Vatican prepares guidelines for Interreligious dialogue
Vatican City, June 17, 2008 – The plenary meeting that the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue held at the Vatican last week was the first of this pontificate, and took place with a new president – Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran – and with experts who were also newcomers to a great extent.
And the aim of the plenary session was itself new: to develop new guidelines for the bishops, priests, and faithful in relating to other religions. This objective, Cardinal Tauran said, was decided "after many years of hesitation over its appropriateness."
On Saturday, June 9, at the end of the three-day meeting, Benedict XVI received the participants in the Sala del Concistoro. He encouraged the publication of the guidelines because, he said, "the great proliferation of interreligious meetings in today's world requires discernment." This last word is used in ecclesiastical language to urge critical analysis and the choices that stem from it.
In effect, the relationship with men of other religions has been and is being practiced in different and sometimes contradictory ways within the Catholic Church.
In the Muslim countries, for example, the most widespread practice among Catholics is that of the silent testimony of Christian life. There are reasons of prudence that justify this practice. But against those who justify it always and everywhere, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith published a doctrinal note last December 3, presenting instead a thesis previously voiced by Paul VI in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" in 1975:
"Even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not [...] made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus."
The guidelines that the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue is preparing to publish will point in this direction. In introducing the plenary assembly, Cardinal Tauran said:
"We know that the Holy Spirit works in every man and every woman, independently of his religious or spiritual creed. But on the other hand, we must proclaim that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God has revealed to us the truth about God and the truth about man, and for us this is the Good News. We cannot hide this truth under a bushel basket."
Speaking to 200 representatives of other religions during his recent visit to the United States, Benedict XVI expressed himself no less clearly:
"It is Jesus whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their minds and hearts in dialogue. [...] In our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. [...] The higher goal of interreligious dialogue requires a clear exposition of our respective religious tenets."
This does not eliminate the fact that there is common ground for action among men of different beliefs, as the guidelines will insist. Introducing the plenary session, Tauran also said:
"The Ten Commandments are a sort of universal grammar that all believers can use in their relationship with God and neighbor. [...] In creating man, God ordered him with wisdom and love to his end, through the law written within his heart (Romans 2:15), the natural law. This is nothing other than the light of intelligence infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God gave us this light and this law at creation."
During the same days when the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue was holding its plenary assembly at the Vatican, there were new developments in relations between the Catholic Church and Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, in the holy city of Mecca, king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud inaugurated on June 4 a conference of 600 representatives from the vast Muslim world, with the aim of "telling the world that we are the voice of justice and moral human values, of coexistence and dialogue."
To this end, Abdullah confirmed his desire to "organize meetings with brothers belonging to other faiths," in particular Judaism and Christianity. Islamism, according to the Saudi sovereign, "has defined the principles and opened the road for a dialogue with the faithful of other religions," and this road "passes through the values common to the three monotheistic religions". These values "reject treason, alienate crime, and combat the terrorism" practiced by "extremists among [our] own people," who "have joined forces in a flagrant aggressiveness to distort the rightfulness and tolerance of Islam."
Spoken by the king of Saudi Arabia – a nation of rigid Wahhabi Islamism and the place of origin of Osama bin Laden and of most of the authors of the attacks on September 11, 2001 – these words are of indisputable significance. At the Vatican, "L'Osservatore Romano" emphasized them in its reporting.
Moreover, King Abdullah said that he had gotten the "green light" for his project of interreligious dialogue from the Saudi ulema, and that he wants to consult with Muslims of other countries as well about the possibility. At the conference in Mecca, he brought together in a single room the sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Sayyid Tantawi, a leading Sunni authority, and the Shiite ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran and member of the Assembly of Experts, the center of the regime's supreme power.
In Israel, the proposals of King Abdullah were received favorably by the Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger, and the Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar.
The final statement of the conference, called "The Appeal from Mecca," announced the creation of an Islamic center for relations among civilizations. This will organize moments of dialogue with representatives of other religions, cultures, and philosophies, and will promote the publication of books on this topic.
Another novelty in these days is the upcoming meeting that the experts of the international magazine "Oasis" – backed by the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, and with a focus on dialogue between Christians and Muslims – will hold in Amman, Jordan, from June 23-24, on the topic of the connections between truth and freedom.
Amman is the city where the al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought is based, headed by prince of Jordan Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal. It is the same institute that promoted the famous letter of the 138 Muslims entitled "A common word between us and you" and addressed to the pope and to the other heads of Christian confessions.
Next November, a meeting is planned in Rome between authorities and experts of the Catholic Church, and a delegation of the 138 Muslims.
Meanwhile, one of the 138, Mustafa Cherif, a former education minister and ambassador of Algeria, has published a commentary on two recent events in his country in the monthly "Mondo e Missione" of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
The first of these events, which took place in early June, was the sentencing of four Algerians for converting from Islam to Christianity. The four are Protestant, but a similar sentence had been pronounced previously against a Catholic priest, guilty of leading a prayer, at Christmas, for a group of immigrants from Cameroon.
Cherif calls "incomprehensible and deplorable" the ways in which the question of proselytism is addressed in Algeria, because "our vision of law is founded on the Qur'anic principle: no imposition in matters of religion."
And he adds:
"Moreover, our Catholic friends in Algeria, who have been here for fifty years, have never tried to convert anyone, although they do have the right to witness to their faith. This, in spite of the fact that the current pope frequently recalls the central nature of the evangelizing mission for the Catholic Church."
The second event Cherif comments on is connected to this previous observation: the resignation, for reasons of age, of the archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, made official by the Vatican last May 24.
Cherif draws a portrait of the elderly archbishop as "one of those moderate priests who seek the right balance, aware also of the reforms needed within the Church, and not hesitating sometimes to express their disagreements with the Vatican, especially over relations with Muslims."
As evidence of the "right balance" sought by Teissier, Cherif writes:
"Last December, the Vatican published a doctrinal note that reaffirms the mission of evangelizing non-Catholics. [...] Sometimes, nonetheless, after leaving to evangelize the world, many priests and pastors have set themselves to learn from the people they have encountered and from their culture, without necessarily seeking to divert them from their original religion. Archbishop Henri Teissier is one of those great men of faith who respect the other."
Cherif adds that he met Teissier for the first time in Cordoba in 1974, on the occasion of an international Islamic-Christian conference:
"It is important to recall that at that juncture, through the personal intervention of Archbishop Teissier with the bishop of Cordoba, our group of Muslim participants was authorized to hold our Friday prayers in the mosque of Cordoba."
The "mosque" cited here is properly, and has been for centuries, the cathedral church of the city.
The third interesting novelty is the criticism made against Benedict XVI, but even more so against the Islamic world as a whole, by a prominent Muslim intellectual, Mohammed Arkoun.
Arkoun, 80, born in Algeria, has taught at the Sorbonne, at Princeton, and at other famous universities in Europe and America. Today, he is the research director at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, founded by Aga Khan.
Interviewed by John Allen, the Vatican analyst for the "National Catholic Reporter," during a conference in Lugano, Switzerland, Arkoun took his cue from the lecture in Regensburg:
"Pope Benedict has said that an intimate relationship between reason and faith does not exist in Islamic elaboration and expressions. This statement, historically speaking, is not true. If we consider the period from the 8th century to the 13th century, it is simply not true. But after the death of the philosopher Averroes in 1198, philosophy disappeared in Islamic thought. To that extent the pope was right [...]. The fact is today, when one speaks with Muslims, they don't have any idea about this history."
And the 138 who signed the letter are no exception, Arkoun continues: "I don't know any historians of thought among them."
So the pope is mistaken to choose them as dialogue partners:
"The pope should create a kind of space of debate, instead of all these so-called interreligious dialogues that have been going on since the Second Vatican Council. I've participated in so many of them, and I can tell you that they're absolutely nothing. It's gossip. There's no intellectual input in it. There is no respect for scholarship in it. A huge scholarship has already been produced devoted to the question of faith and reason. All this is put aside and we ignore it. We just congratulate one another, saying: 'I respect your faith, and you respect mine.' This is nonsense."
And to the question of whether the young Muslim generations have a real thirst for a new way of expressing their faith, different from that of the "ulema on the television, " Arkoun responds:
"Of course. When [in Egypt] I give a lecture, the turnout is enormous. The interest of people is very strong. Also the older generations are happy, they feel they can breathe. People applauded when I said after this affair with the pope [Pope Benedict 's 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg] that Muslims should not go to the street demonstrating against him, but they should run to the libraries. They should know what has happened to Islamic thought after the 13th century."
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