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Posts Tagged ‘inter-religious dialogue’

It was announced some months ago that Pope Benedict will go to Assisi in October to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting there in 1986.

Assisi

The stated aim is to witness to peace, and not – as some people have feared – to pray together or to deny the uniqueness of Christ. As Cindy Wooden wrote in January:

He did not actually say anything about praying with members of other religions. Announcing the October gathering, he said he would go to Assisi on pilgrimage and would like representatives of other Christian confessions and other world religions to join him there to commemorate Pope John Paul’s “historic gesture” and to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service in the cause of peace.”

While Pope Benedict may be more open to interreligious dialogue than some of the most conservative Christians would like, he continues to insist that dialogue must be honest about the differences existing between religions and that joint activities should acknowledge those differences.

John Allen, more recently, looks as the significance of the coming meeting.

Movers and shakers in Rome are well aware that John Paul II’s 1986 interreligious summit was among the iconic moments of his papacy. It helped make the pope a global point of reference, it enhanced the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy, and it boosted the moral authority of the church.

Today, the Vatican could use another win like that in the court of public opinion. In the West, it faces a hostile political and legal environment, with Ireland even threatening to breach the sanctity of the confessional. In other parts of the world, it needs the good will of governments and leaders of other faiths to protect Christians under fire. Tuesday’s car bomb attack against a Syro-Catholic church in Kirkuk, Iraq, offers tragic proof of the point.

A high-profile public event such as Assisi, which showcases the papacy’s unique capacity to bring religions together, could be a real boon — provided, of course, it doesn’t turn in to another PR debacle.

Assisi is also important to Benedict XVI. Although he’s made great strides in inter-faith relations, especially with Islam, in some quarters he’s still dogged by the image of a cultural warrior associated with a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor critical of Muhammad.

Given all that, one can expect Vatican officials to act with alacrity to put out any potential fires related to the Assisi summit.

Naturally, the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those seen as ambivalent about Assisi back in ’86 also lends subtext to the October edition. In light of that history, Vatican officials will bend over backwards to insist that this is not, as Koch put it, a “syncretistic act.”

I look forward to seeing what actually happens, as well as listening to what is said, since the visual symbolism of these meetings can often say far more than the words that are spoken.

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At the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain, you had the impression that any meaningful dialogue between Catholics and secular humanists about anything beyond the weather would have been unthinkable. Paul Sims writes at the New Humanist website about his experience of  trying to cross the great divide and actually enter into a conversation with Catholics.

I’ll be honest. Discussing gay adoption and condoms with Benedictine monks and spokesmen for Opus Dei is not something I normally find myself doing on a Tuesday evening. But there I was, at the invitation of Alan Palmer of the Central London Humanist Group, who had responded to a post I had written on the New Humanist blog, in which I’d recorded my concerns over the tone of the debate during the Pope’s UK visit. There are crucial disagreements between the Catholic Church and its opponents over issues such as AIDS, gay rights and child abuse, but, I asked, was the opportunity to debate these in danger of being buried beneath the headlines and protest slogans?

In my blog I’d mentioned by way of example the behaviour of sections of the audience at a pre-visit debate at London’s Conway Hall, when the Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling. Palmer, the organiser of that debate, read my post and invited me to a smaller discussion between Catholics and humanists, with the aim of discussing some of our key disagreements without the bellicose tone. I agreed.

Which is how a group of 25 of us, evenly balanced between faithful and faithless, came to meet in a room rented from the University of London near Euston. After brief introductions, the three main Catholic speakers – Austen Ivereigh, a journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, and Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who featured in the BBC series The Monastery, together the founders of Catholic Voices, a group formed to speak up for the Catholic side in the media during the Papal visit – put forward their arguments on gay adoption, condoms and faith schools. The humanists then challenged them in an open discussion. In what felt like a particularly useful exercise, one of the humanists had to sum up the Catholic arguments, and one of the Catholics did the same for the humanist case.

As my first foray into the world of “inter-faith dialogue” (if we extend the definition to include the godless) I thought the meeting had been a good one. As you might expect, there was strong disagreement between the two sides, and I doubt anyone went home with their mind changed on any of the issues. But, while people had expressed strong opinions, the debate was conducted in a manner that meant it could continue over a drink afterwards. Given the way Catholics and humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Milwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day. With the religious and non-religious often talking past each other in the public square, it felt constructive for a group to meet and discuss their differences in an amiable fashion. For me, it served as a reminder that you can still get on with someone even if you disagree. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten amid the belligerent tone of the religion debate. And if we can find a way to talk calmly about our disagreements, perhaps it would be possible to find some common ground where we could agree.

Read the rest of his article to see how unhappy some of his secularist friends were about this whole project.

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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.

The Ortaköy mosque, Istanbul (I managed to find a beautiful mosque beside a glorious suspension bridge!)

 

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.

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