No news is good news at Catholic-Muslim Forum
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.
There was some discussion of practical measures to take going forward, such as drawing up lists of recommended books about each religion for teachers to use for courses about the other faith. There was also a suggestion that the Common Word’s use of the first two commandments as common foundational doctrines of Christianity and Islam might be expanded to cover all ten commandments. That could open up an interesting discussion about what’s called the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. Again, let’s see what develops here.
One Muslim delegate noted that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic delegation, had said before the talks that theological discussions with Muslims were quite difficult. But, he said, the Catholic delegates got straight into debating theology with the Muslims. “They very much want to be in a theological discussion, not just in another polite bridge-building exercise,” the delegate said. “Europe is in a state of religious apathy, some of which arises because people see us in dispute. We could do each other a favour if we get along. It could be an argument against atheism.”
Thursday will be an active day, with an audience with Pope Benedict in the morning and a public session at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the afternoon where the final communique will be read out. It has to be said that the audience looks in advance like a missed opportunity, because it will be a highly choreographed papal encounter during which Benedict will deliver a prepared speech and two Muslim experts will present their views. There will be no debate, no discussion, no dialogue to tease out the implications of what a speaker has just said.
Now a prisoner of Vatican protocol, the man who as Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger used to hold (and hold his own in) public debates with agnostic and atheist philosophers cannot engage in an open debate. I have no doubt it would be a fascinating exchange to listen to, but apparently it’s not the done thing for a pope to venture into uncharted waters like that. So, unless he tosses his text aside at the last minute and speaks off the cuff , he will simply read out his prepared speech, listen to his guests’ and then end the audience. The baroque Vatican ceremony is probably all any of you will see of this meeting on TV or in news pictures, if the media are ready to look further afield on Day Obama +2. But the most important part will be in Benedict’s text.
By the way, the Catholic-Muslim Forum is getting a lot of attention in one newspaper, the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano. It rated a front-page analysis on Monday, just before the three-day talks opened. It’s the long article on the right in the JPG image above. The headline reads “A choice for the future” and the text is available here in PDF (in Italian).