Reuters blog archive
The news at the Catholic-Muslim Forum today is that there is no news. No news in the MSM (mainstream media) sense. Nobody's walked out of the talks, there have been no enormous blow-ups, outrageous charges, etc. It would take something like that for a story about interfaith dialogue to have any luck in the MSM on the day after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president. In fact, several Catholic-Muslim Forum delegates I spoke to today first mentioned how pleased they were at Obama's victory across the ocean before they got around to talking about their meeting here.
The other reason the Forum has "no news" is that what's happening seems like mostly good news, which by the usual MSM definition (see above...) is no news. These pioneering talks between Muslim signatories of the Common Word manifesto and Vatican officials and Catholic Islam experts moved ahead on their second day with what participants said were open and useful discussions. "The discussion is not getting derailed where it could get derailed, if someone wanted to do that," one delegate said.
That's interesting, because today's topic -- human dignity and mutual respect -- was the natural place for a strong stand by those Catholics who want this dialogue to focus on reciprocity, or giving minority Christians in Muslim countries the same rights as Muslim minorities in western countries. Actually, the talks got around to that topic late in the first day of talks yesterday and the debate apparently got quite spirited. Both Catholics and Muslims told me it was lively but respectful, a useful face-to-face exchange of what is usually only said about the other. Let's see what the final communique on Thursday says about this.
The delegations also discussed the more philosophical issue of how each religion handles the threat they see in secular modernity. The world's two largest faiths can easily discover how much they have in common (along with other religions) when they get together to discuss what they see as the godlessness of modern times. As one delegate told me, the Catholic side defended the legal separation of church and state, what Pope Benedict would call "positive laïcité." The Muslim side made a difference between a secular state in the American mold and a militantly secularist outlook, such as France's decision to ban headscarves from state schools.
Imagine you’re asked to examine a problem through a funnel but not told which end to look through. Some people will look through the narrow end and get a wide-angle view of the problem. Others will look through the wide end and get a narrow focus on certain parts of it. Both will be looking at the same problem, but in different ways.
This image came to mind after I spoke to members of both delegations in advance of the Catholic-Muslim Forum that starts today in Vatican City. Both sides are looking at the same problem – how to really improve understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims – but from different points of view. This doesn’t have to deadlock the talks – I don’t think either side wants that. But it does complicate things…