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.

Catholic cardinals at the Vatican, 24 Nov. 2007The 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.”