Let's Keep Talking

After Vatican II, ecumenical dialogue and interreligious dialogue became central to the life of the church. No one expressed this more lucidly or succinctly than Pope John Paul II at the conclusion of the First World Day of Prayer for Peace on October 27, 1986. Addressing representatives of all major world religions who were gathered in Assisi, the pope stated: “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.”

Faced with a Kierkegaardian either/or, who could prefer wars of religion over learning to walk together in peace and harmony? The simple, yet profound answer is obvious, and it has guided the authors of this book, two of Catholicism’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue.

Each contributes an autobiographical account of how he came to work in this area of the church’s mission. Both grew up as Catholics surrounded by a majority population that was not always friendly: Michael Fitzgerald in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the English Midlands, and John Borelli in overwhelmingly Baptist Oklahoma City. The experience of hostility and isolation made it easy for Catholics to nurture a siege mentality and a sense of aloofness and superiority. What could we possibly learn from “them” that we didn’t already know better? Fitzgerald recalls that one could not say an Our Father together with a Protestant and that the word “dialogue” was “not part of the common vision.”

Then came Pope John XXIII and the council that opened the windows of the church and enabled Catholics to see other Christians and believers of other faiths differently. Fitzgerald recalls theologians like Karl Rahner and Yves Congar from his seminary formation in Rome during Vatican II, and calls the principal conciliar texts “the basis of my later theological work.” Both authors regard the 1986 day of prayer at Assisi as a watershed event.

In Africa, Fitzgerald had become an accomplished Arabist and close reader of the Qur’an. Having served for nearly two decades as general secretary and then president of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he is now papal nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the League of Arab States.

Borelli is a lay theologian who was on the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for almost two decades, overseeing conversations with Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox, and among Catholics and Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. The focus of Borelli’s contributions to this volume is on the American experience: “one of our great strengths as a nation is our religious pluralism.” He defines this term as “engaged diversity”: “a variety of religious traditions...and persons identifying with these traditions interact[ing] with one another in such ways that the traditions themselves are affected by this interaction.” Two chapters-on dialogue with Buddhists and with Muslims-provide an analysis of conversations that have enriched the spirituality and deepened the mutual understanding of the participants.

Borelli’s succinct observations about American Christians and Muslims are especially timely after the events of 9/11 and their aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq. He writes: “Christians have made outlandish statements about Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims.” This ignorance triggers a Muslim compulsion “to lecture Christians about the basics of Islam in order to correct our mistaken views.” Both groups have “a tendency to generalize” about the other. They use the “same religious terms” (such as revelation, word of God, gospel) but “often talk past one another” by presuming a common meaning for the terms. “Muslims generally look on Christians as one group...and few Christians can distinguish different groups of Muslims.... Christians and Muslims often judge one another by their extremists.... Because strife has been promoted as a way of dealing with one another, they often make the mistake of judging the other’s worst by their own best.” Think of Pope Benedict XVI’s citation of Emperor Paleologus describing Islam as “evil and inhuman.”

Archbishop Fitzgerald complements Borelli’s focus on the United States with a thoughtful analysis of the Muslim experience in Europe. In “From Heresy to Religion,” he illustrates the difference between condemnation of and respect for Islam in the church’s official teaching. Fitzgerald also contibutes a meditation on the urgent need for Christians and Muslims to work together to create a culture of peace.

In a talk delivered in postwar Sarajevo in 1999, Fitzgerald identified sociological and political foundations for interfaith dialogue with Muslims. Since there is “hardly any country on the globe where Christians and Muslims are not living side by side,” it is “surely in the interests of society at large that members of different religious communities should live together respecting each other and observing society’s norms...including the right to religious freedom.” He also lays out profound theological reasons for the imperative of “opening up a dialogue with every fellow human being in order to establish a respectful relationship.” He speaks constantly of the robust virtue of respect, not mere “toleration” (what will I put up with?), which has gained currency recently in American political and moral discourse.

Fitzgerald identifies passages that require unpacking. The “Great Commission”-“Make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19-20)-can be a stumbling block to meaningful dialogue if read to validate a “closed mentality” or to mean that “unless a person believes explicitly in Jesus Christ that person cannot be saved,” a position he quickly repudiates. The famous “sword verse”-“Fight those who do not believe in God” (Qur’an 9.29)-can also cause difficulty. Fitzgerald observes that this text has provided a basis for jihad both against non-Muslims and “even more frequently”-as we see in Iraq-“against those held not to be true Muslims.”

Of the general task of interpreting texts like these, Fitzgerald writes: “If there is a conviction that only I have the truth, and that the other person is completely in error, then there can be no true meeting of minds.” He realizes that “Christians and Muslims can never be united with respect to fundamental tenets of their respective creeds.” But he describes hopeful signs of Christians studying Islam and Muslims studying Christianity, so that they can “clarify the questions, eliminate false problems, arrive at a better understanding of the different positions.”

Fitzgerald and Borelli help us understand that Pope John Paul II was right: “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.”

Published in the 2007-03-09 issue: 
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Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr., a frequent contributor, is professor of Law at Valparaiso University.

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