The Holy See and Islam: the diplomatic dance continues

While the diplomatic maneuvering between the Holy See and Muslim leaders has taken several striking turns in recent weeks, the Vatican’s strategic purpose in this conversation has been clear since Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. There, while reflecting on his  September 2006 Regensburg Lecture and his December 2006 visit to Turkey,  the Pope suggested that the Church’s future dialogue with Islam should focus on the positive achievements of the Enlightenment, especially religious freedom understood as a basic human right and the separation of religious and political authority in a justly governed state. Regensburg and the Curial address set off a kind of inter-religious chain reaction.

In October 2007, 138 Muslim officials from around the world issued “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders, the “Letter of 138″ proposed a dialogue based on the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor. As I wrote at the time, while the call to a deeper conversation was welcome, the “138″ seemed to be trying to change the subject — for there was no mention in their letter of what the Pope had proposed discussing in the December 2006 Curial address.

On November 11, 2007, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, wrote to one of the “138,” the Jordanian prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, accepting the call to a deepened conversation, suggesting that a representative delegation of the “138″ come to Rome to meet with the Pope, and proposing three topics for dialogue: “effective respect for the dignity of every human person”; “objective awareness of the other’s religion”; and “a common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation.” In an authoritative commentary on Bertone’s letter, Father Samir Ghalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit and Vatican advisor on Islamic affairs, noted that the cardinal’s letter to the prince had tried to get the conversation back on the track proposed by the Pope the previous December: religious freedom and the separation of religious and political authority in the state. Father Samir also noted that several signatories among the “138″ had indicated that they were not much interested in discussing those topics.

Last December 12, Prince Ghazi wrote to Cardinal Bertone, accepting the invitation to a meeting in Rome (which will likely take place in March). At the same time, the prince once again tried to change the subject, suggesting that the primary focus of dialogue should be the “intrinsic” questions raised by “A Common Word Between Us and You” (i.e., the two great commandments). At some future point, the prince suggested, “extrinsic” questions could be addressed. A close reading of the prince’s letter suggests that his “extrinsic” questions are what the Pope has gently but persistently insisted be the primary questions for today’s conversation: the natural moral law that can be known by reason; religious freedom, other human rights, and the natural moral law; religious freedom; civil equality between men and women; the separation of religious and political authority in the state.

There is a considerable gap here. The Pope has made clear what the objectives of the dialogue should be; Benedict’s conviction is based on the Catholic Church’s 19th and 20th century experience of wrestling with the question of religious freedom and other challenges posed to religion by the modern state. The “138,” as represented by the Jordanian prince, keep trying to change the subject. The exchanges are polite, but the gap is unmistakable. And the gap is not accidental.

For as I discuss in Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism (Doubleday),it is precisely the issues the Pope identified in his December 2006 Curial address that are at the root of the conflict between jihadist Islam and the rest of the world (including reformist elements within Islam). Can the gap between what the Pope proposes as a dialogue agenda and what the “138″ have proposed be bridged at the March meeting in Rome? The answer to that question will be the measure of the meeting’s success.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash