Catholic-Muslim Forum Scheduled For November 2008

On Wednesday of last week twenty-four Catholic and Muslim leaders announced a forum in Rome to facilitate discussions spurned by the Muslim-initiatied A Common Word (ACW) letter. The topics to be addressed at the 4-6 November 2008 forum under the theme, “Love of God, Love of Neighbour,” include:

  • “Theological and Spiritual Foundations,” and
  • “Human Dignity and Mutual Respect.”

Pope Benedict XVI will have a reception for the delegates on 6 November.

Forum Is the Outgrowth of Vatican’s Previous Invitation

The forum event itself and the specific topics chosen for discussion should be seen in light of the seeds sown by the Vatican’s preliminary responses to ACW. On 19 November 2007 Pope Benedict replied briefly by letter via Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, which outlined the Pope’s s four topics which he sees as imperative for Muslims to address before any real interfaith progress can be achieved:

“Such common ground allows us to base dialogue on

  1. effective respect for the dignity of every human person,
  2. on objective knowledge of the religion of the other,
  3. on the sharing of religious experience and, finally,
  4. on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation.

“The Pope is confident that, once this is achieved, it will be possible to cooperate in a productive way in the areas of culture and society, and for the promotion of justice and peace in society and throughout the world.” (Quoted from Cardinal Bertone’s letter; List formatting added.)

Perhaps in light of the continuing oppression of Christians in various Muslim countries, the Cardinal’s letter explicitly denies “downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims,” while at the same time expressing a desire to “look to what unites us” and to find “common ground” for dialog along the four points outlined above.

Cardinal Bertone ended the brief letter with an invitation to “a restricted group of signatories of the open letter” to meet with Vatican leaders such as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

That this invitation is important is expressed by Jesuit scholar Samir Khalil Samir, who, writing in the Journal Chretein (see letter #2 in this Chretein article) suggests that the invitation is the most important part of the Pope’s response:

But in order to avoid stopping at « pious wishes, » he [Pope Benedict] advances a proposal that is the most important feature of his entire letter : an invitation for a working meeting between a group of the signatories selected by the letter’s promoter, and a group of specialists selected by the Christian side. It is a matter of making good intentions practical and long-lasting.

In speaking of the first of the Pope’s four topics for discussion, Samir makes an interesting point regarding the search for “common ground” in the dialog between the two religions: “In dialogue, the Church is inspired by the Gospel, but does not set this as the foundation, in order not to exclude anyone.” The foundation for dialog, claims Samir, is “the dignity of every human person” which is “expressed by human rights.” Perhaps this sort of reasoning is an example of the Thomastic nature-grace dualism, the heart of Roman Catholic natural law theory.

Muslim Response to Vatican’s Letter

The official Muslim response to Cardinal Bertone’s letter came on 12 December 2007 from the hand of Prince Ghazi, Jordan’s Cultural Secretary and Advisor for Tribal Affairs. Interesting highlights from the letter include the following:
Prince Ghazi, in a word, gives explains the essence of ACW and affirms the differences between the two religions:

…[ACW is] essentially an affirmation of the One God, and of the twofold commandment to love Him and one’s neighbour – even if it transpires that there are differences between us in the interpretation or comprehension of the text of this letter, each in accordance with their own religious sensibilities and traditions. These differences themselves are presumably also a matter for discussion between us, and should be an occasion for mutual respect and celebration, and not divisive disputation.

Reiterating the Muslim understanding of deep differences between the religions, Prince Ghazi stated unequivocally:

...we, like you, also consider complete theological agreement between Christians and Muslims inherently not possible by definition, but still wish to seek and promote a common stance and co-operation based upon what we do agree on (as mentioned above) – whether we wish to call this kind of dialogue ‘theological’ or ’spiritual’ or something else – for the sake of the common good and towards the good of the whole world, God Willing.

The Prince also referenced the Decalogue, minus the Sabbath command, as a possibility for finding common ground for dialog.

Interestingly, Prince Ghazi reduced the Pope’s 4 topics to 3 by combining points 2 and 3; and the Prince urged the parties to move beyond mere discussion to fruitful action:

...we understand that we are to pursue, God Willing, a dialogue in the three general topics of dialogue Your Eminence wisely mentioned in your letter: (1) “Effective respect for the dignity of every human person”; (2) “Objective knowledge of the religion of the other” through “sharing of religious experience”, and (3) “A common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation”. We could also perhaps discuss how to bring the results of our dialogue on these three topics to practical fruition between Christians and Muslims, based also on “A Common Word” and the Ten Commandments (notwithstanding the aforementioned proviso about the Sabbath).

Along the lines of moving from dialog to action, the Prince stated the definition of “dialogue” and explained Muslims’ motive for such discussions: to receive rahmah from God (”what you may be pleased to call caritas [love],” says the Prince, perhaps referring to Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est [Latin for “God is love”]). In my research thus far, this passage in the Prince’s letter is the first place that I have seen where either side has explicitly laid out the definition of dialog or has explained dialog’s goals and means.

From Letters to Forums

Against this historical backdrop, then, it will be interesting to see the fruits of the November 2008 forum. With neither side willing to deny theological differences, what will be the basis of these talks? Will the dialog move beyond mere religious formalities and political niceties? What sort of practical fruits, if any, will result? Will yet another ecumenical document or letter be produced? Will the meeting help cool fires of religious intolerance, or will radicals use the forum as a rallying point for more oppression?