Islam Is Now Catholicism's Key Interfaith Relationship: All Things Catholic

Article excerpt

While Americans were preoccupied with midterm elections, the besieged Christians of Iraq faced another threat to their literal, not merely political, survival. A Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad, Our Lady of Salvation, was seized by al-Qaeda terrorists during Sunday Mass, and a police raid left an estimated 57 dead and more than 60 wounded.

A radical Islamist Web site said the church had been targeted as a "dirty den of idolatry." The site proclaimed that "all the churches and Christian organizations and their leaders are a legitimate target for the mujahedeen."

The tragedy illustrates anew the urgency of creative thinking about the state of Catholic/Muslim relations in the early 21st century.

Here's the key point: The last decade has witnessed a historic shift from Judaism to Islam as the paradigmatic interfaith relationship of the Catholic church.

That's not to say Judaism has become unimportant, or that Catholics won't continue to work on the relationship. Islam, however, is where the bulk of time and treasure is being invested, and it's become the new template for all of Catholicism's relationships with other religions.

Four factors have driven that shift.

First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, representing 55 percent of the human population. Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg, Germany, when he seemed to link Muhammad and violence, triggered a firestorm of protest but also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides.

Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern Hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, for whom relations with Islam are a priority.

Here are four key implications of this shift:

* Intercultural, not interreligious, dialogue. Benedict is skeptical of interreligious dialogue, worrying that it can imply a surrender of identity. He prefers "intercultural" dialogue, meaning efforts to defend shared social, cultural and political values.

In practice, that means that rather than debating doctrine, Christians and Muslims should work together on matters such as the right to life, care for the poor, multilateralism in foreign policy, and a robust role for religion in public affairs.

* Support for "healthy secularism." Benedict has endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls "positive laicite--laicite being a French term for which the usual translation is "secularism." The idea is that church/state separation is desirable, as long as it means freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.

The emergence of Islam as the central interfaith preoccupation has turbocharged support for healthy secularism. Proof can be found in the Middle East, where the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. It's a basic law of religious life: Secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.

In both Europe and the United States, there's considerable debate about the political role of the church. If there is a force capable of balancing the scales, it's likely to be the perceived need to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. …