Adding context to the Vatican- Muslim dialogue story
Context is such a help. My report that the Vatican is due to respond positively and very soon to the dialogue appeal by 138 Muslim scholars was based on several conversations these days in Rome with cardinals and Vatican officials. Our news stories have to pare comments down to the essential quote to keep the story to a manageable length. Adding more context to some of those comments can give a better feel for the way these leading Catholic figures view the Muslim letter.
The cardinals discussed the issue on Friday. The Vatican said: “Some speakers dealt with relations with Jews and with Islam. There was discussion of the encouraging sign represented by the letter of 138 Muslim personalities and of the visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the Holy Father.” So we had a fact (“discussion”), a hint (“encouraging”) but nothing more than that.
Asking around, I got three cardinals who spoke about this on the record. Each deals with Islam in one way or another. Senegal is 95-percent Muslim, France has Europe’s largest Muslim minority and mostly Hindu India’s Muslims are a minority (13 percent of the population) but a larger one than its Christians (2 percent).
Note the way Dakar Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Saar insists the Church cannot miss this opportunity, an interesting point given the fact the Vatican’s hesitation raised concern that it might just have that effect:
“The Vatican will respond positively, and quite soon. We are very sensitive to this letter because we see in it a very positive sign. Rest assured we will not miss this opportunity to go further with them. When I heard about this, I was very pleased. It’s what we do in Senegal. We have a very good dialogue with the Muslims. So that would be reinforced by this. Seeing the Muslims of the Arab world taking a stand like this, asking for a dialogue with Christianity, that’s very positive for us. Yesterday, at the consistory, it came out that the response is being prepared. We are determined, in the Catholic Church, to seize the occasion to see all that we do with them. There will be a meeting with them to clarify what they want to do. After that, we’ll see what we can do.”
Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias (his name is pronounced “gracious”) had an interesting way to react to the appeal. He put it into a religious context, something that seems natural but has not stood out much in the responses and seems to add weight:
“I think it’s a positive sign. It brings out many areas of commonality … In that sense, it’s a great step forward. I think it’s something we should build on. I’m absolutely delighted, happy. I think it’s an opportunity the Lord has given us and put in the hearts of people to work together. It’s a need of the times to work together. We discussed it a bit (in the cardinals’ meeting). It’s positive. All of us are happy.”
The Archdiocese of Paris reserved a terrace with one of Rome’s best views of St. Peter’s for Cardinal André Vingt-Trois to do some quick Q&As with French television after the consistory (I guess if you have Notre Dame de Paris as your home church, you don’t settle for just any backdrop!). He didn’t warm up to their soft questions but came straight to the point when I asked about the Muslim letter:
“It’s a very important element. It’s one of the rare times that Muslim leaders have taken a public initiative in a respectful, official and public way towards Christians. I remember a few years ago how we regretted that there weren’t any Muslim leaders who could take a public position, for example against terrorism. Furthermore, this is a significant step, an assumption of responsibility, with a content that’s quite interesting. The Holy See, which is only one of the addressees, is preparing a response that will be sent … when it is ready. This demands a lot of reflection. In France, this is very important. We try to maintain cordial relations with Muslim believers. What is more difficult is to identify the organisational and institutional leaders of Islam. Some are well known, but with others it’s not clear.”
Another element of context has come in from across the Atlantic. On November 18, the New York Times published a full-page ad in which more than 300 Christian leaders expressed their full support for the dialogue call (which is officially entitled A Common Word). The signatories just about cover the spectrum of Protestantism, an interesting aspect in itself. The statement was initiated by Yale Divinity School, which described it this way:
“Joining the Yale Divinity School scholars are Christians at various points on the theological spectrum, including, for example: Rick Warren, evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA and author of The Purpose Driven Life, and Harold Masback III of The Congregational Church of New Canaan in Connecticut; William Graham, dean of Harvard Divinity School, and Richard Mouw, president of evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary; John M. Buchanan of The Christian Century, a mainline Protestant publication, and David Neff of the evangelical flagship publication Christianity Today; Diana Eck of Harvard Divinity School and Marguerite Shuster of Fuller Theological Seminary.
“The Yale Center for Faith & Culture’s (director Miroslav) Volf, author of ‘The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World’ and described by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as ‘one of the most celebrated theologians of our day’, said: ‘The extent of agreement of major Christian leaders—representing a broad diversity of positions——in responding to the Muslim initiative is truly extraordinary, and may represent a sea-change in relations of Christians to Muslims.
“ ‘Evangelicals and liberals can now join in common effort, not just around the pressing problems of poverty and environmental degradation but around the issue of Muslim Christian relations—a defining issue of the 21st century. This has the potential of being one of the most hopeful developments in inter-faith relations in recent decades.’ ”
During the cardinals’ meeting on Friday, London Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor repeated a call he’s made in the past for a broad meeting of the main Christian leaders. The word going around is that Pope Benedict politely brushed it off by saying it would be difficult to organise and not everyone would attend. Although he says ecumenism is the main goal of his papacy, Benedict has never liked these meetings where the Pope seems to be on the same level as other religious leaders.
But if any Christian-Muslim dialogue is to go ahead along the lines the 138 Muslim scholars would like, some kind of meeting of Christian leaders would probably be needed at some point. With the foot-dragging on the response to the Muslim appeal now apparently coming to an end, are we seeing the outline of a second round of foot-dragging further down the road?