Outside the closed doors of the Catholic-Muslim Forum

VATICAN CITY — With great anticipation, 28 Muslim scholars and 28 Vatican officials, bishops and Catholic scholars sat down yesterday morning for the first session of the Catholic-Muslim Forum.

The Vatican published a short statement explaining that the first day of the meeting would focus on Catholic and Muslim understandings of the double commandment to love God and love one’s neighbors; the second day would look at the religions’ approaches to human rights; and the third day — tomorrow — would feature a morning meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and a public session in the afternoon to present the forum’s final statement.

The Vatican also published a list of the participants.

But, other than that, there was nothing for reporters, many of whom traveled to Rome specifically to cover the meeting.

All of the participants agreed not to speak on the record until the meeting was over.


Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, left, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric, look together at a book before opening the meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican yesterday. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, via Reuters)

Even so, journalists spent the morning on the street in front of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue hoping to catch someone. In the early afternoon the milling about moved to the lobby of the delegates’ hotel. No one was willing to be named, but at least we got an idea of what was happening behind the forum’s closed doors.

Yesterday’s discussion began with presentations by Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading Muslim philosopher and professor at George Washington University in Washington.

The Muslims I spoke to said Archbishop Ladaria was “very Catholic, very theological and very systematic” in explaining that God is love, that love is the relationship that exists among the members of the Trinity, that people come to know and love God through Jesus Christ. And that they are called to love others has God has loved them.

Nasr, they said, spoke without a prepared text and looked particularly as the concept of “rahma” (mercy in Arabic) as one of the names of God, one of the main qualities of Mohammed and one of the main obligations of Muslims found in the Quran, Islamic tradition and mysticism.

At a certain point, one participant said, a Muslim speaker tried to open a discussion about how “spiritual or religious arrogance,” claiming an exclusive possession of truth, “is an obstacle to love.” But the discussion took another track.

Although religious freedom, particularly the situation of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, was expected to come up today, several Catholics raised the issue at yesterday’s evening session. They called for “reciprocity,” asking the Muslim scholars to push Muslim governments to grant Christians the same kind of freedoms Muslims enjoy in the West.

One participant said he told the group that both Christians and Muslims could come up with lists of countries or situations where the full freedom of their people is not respected. For instance, he said, Muslims could argue that the French ban on wearing headscarves or religious symbols to school limits religious freedom. But he said the forum members must find ways to address the question as religious leaders, not politicians.

Strangely enough, this morning’s session on human rights did not focus on specific situations where one side or the other feels the rights of its faithful are being limited. Instead, one member said, “We looked at how human rights flow from our faiths.”

Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, director of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust, and Francesco Botturi, a professor at Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, made the main presentations.

Winter’s talk apparently focused on how Catholics and Muslims could work together to counter the “religious apathy” of Europe and much of the Western world. More and more, he said, religion — any religion — is seen as the enemy reason and a source of conflict that the world would be better without.

There will be much more to come tomorrow.

Election ’08: What does it all mean?

(UPDATE: There are new links on a new page we’ve started here.)

Make sure you refresh this page often for the latest updates on this day after Election Day. Plus, we want to hear what you think (see below).

4:45 p.m. ET: Latest updates posted for referendums storygubernatorial and congressional story, and story on congratulations from Catholic leaders in U.S. to Obama.

3:25 p.m. ET: Sneak peek: Was it race, or something else, that led to an Obama victory? (From the CNS columns package offered to our client publications for their editorial use.)

2:13 p.m. ET: This CNS story, which ran last month, is worth a second read in light of Obama’s victory because it captures the historic nature of this election balanced by the troubling position of Obama on abortion: Black Catholics see Obama candidacy as a path to racial equality.

2:00 p.m. ET: Here’s one way of looking at yesterday’s results if you’re a pro-lifer (from the National Catholic Register): “Life Didn’t Lose – the GOP Did.”

President-elect Barack Obama smiles during the election-night victory rally in Chicago Nov. 4. (CNS/Reuters)

President-elect Barack Obama smiles during the election-night victory rally in Chicago Nov. 4. (CNS/Reuters)

1:28 p.m. ET: Quite the variety of reactions in this story in the National Catholic Reporter. Everything from “hope” and “promising” to “a tragedy because of the gap between what he (Obama) claimed to embody and what his few unscripted utterances, and his votes and associations indicate him to be.” The paper also editorializes, “In moment of hope comes the challenge of accountability.”

12:55 p.m. ET: Early story on Cardinal George’s letter to President-elect Obama now updated with more U.S. church reaction. Includes comments from Archbishop Wuerl, Bishop Zubik, Catholic Students for McCain, Priests for Life, others.

12:23 p.m. ET: Second update now posted on pope’s message to Obama and other Rome reaction. There’s an extremely intriguing comment at the end from a Rome-based missionary news agency:

Obama’s victory speech ended with the words, “God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America,” something that would not be possible in Catholic Italy and which demonstrates that religion remains at the foundations of public life in the United States.

12:06 p.m. ET: Another CNS election story, Democrats make gains in gubernatorial, congressional races, includes comments from a political science professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

11:45 a.m. ET: Don’t miss yesterday’s story on reconciliation after a particularly contentious election. We’re hearing that several parishes have called because they want to reprint it in their church bulletins. Nice to hear positive feedback from readers, especially this year.

11:25 a.m. ET: Our earlier story on the pope sending a congratulatory message to Obama has now been updated with comments from the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

11:18 a.m. ET: Backgrounder from our Latin America correspondent: When dealing with Latin America, Obama faces complexities.

11:13 a.m. ET: The Catholic Sun in Phoenix (where John McCain conceded last night) has its own story on last night’s events there.

11:02 a.m. ET: Our story on yesterday’s referendums: Church view on same-sex marriage prevails; other ballot issues fail.

10:51 a.m. ET: In addition to noticing the success of ballot initiatives on marriage (see below), the National Catholic Register has an editorial titled “Our President” noting that, like it or not, Barack Obama won the election and deserves to be treated with respect even when opposing some of his policies.

10:44 a.m. ET: The next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican? Amy Welborn says she first thought of Douglas Kmiec but then had this name flash through her mind: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. As she says, “Hmmm.”

10:33 a.m. ET: The Catholic Key, newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., has this blog post up reminding readers that no matter who won or lost, the Lord God is the one we should trust.

10:25 a.m. ET: A blogger on the site of Commonweal magazine wonders if the day will pass without someone putting up the headline, “First Catholic VP is elected.”

10:15 a.m. ET: Big Wins for Marriage, says the National Catholic Register.

9:05 a.m. ET: Pope sends congratulatory message to Obama

8:52 a.m. ET: President of U.S. bishops congratulates Obama on ‘historic election’ (text of news release)

8:40 a.m. ET: Vatican spokesman expresses hopes for Obama’s presidency

– – –

Today we’re gathering reaction from around the church and the Catholic press to the results of last night’s election returns.

But also, what do you think? By any measure, the election of the first African-American to the presidency of the United States is historic. But also, what does yesterday’s election mean to the future of race relations, to the future of the abortion issue, to the future of the rest of the Catholic Church’s social agenda? And what about the approval in California of the amendment that defines marriage as the union of husband and wife?

We’ll be adding links here throughout the day, but you can also comment below. (Comments are moderated, but if you’re on topic yours will appear as soon as we can get to it.)

CNS Bible Blog: Life and truth in John’s Gospel

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The prologue to the Gospel of John — Chapter 1, verses 1-18 — consists of a poetic hymn of great beauty and symbolic power. In centuries past the words themselves were thought to contain spiritual power so the prologue was often read over the sick. It also used to be recited by the priest at the end of the liturgy.

The prologue itself has been likened to the overture of an opera — it contains all of the themes that will be developed throughout the Gospel. Make note of some of the special words like “light,” “truth,” and so on and then watch for their repetition in later chapters as their meaning and application are unfolded.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Let us examine two of those words: “life” and “truth.” Life (zōē) is used 36 times in John, 17 of these with the qualifier “eternal.” This is the life not of world to come but world above. Jesus — the Word of God — is identified with life itself. The logos or Word which is life (zōē) (1:3-4) came into a world alienated from God (1:10-13). He has the power of life within himself (5:26) and anyone who receives eternal life through belief in Jesus passes from death to life (5:24). Jesus can grant it to anyone whom he wishes.

Jesus insists that he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly (10:10) and that he alone has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. In 11:25, he tells the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believes in him will live even if they die, and anyone who lives and believes in him will never die.

A literal or superficial understanding of these words is absurd: many devout people have died. But John’s seemingly mundane words always have a transcendental meaning, and here he is definitely not speaking of biological life and death. The life that Jesus grants — eternal life — is living in the presence and awareness of God. Believers in Jesus experience eternal life even while still living their earthly life. In order to prove his claim to be able to give life to whomever he wishes, he promptly goes to the tomb and restores physical life to Lazarus. But this is not a resurrection, for Lazarus will still have to die again.

Truth is another of those rather vague and illusive Johannine terms. In 1:14, Jesus is described as full of grace and truth. What can that mean? In the encounter with the woman at the well in 4:24, Jesus denies that the worship of God can be tied to any particular place. The time has arrived for all true worshippers of God to worship Him in spirit and truth.

Jesus promises his audience in 8:32 that they will know the truth and the truth will make them free. Human knowledge is not what he had in mind, despite the dismaying tendency of many libraries to inscribe that verse over their doors.

Jesus told a perplexed Pilate that he had come into the world to witness to the truth, and Pilate responded with a rather weary and cynical, “What is truth?” not realizing that truth was quite literally staring him in the face. In fact, Jesus identifies himself in 14:6 as both life and truth and as a visible manifestation of the Father. This means that Jesus lives totally in God and God in him, and he is able to manifest the true God and the truth about God to a world ensnared in ignorance. Only by knowing and experiencing God directly and personally will we be freed from fear and ignorance and live as free children of God.

John is subtle and complicated. We should be wary of throwing Johannine verses around to prove theological points. John’s “truths” are meant to be experienced personally, not analyzed or rationalized.