whole legion of liberal Western theologians.
I like that distinction between a secular political space that gives freedom for religion and one which demands a freedom from religion.