Reports of violence against Christians and other religious minorities continue to raise challenges for constructive ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. When emotions become enflamed by the actions of religious intolerance, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on the important work of bringing people of good faith together. When people become fearful of even speaking their conscience-held beliefs — let alone expressing them in peaceful social, political and liturgical activity —the entire social fabric of a state can become threatened, even to the point of disintegration.
To the extent that legitimate authority cannot control such outbreaks of violence and bring lawbreakers to accountability, it becomes all the more likely that groups of aggrieved and oppressed people will be tempted to take the law into their own hands, lacking confidence in their institutions. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has been trying to make this point repeatedly through timely responses to reported incidences of violence and religious intolerance.
Blessed Pope John Paul II often addressed the issue of how disruptive — and ultimately useless — is fear as a means or an end to resolve religious differences. Instead, he believed, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work of bringing people of different faiths together when we resolve to create contexts in which we can listen to one another. The Holy Spirit, he observed, is mysteriously present in the heart of every person through the practice of what is good in their own religious traditions, and following the dictates of their consciences, members of other religions positively respond to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even though they may not recognize Him as their Savior (cf. Vatican Information Service reporting on what the Pope had to say on the ‘Seeds of Truth in Non-Christian Religions,’ September, 1998).
Listening takes courage, especially during times in which one may feel under attack from some members of a group with which one is a partner in dialogue. Current tensions in Christian-Muslim relationships, exacerbated by the outbreaks of violence in various countries, is a case in point. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has made it clear that interfaith “dialogue” cannnot be possible if it means “putting one’s faith in parentheses” (cf. letter to Marcello Pera in Corriere della Sera, Nov. 16, 2008). It has always been a principle of ecumenical dialogue that the partners be able to define and acknowledge their own conscience-held beliefs without fear or compromise. Only then is it possible to explore both differences and concurrences.
A good example of how this kind of dialogue continues to be forged is the recent West Coast consultation between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and three Muslim organizations from the Sunni and Shi’a traditions in Orange, Calif. Both Muslim and Catholic representatives came together to hear scholarly presentations of how the interpretations of the sacred writings of each faith are currently understood. Both faiths accept some principle in which their Scriptures not only came to be written down — by what are held to be divine origins — but also interpreted through some form of dialogue or conversation with a receiving human community.
Faith for both of Christianity and Islam, in other words, requires both listening and understanding, if it is to be true to its own foundations. It is not enough just to pray that this will happen. As in all human relationships, specific initiatives must be taken to bring people of faith together so that they can speak to and hear one another.
In this way, if Blessed John Paul II is correct, the Holy Spirit, who, Christians believe, authored the Scriptures through the inspired writers, can also accomplish the great work yet to be completed of making all one through us, as our Lord himself prayed.