By Allen, John L. JR.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 37, No. 4
Protestant sect hosts interfaith conference on controversial Vatican document
At Rome's Waldensian Theological University, located just around the corner from the Vatican, an enormous mural dominates the main lecture hall. It shows a single candle burning above the Latin inscription, "A light shining in the darkness." The irony is rarely lost on visitors to this tiny Protestant island surrounded by a vast Catholic sea.
During an Oct. 27 and 28 conference hosted by the Waldensians in reaction to Dominus Iesus, the recent Vatican document asserting that followers of other religions suffer "grave deficiencies," the candle seemed an appropriate emblem, both for the smiles it evokes and for the conference's aim of dispelling interfaith shadows cast by the tough new Vatican line.
The gathering, brought together Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and even a representative of Christian Science to discuss Dominus Iesus.
It was clear that Catholics are not of one mind on the perils and promise of religious pluralism. "This document was an attempt to close doors," said Amos Luzzatto, president of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities. "But I know that many other Catholics are working to keep the doors open."
Recent events here seem to lend support to Luzzatto's sense of a tug-of-war in the church.
Bologna's Cardinal Giacomo Biffi created an uproar in mid-September by asking Italian legislators to favor Catholics in immigration policy, because Italy's "national and cultural history" is based on its Catholic identity. Speaking specifically of Islam, Biffi warned that Europe must either recover its Christian roots or become Muslim.
At the conference, Luzzatto said he found this sort of talk alarming, given that Italian fascists in the 1930s justified anti-Semitic legislation on the basis of protecting the national culture.
The powerful Italian bishops' conference sent another negative interreligious signal in mid-October with a document warning Catholics against using "alternative medicines," especially Eastern techniques such as acupuncture, hydrology and shiatsu, which stem from Asian religious and philosophical traditions. The bishops warned that such traditions "are not compatible with the Catholic faith and sometimes are even accompanied by occult practices."
Since the same theologians often advise both the Italian bishops and the Vatican, the statement carries significance beyond Italy's borders as an indication of current thinking.
At the same time, however, other Catholics have made a special point of reaching out to other religions in recent days. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan held an interfaith gathering in Milan Oct. 25, marking the anniversary of John Paul's historic summit of religious leaders in Assisi in 1986. Some 3,000 people gathered in Milan for a ceremony that involved 22 religious leaders in a joint "moment of silence" for peace.
Also in late October, Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Notari of the Gregorian University, Rome's most prestigious papal academy, announced that the university will offer a new course of study in 2001. …