Down on Islam
Some years ago Cardinal Francis Arinze, then the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, complained that the dialogue with Islam consisted largely of Catholic initiatives, and it was time for the church’s Muslim partners to bear responsibility too for the dialogue. Under Pope Benedict there has been renewed emphasis on reciprocity in the relationship. In particular, this takes the form of a demand for the introduction of religious liberty to countries like Saudi Arabia, where Catholics are not permitted to practice their faith openly, in parallel to the religious freedom extended Muslims in the West. Some culture warriors are trying to turn this adjustment in Vatican policy into an occasion for a war over Catholic attitudes toward Islam. They argue that dialogue amounts to appeasement, but the record is mixed. Pope John Paul II’s engagement with Islam did produce some real fruit.
Jordan, always tolerant of Christians, has made added efforts to support its Christian community. John Paul’s advocacy of a secular state and interreligious dialogue in Lebanon, while it has seen far from perfect results, has fostered ties between Catholics and many Muslims in sustaining a pluralist democracy there. Some of the smaller countries in the Arabian peninsula now permit Christians to practice their faith openly and allow the construction of churches. Leading Muslim figures responded to John Paul’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq by professing that he had made clear the war was not a Christian crusade against Islam.
Hawkish readings of Catholic-Muslim relations overstate the problems and ignore the progress. They are a slightly veiled intrusion of political hostilities into the life of the church that deserve rejection.
For the Better
Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All the Russias, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has had kind words for Benedict XVI and has asserted that with him relations between the Orthodox and the Vatican will develop for the better. In a widely reported interview early in May the patriarch predicted that Benedict will become famous and will be remembered.
His prediction comes in the context of renewed ecumenical activity and an increasing awareness of the challenges all Christians face in the present world climate.
Late in April, the annual dialogue of the Forum of Italy-Russia in Rome addressed the topic The Church and Secularism in Today’s Society: the Position of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. The conference noted the very strong prospects for concrete ecumenical collaboration between the churches.
Early in May, in Vienna, for the first time the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and the external relations department of Alexei’s Moscow Patriarchate organized a conference around the theme Giving Europe a Soul: the Mission and Responsibility of Churches.
Two of the most important issues in the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue are proselytism and the primacy of the Petrine office. The matter of proselytism and evangelization, and its implications for interreligious relations as well as ecumenical ones has prompted the Vatican and the World Council of Churches to undertake a series of meetings to formulate a code of conduct for Christian churches to follow when spreading the Gospel to people of other faiths.
It would seem that indeed, under Benedict, relations are already developing for the better.
Less Than Fully Human?
In India, a group known as the Catholic Secular Forum has called on Christians to fast unto death if the government does not ban the upcoming release of the film The Da Vinci Code. In other countries Catholics have organized book burnings and boycotts. Others object that the film blasphemes Christ.
The crux of the controversy seems to lie in the story’s fantasy of a married Jesus, who had children by Mary Magdalene, and the purported invention of Christ’s divinity by Emperor Constantine. The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. Some are taking it far too seriously.
One can object that Dan Brown’s image of Jesus conflicts with the historical reality of Jesus, at least as far as we know it. Catholics especially can object that it demonstrates latent hostility to the traditional understanding of Jesus as an unmarried man. But one should hesitate to call Brown’s depiction blasphemous and should question those who would sacrifice their lives to denounce it. Is it blasphemous to conceive of Jesus as a sexual beingas experiencing sexual attraction or desire, as other human beings do? If this is blasphemy, what does the Christian doctrine mean that defines Jesus as truly human?
The Da Vinci Code is scandalous to those who love Jesus as he really was. Christians have a right to be irritated by those who play fast and loose with that memory of Jesus to titillate the popular imagination. If anyone wants to learn about the Jesus of history, Dan Brown’s imaginings are not the place to start.