A Flustered Flock Of Pigeons

The Vatican and Islam

How to talk to Muslims (and others); Catholics seem unsure

WHEN 138 Muslim scholars sent an open request to leaders of the Christian world, from Catholics to Methodists, for a theological dialogue, they knew they were setting a cat among the pigeons. It was a fair bet that senior Christians would soon be looking over each other’s shoulders, anxious not to be too liberal or too harsh in their reply.

And something like that has happened. America’s Southern Baptists have blamed mainstream Protestants for responding too warmly; and even the usually well-organised Catholics have been less than co-ordinated. The Vatican’s point man on inter-faith relations, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, initially saw little scope for talking to Muslims about theology. But Pope Benedict XVI later agreed to receive some of the Muslim signatories. That process will start soon.

Easily the boldest Catholic response to the Muslim letter has been an essay by an Australian Jesuit scholar, Daniel Madigan, published this month. He took seriously the Muslim idea of a dialogue based on the commands of Jesus of Nazareth to love God and one another. Important as these commands were, they were not the basis of the Christian faith: God’s love for man was a more basic point, the Jesuit argued. But for all his quibbles, he did engage with the Muslims’ theological views in earnest.

As the largest of the Catholic church’s religious orders, the Jesuits like to test the limits of dialogue. Before his death in 2004, a Jesuit pioneer of Catholic thinking on Hinduism, Jacques Dupuis, suffered many scoldings from the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer: then called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; now pope.

The Jesuits’ new superior-general, elected this month, also exemplifies the order’s belief in living “at the frontiers” of culture:like another recent holder of that office (who fell out badly with the Vatican bigwigs), Adolfo Nicolás is a Spanish expert on Japan. He takes office in interesting ecumenical times.