Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism of religion? How should the media cover issues that offend certain believers? These issues came up at last week’s Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome and in the public editor’s column in the Sunday New York Times. In both cases, useful distinctions were made. But I’m not sure how much agreement they will produce the next time someone finds a depiction of a religion, its beliefs or its symbols outrageous.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has made statements in the past that made him sound quite sceptical about the value of a theological dialogue with Muslims.
Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.
The controversy over Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust just doesn’t seem to end. The latest twist came on Friday when our Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella got the scoop that Holocaust survivors and their descendants plan to lobby Pope Benedict to stop the process of making his wartime predecessor Pius XII a saint. They plan to submit their protests to papal nuncios (ambassadors) around the world, something apparently being done for the first time. The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendantsdecided this on Thursday in New York. Earlier that day in Rome, Pope Benedict’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Jewish accusations were “outrageous” and no one could tell the Vatican whether Pius should be made a saint. But this does not seem to have prompted the decision.
Pope Benedict’s famous Regensburg speech has haunted Catholic-Muslim relations since it was delivered in September 2006. Muslims were insulted by his quoting of a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent and irrational and have complained about the speech ever since. The “Common Word” group of Islamic scholars that met Benedict and Catholic officials at the Vatican this week grew out of an initial response by Muslims to that speech. So what role did the Regensburg speech play at those unprecedented talks?
The Catholic-Muslim Forum ended on Thursday evening on an upbeat note. After two days of closed-door talks and an audience with Pope Benedict, the delegations held their only public session of the conference (right) to present a joint communique and answer some questions.The final declaration (full text here) had a series of interesting points that show progress in the dialogue among the experts involved. They will need some unpacking in the real world before we know how much real progress has been made. Here are some of the points with some quick observations in italics:
2. Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honoured in all its stages. (interesting common pro-life slant here. Any joint initiatives coming up here?)
3. Human dignity is derived from the fact that every human person is created by a loving God out of love … he or she is entitled to full recognition of his or her identity and freedom by individuals, communities and governments, supported by civil legislation that assures equal rights and full citizenship. (this means support for minorities, whether they’re Christians in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in the West, on the basis of both faiths and not just secular notions that can be contested as foreign to a certain culture)
4. We affirm that God’s creation of humanity has two great aspects: the male and the female human person, and we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women. (that’s pretty clear)
5. Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public. (no mention here of conversion in Muslim countries)
6. Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule. (this refers in the same sentence to the Catholic concern for churches in Muslim countries and the Muslim concern about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Any linkage there? )
8. We affirm that no religion and its followers should be excluded from society. Each should be able to make its indispensable contribution to the good of society, especially in service to the most needy. (this one also cuts both ways, like item 3)
10. We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. (that education aspect will be important)
11. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all. (Western critics often say Muslims don’t denounce terrorism enough, even though many do that they don’t notice. Could this boost that visibility?)
14. We have agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined. (this is the crisis management option I mentioned a few days ago)
The final session was actually quite strained, with testy questions and answers, which led some journalists to ask whether the positive signals we’d been getting did not really reflect the mood in the private talks. Several participants, including senior Muslim delegate Seyyed Hossein Nasr who was in the middle of it all, denied that was the case. As all present could see, the strains emerged when Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the desk officer for Islam in the Vatican’s interfaith department who was moderating the session, tried to stop Nasr from answering questions put to him. Another curious decision was to let a relatively low-ranking delegate, a lay professor from Paris named Joseph Maila, answer questions for the Catholic delegation rather than delegation head Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran or another senior Vatican official.More on this later…
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.
(Photo: delegation heads Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (l) and Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric (r) chat at the start of the Catholic- Muslim Forum on 4 Nov 2008 at the Vatican/ pool photo provided by Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano)
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.