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Friendship Across Religious and Cultural Boundaries

Originally published in the Catholic-Muslim Studies Conference at CTU, April 14-15, 2011.
April 14, 2011:

Presented at the Catholic-Muslim Studies Conference at CTU

            Many events in my life have taught me to pursue friendship across religious and cultural boundaries. I was born in Germany. My parents were of Jewish origin, but I was brought up as a Protestant Christian. Religion was not an important for us. Religion became important for me only when I moved to Canada at the age of 17 and studied mathematics at a Baptist university. A great event in my life was the reading of the famous Confessions of St. Augustine written in the early 5th century. This wonderful book written to praise God prompted me to start praying and to look for the church I wanted to join. While I was impressed by the Protestant and the Catholic interpretation of the Gospel, I had to choose between them. I decided to become a Catholic and, in 1947, joined a religious order. I had the good fortune of being sent to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland to study theology and prepare a doctorate, for which I chose an ecumenical topic. Being a Catholic with sympathy for Protestant thought, I believed I could make a contribution to the ecumenical movement. What concerned me then and concerns me now is respect for ‘the other.’

Christians and Judaism

            While still in Switzerland, I was invited to give a series of lectures on the relation of the Catholic Church to the Jews, a topic I had never studied. When I began my research, I discovered the anti-Jewish discourse that has accompanied the preaching of the Gospel almost from the beginning. According to John’s gospel, Jesus said to the Jews who did not believe in him “Your father is the devil”( John 8:17), andin First Letter to the Thessalonians (2: 15-16) Paul writes, “The Jews have put the Lord Jesus to death, and the prophets too, and persecuted us also. Their conduct does not please God, and makes them the enemy of the whole human race, because they are hindering us from preaching to gentiles to save them. Thus all the time they are reaching the full extent of their iniquity, but retribution has finally overtaken them.” The Church’s preaching in the centuries that followed spread contempt for Jews and Jewish religion and promoted their segregation from the Christian society. The Church’s anti-Jewish stance was not racist, it was purely religious: Jews who sought baptism were quickly integrated into society. Still, Christian anti-Judaism produced a culture that was exploited by the racist antisemitism of the 19th and 20th century culminating in the Holocaust. This discovery shattered me. I had been totally unaware of this dark current in Christian history. In the 1950s, responding to the Holocaust, a small group of Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars produced studies and declarations aimed at purifying Christian preaching of its anti-Jewish rhetoric. I got in touch with this group. To regain my spiritual serenity I wrote a book to promote Christian respect for Jews and their religion. I firmly believed that Jesus advocated respect for ‘the other’, for dissidents and outsiders.

            In 1960, back in Canada, something extraordinary happened in my life: Pope John XXIII appointed me as peritus (theological expert) for the Second Vatican Council. The Pope had convoked the Council in 1959 and created a series of commissions to consult the bishops across the continents and prepare draft documents to be submitted to the Council. Among these commissions was the secretariat of Christian unity, whose task was to foster ecumenism and promote religious liberty, a basic human right that the Church’s official teaching had refused to acknowledge. The secretariat was chaired by Cardinal Bea, a German Jesuit, a scripture scholar, a man committed to respect for ‘the other.’  Cardinal Bea looked for theologians in various parts of the world who were familiar with the ecumenical movement; and because in Canada at that time I was the only one, he recommended that I be appointed a peritus. Very soon I found myself surrounded by progressive bishops and learned theologians, all working together to foster the greater openness of the Church to outsiders.

Vatican Council II

            Vatican Council II was such an important event in the Catholic Church and in my own personal life that I wish to wish to recall the evolution of the Church’s teaching and its new solidarity with outsiders.

            Prior to the Council, Catholic teaching did not respect Protestants as believing Christians. In his encyclical on Christ’s mystical body of 1943, Piux XII still insisted that the Holy Spirit did not dwell in the hearts of non-Catholic Christians. At that time the Catholic Church had no sympathy for the ecumenical movement sponsored by the Protestant Churches. In fact, in the encyclical Mortalium animos of 1928, Pius XI had condemned the ecumenical movement. If Protestants want unity, he wrote, let them return to the Catholic Church and start obeying me.

            When I arrived in Rome for the first meeting of the secretariat in 1960, Cardinal Bea said to the assembled bishops and theologians that most bishops know very little of the ecumenical movement; they have uncritically accepted the hostile official teaching. It is now our task to influence public opinion in the Church. Cardinal Bea asked all of us, after returning to our country, to give public lectures and if possible, to speak on the radio and write for newspapers. He himself would be doing this, and his speeches would be published in the press so that we could cite him and in this way protect ourselves when accused of being unorthodox. This is what we did. In our talks and articles we promoted the Church’s new ecumenical openness.

            The draft document produced by the secretariat recognized dissident Christians as true Christians, sanctified by their faith and baptism, and open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the draft document called the ecumenical movement a work of the Holy Spirit. It urged Catholics to participate in it. This extraordinary turn-about was justified by strong theological arguments. We recognized that the Protestant Churches bestow on their members the Christian Gospel and the baptism of faith, two gifts that make them into believing Christians. Because the non-Catholic Churches communicate salvation and holiness to their members, these Churches participate in the ecclesial mystery. The Catholic Church continues to see itself in some sense as the one, true Church, but it acknowledges at the same time the ecclesial character of the other Christian Churches.

            During the Council I became friendly with Paolo Ricca, an Italian Waldensian pastor who was working as a journalist. The Waldensians are pre-Reformation Christians, persecuted by the Catholic Church over many centuries, who had survived mainly in the mountains of northern Italy. Paolo Ricca was critical of the Council. He did not believe the beautiful words of the conciliar documents. He invited me to come to his church in the country and explain to the people the new Catholic teaching. When I did this, the people shouted at me in protest. We know the Catholic Church better than you do, they said; we have been persecuted by it for centuries; we do not believe for one moment that the Catholic Church now recognizes us as brothers and sisters in Christ. This was an important lesson for me. Oppression inflicts wounds that do not heal very quickly.

Christians and Islam

            The draft document on the Church’s relation to Jews and Judaism provoked a lively debate at the Vatican Council. Several bishops from Asia and Africa were dissatisfied: they said that if the Church expresses its respect for Jewish religion, it should express its respect for the other great religions on their continents. Their objection was taken seriously. The secretariat appointed several new specialists and produced a declaration honoring the world religions that came to be known as Nostra aetate. The declaration recognizes that the Church shares many truths and values with these religions and, secondly, that the grace of God revealed in Jesus is also active in them. Here is what Nostra aetate says about Muslims.

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

            I was enormously impressed by Nostra aetate. After the Council I did not engage in interreligious dialogue because I became increasingly involved in issues of social justice, especially in the Third World, and explored the Church’s bold social teachings, beginning with Paul VI’s Populorum progressio of 1967.  I became deeply troubled by the suffering of people inflicted through oppressive structures and exploitative practices, and I wondered how I as a Christian should react to this sad state of affairs. I was then greatly impressed by the Latin American theologians of liberation: they heard in the Gospel the divine condemnation of oppression and the divine summons to work for human emancipation.  In the seventies, the Canadian bishops supported liberation theology and even produced pastoral letters that applied liberation theology to the Canadian situation.

             I gradually became aware that there were also movements in other religions that summoned believers to stand up for justice, promote peace and work for the reconciliation of peoples. I discovered religious leaders in all the world religions that were impelled by their faith to wrestle against unjust structures and work for conditions of greater equality. I found this in the Third Word among Buddhist, Hindus and Muslims. A Muslim religious thinker and activist, Chandra Muzaffar, living in Malaysia, founded the International Movement for a Just World, a community of Asian religious personalities that analysis what goes on in the world and supports social actions in favor of justice based on their religious faith. Chandra Muzaffa has website that contain his articles and report his activities. If you click on ‘our friends,’ you will find a list of other Asian organizations, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslims, that support movements of justice and liberation in the name of their faith.

            Several years ago I participated in a project sponsored by a Canadian development council on the currents in the world religions that fostered a positive approach to technology and industrialization. Invited to take part in the small team was a Hindu women, a philosopher, from India, a Muslim women, a sociologist, from Malaysia. a scholar of the Baha’i faith from the Middle East and a Canadian Catholic theologian. The study opened my eyes to the internal pluralism of the great religions: they all contain currents that resist modernization as well as currents that are critically open to it and want to transform it.

            Serious interest in contemporary Muslim theology was awakened in me only a few years ago through my encounter with Tariq Ramadan.  In Montreal a circle of French-speaking Muslims, called Présence musulmane ? mostly recent immigrants from the Maghreb ? meets at regular intervals to encourage its members to remain faithful believers and at the same time become active citizens of Quebec. I chose to attend these meetings. I was troubled by the high rate of unemployment among Muslims in Montreal and realized that this was due to the anti-Islamic prejudice in society. I studied Islamic thinkers to learn how to speak publicly against anti-Muslim prejudice. Since Présence musulmane had invited Tariq Ramadan to give lectures in Montreal, I had occasion to meet him. I listened to him, read his books, and was greatly impressed. 

            I then discovered that in France Ramadan is a controversial personality: books and articles have been published trying to show that he is a radical who disguises himself and influences young Muslims in France to organize resistance against the State. As I read this hostile literature, I discovered that the journalists who had authored these books and articles had never read Ramadan’s books nor made any serious attempt to understand his religious thought. In Great Britain, where he now lives and teaches, Ramadan is not a controversial figure: he is respected as a Muslim intellectual who provides an Islamic ethic in support of democracy and pluralism.

            In France, the lay or secular character of the State is an important political principle, formulated during the French Revolution of the late 18th century, opposing the fusion of Church and State in the old aristocratic society. France recognizes the religious liberty of its citizens, yet assigns religion to the private sphere, refusing to grant it a place in public life. Christians in France have learnt to live with this. Because the Muslim community in France wants to preserve its collective identity, many Frenchmen believe the Muslim presence threatens the lay or secular character of the State, and they accuse Ramadan of urging Muslims to resist integration into French society. The British political tradition is quite different. Even though the Anglican Church is legally established in Britain, the State has a positive appreciation of all religious communities, Christian and non-Christian, for the simple reason that their pastoral work supports the well-being of vast numbers of people, especially among the poorer classes. This positive attitude has changed recently when several Muslim congregations expressed their opposition to becoming an integral part of British society. Yet the great majority of British Muslims want to live in and contribute to their new country, a position strongly supported by Tariq Ramadan. In Britain, he is esteemed.

            A few years ago, he was offered a distinguished post at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, but critics aware of the bad reputation  he had in France persuaded the American government not to grant him a working permit. This prohibition was lifted only last year.

            I continue my study of Muslim intellectuals who wrestle with challenges of modern society. Because the Catholic Church wrestled with this problem for over a century, I have a better understanding of these Muslim authors than secular scholars. My lecture tomorrow will deal with Muhammad Abduh, an original Muslim thinker of the late 19th century who, towards the end of his life, was appointed Mufti for the whole of Egypt. Even though Abduh was vehemently opposed to the aggressive colonial policies of the British and French government, he has many personal friends among Europeans and respected the religious pluralism of Egyptian society.

            Let me say one word about the conservative trend in the Churches and in the other religions. To resist the secular culture and the dominant materialism, many religious communities defend their collective identity, emphasize how they differ from others, create negative images of outsiders and refuse to dialogue with people of other traditions. They prefer to say, ‘we are right, you are wrong’ and do not recognize our common humanity created and blessed by God. In the USA and Canada there are many Christian groups, including Roman Catholic ones, that entertain hostility to outsiders. I like to distinguish between two different styles of collective identities, one sectarian and the other open. Those who cultivating a sectarian collective identity are unable to see the good outside of their community; they hold that they cannot learn anything from outsiders and thus refuse dialogue with people of other traditions. By contrast, we cultivate an open collective identity when we become conscious that our religious tradition  teaches us that God loves all humans and that we must be kind and just to all of them and respect the true insights they have and the good people do, whatever their tradition, religious or secular. Here commitment to our own deepest values demands that we are open to others and be willing to learn from them. At Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church opted for an open collective identity, but today there are again currents in the Church that seek to promote a sectarian attitude. I am happy to be part of the present educational event because it fosters openness.

            In September 2011 a congress of world religions will be held in Montreal. The participants will discuss two proposals. The first one is that every institution that teaches theology and prepares religious leaders must offer a course on the world religions. The second one is that when the sacred scripture of one religion is insulted, all religions are offended and must protest against it. If these proposal were observed, we would life in a more peaceful world.