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‘Oceans of Peace’

NCR Staff
Lisbon, Portugal

In its relations with other religions, Catholicism today seems divided into two camps. One, wielding precise theological concepts, takes clear borders between faiths as its highest value. The other, driven more by a longing for unity than a need to affirm differences, pursues dialogue and theological reflection in search of common ground.

Both camps had strong influence on a Sept. 24-26 summit of religious leaders, held in the Portuguese capital where Christianity, Judaism and Islam have long shared the historical stage.

At the same time, there was agreement here that struggles against poverty, war and the death penalty create zones for interreligious cooperation without tripping anyone’s theological wires.

The meeting, which drew 250 leaders of 10 religions from 52 nations, was sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio (see accompanying story) in tandem with the Catholic Archbishop of Lisbon.

Two deeply polarizing recent Vatican moves -- the Sept. 3 beatification of Pope Pius IX, and a Sept. 5 document asserting that followers of other religions suffer from “grave deficiencies” -- cast shadows over the gathering. Some Jewish leaders declined to participate, and representatives of other religions voiced reactions ranging from disappointment to dismay.

The Vatican document, titled Dominus Iesus and released by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal authority, asserted that only Christians possess a “definitive and complete” revelation, and that followers of other religions may be saved only through Christ (see story, NCR, Sept 15).

Yet during the meeting, called “Oceans of Peace,” Catholic officials took an approach far removed from the insensitivity and triumphalism many critics felt those early September acts implied.

Archbishop José da Cruz Policarpo of Lisbon warned in his opening homily Sept. 24 against “fundamentalist intransigence whereby the defense of our ‘truths’ becomes a focus of disunion.”

“The choice is not between false gods and the one God,” he said. “The false gods do not exist, and the true God is but one, in which we all believe, whose face we seek, in the hope of finding that ultimate light which radiates from harmony and peace.”

At the concluding ceremony Sept. 26, Policarpo acknowledged that Dominus Iesus had “created a polemic in recent days.” But he said the purpose was not to question “the beauty of all paths of justice.”

“In the depth of our heart,” he said, is only this prayer: “Lord Jesus … give us the power to love all the men and women of this new world, to respect, as you respect, all the valid paths that lead to the new Jerusalem.”

Other Catholics were equally positive. “I take the position that all religions that exist and which are monotheistic and accept one God as origin, lawgiver, father of all mankind are at heart one religion which has undergone separations in the course of time,” said Greek Catholic Bishop Lubomyr Husar of the Ukraine. “Separation is a fact of history, not of religion.”

Even Pope John Paul II contributed to the conciliatory tone. “The fact of standing side by side manifests, in a visible way, how deeply the human family yearns for unity,” his message read. The pope called on all religions to be “more audacious” in pursuit of dialogue.

The approach surprised some delegates. “They spoke about self-criticism and humility,” said Dhirka Kurne Das, a Hindu. “I have always believed that Catholicism could be a bridge among the world religions, and here that seemed real.”

Despite the good will, aftershocks from Dominus Iesus were keenly felt.

“Islam is suffering from fundamentalism, and this gives the extremists an excuse to pounce and say, ‘See, we told you, they do not respect us,’ ” said Mohammed Sammak, a Muslim who directs a dialogue with Christianity in Lebanon. “They will ask us moderates, ‘Why are you making peace with them? Why do you want to dialogue with them?’ It makes my job much more difficult.”

Sammak told NCR that Dominus Iesus has drawn extensive coverage in the Arabic-language press and that the Islamic Council, an organization of 85 leading groups throughout the Islamic world, is “very unhappy.”

On Sunday, Sept. 24, the opening night of the three-day event, the Armenian Catholicos of Lebanon, Aram I Keshishian, put concerns about Dominus Iesus on the table.

“The recent statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith raises serious questions about the future course of dialogue and ecumenical cooperation,” Keshishian said. “We must confirm ecumenical relations … on the basis of mutual love, respect, confidence and understanding.”

Catholic participants attempted to restore calm.

“Our brothers and sisters in other faiths have nothing to fear,” American Cardinal James Stafford told NCR. “The document uses precise technical language because it seems to be the only way these concepts can be brought home to theologians and bishops in a theological, even canonical way. But underlying it are the key principles of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and both call us to active receptivity to others.”

Stafford, who runs the Vatican office for laity, took part in a panel on forgiveness.

Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Vatican office for ecumenical relations, acknowledged that Dominus Iesus has caused “a little bit of tension,” but said the church’s commitment to dialogue remained intact.

Reporters asked Cassidy why the pope approved the document.

“Certainly, he approved it like he approves all the declarations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Cassidy said. “But the encyclicals Ut Unum Sint or Redemptoris Missio, which treated these themes with different language, actually carry his own signature. And this is a beautiful difference.”

Those two papal documents are thought to offer a more positive vision of ecumenical and interreligious relations than Dominus Iesus.

Such distinctions were lost on some Jewish leaders. Amos Luzzato, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, declined to participate. According to newspaper reports, Rome’s chief Rabbi Elio Toaff also turned down an invitation.

Their decision came on the heels of news that a day of Christian-Jewish dialogue set for Oct. 3 in Rome, part of the Catholic church’s Jubilee Year, has been cancelled because Jewish participants pulled out, citing Dominus Iesus and the beatification of Pius IX.

The weight of history was always near the surface in Lisbon, where in 1496 Jews were expelled by a Catholic king. Thousands fled and thousands of others converted in order to escape persecution. At different points, former Portuguese President Mário Soares and Policarpo expressed sorrow for the treatment of the Jews.

Policarpo’s apology came in a ceremony of “purification of memory” held outside St. Dominic’s Church, a symbol of the Portuguese Inquisition.

In the face of both tensions and progress, Sant’Egidio founder Andrea Riccardi called for taking the long view.

“Dialogue requires geologic time,” he said in response to an NCR question at a news conference. “But we remain convinced that the path is irreversible.”

Beyond theological disputes, participants urged religious leaders to work for justice.

“There are diseases in Africa that affect 200,000 people, but no one is working on a cure because it’s too small a market for the drug companies to be interested,” said Norwegian Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Stålsett. “People of faith must critique such moral failure.”

Sant’Egidio’s work for a global moratorium on the death penalty drew wide support. In a powerful moment, French Rabbi René Samuel Sirat, head of the conference of European rabbis, described how his brother had been killed in a terrorist attack in Algeria in 1962.

“I saw my parents dying of desperation after what they had seen,” he said. Yet he said that had the killer been found, he would not have sought capital punishment.

Nigerian Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan issued a challenge to First World Catholic leaders.

“Our dictators got rich and stuck all their money in foreign banks,” he said. “Now these banks are making it difficult to get the money back. I wonder if the bishops in those countries agree with me that those who keep stolen money are themselves thieves?” Onaiyekan asked.

“These bankers probably sit in the front rows of their churches on Sundays,” Onaiyekan said, who also heads the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa. “I wonder what the bishops will do about it?”

Archbishop Jaime Pedro Gonçalves of Mozambique called for church leaders to act as mediators in armed conflicts, citing the 1992 peace accords in his country in which Sant’Egidio and the Catholic hierarchy played important roles.

Gonçalves said religious figures must be seen as strictly neutral. He pointed to Angola as a country ripe for such a process, and then called for a general synod of the Catholic church devoted to peacemaking.

The event’s final declaration underscored the role of religious leaders in keeping watch on matters of peace and justice. “We keep in our eyes and in our hearts the suffering of Africa and of the poor peoples of the world,” it said. “We are aware of the risks of globalization, if this is without a soul.”

The serious tone in Lisbon lightened briefly when the Coptic Catholic Archbishop of Egypt, Andraos Salama, spoke. Devoting his animated comments largely to praising the patrimony of Christianity in Egypt, Salama included a glowing description of John Paul II’s March visit, citing the surprise of visiting cardinals at hearing prayers in Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic as well as Latin.

“They were stupified,” Salama said. “I told them they should get out of the Vatican more often.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000