Basic Divisions Emerge Catholics and Muslims talk


By John F. Cullinan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series. The first piece can be read here.

This month’s Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican highlighted several basic divisions between the two sides, beginning with how the two sides understand the nature and purpose of interreligious dialogue. What exactly is such dialogue for? Is it a means to an end or an end in itself? What matters more, process or results?
These divisions are especially clear in the dialogue’s agenda and in the composition of the two sides’ respective 29-member delegations. The Muslim side had sought to limit the scope of the talks to purely “theological” issues, specifically excluding any concrete and specific concerns like the plight of shrinking Christian minorities in Muslim-majority states. After much backing and forthing, an agreement was reached to split the difference, with the first day devoted to “theological and spiritual fundamentals,” the second to “the dignity of the human person and mutual respect.”

The same division between abstract and concrete concerns carried over into the composition of the two delegations. Prominent among the Catholic representatives were prelates directly responsible for Christian minorities whose circumstances range from difficult to desperate: Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, representing Iraq’s largest Christian minority, the Chaldean Catholics; Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo (Syria), representing Greek Melkites (like the Chaldeans, an Eastern-rite branch of Roman Catholicism); and Archbishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for the Arabian Peninsula, who maintains “that the situation of the Church in Saudi Arabia is similar to that of early Christian communities. It is a Church that prays, that hopes one day to come out of the catacombs.”

Giving additional weight to the Vatican delegation was its chairman, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the French prelate and career diplomat who previously served as the Vatican’s foreign minister under Pope John Paul II. What’s more, the entire Catholic delegation was personally selected by and directly accountable to the pope. This included the chief staff-level experts, two hard-headed Jesuit intellectuals, the German Fr. Christian Troll and the Egyptian Fr. Samir Khalil Samir (see here and here for his analyses of the talks). The upshot was a multinational delegation speaking with one voice on behalf of the universal Church.

By contrast the Muslim delegation was a self-selected, ad hoc group, featuring mainly media-friendly academics, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr (George Washington University); Ibrahim Kalin (Georgetown University); Ingrid Matson (Hartford Seminary); Tariq Ramadan (Oxford); and Aref Ali Nayed (Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, a Jordanian think tank). How representative — or accountable — these figures are is an open question, given that academics are generally responsible only for their own views, without the pastoral responsibilities or institutional accountability of their Catholic counterparts. And there’s the further question of how representative these figures are of Islam as preached and practiced at the ground level. The delegation’s co-leaders — Nasr and Ceric — earned doctoral degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively.

There’s a similar mismatch between the Catholic prelates — appointed by the pope or elected by their peers — and the various Muslim clerics appointed by — and responsible to — their host governments. The mismatch extends to the talks’ nominal Jordanian sponsorship, conducted at arm’s length from King Abdullah II through an Amman think tank affiliated with the monarchy. This meant that preliminary official correspondence with the Vatican’s number-two official (Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) was left in the hands of the king’s nephew, a 42-year-old Princeton grad. Notably absent from the process was the king’s uncle, Prince Hassan, a recognized expert on inter-faith relations, author of a well-regarded 1994 study Christianity in the Arab World, and a figure genuinely trusted by Jordanian Christians.

All this Hashemite palace intrigue matters only in so far as it raises the suspicion of deliberate deniability on the part of the talks’ nominal sponsors. The Jordanian monarchy, after all, claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and thus enjoys unique prestige in the Muslim world. By thus hedging its bets, the Jordanian monarchy anticipated its Saudi neighbors, whose two official representatives bailed out of the talks at the last minutes, claiming illness. Neither was replaced, Saudi Arabia thus going unrepresented. Nor, for that matter, did Egypt’s two top government-appointed Muslim clerics — the Grand Mufti and the rector of Al-Azhar — choose to attend.

These are not simply questions of diplomatic protocol, though protocol applies as much to interreligious dialogue as to state-to-state diplomacy. In both settings, business is normally conducted between officials of the same rank and responsibilities, whether between foreign ministers, ambassadors, or desk officers. Throughout this whole process, the Vatican has commendably overlooked the niceties of protocol. In August, for instance, Cardinal Tauran was dispatched to a farcical Saudi-sponsored Madrid conference, attended mostly by nonentities with time on their hands, where he was the only figure to raise the issue of religious freedom amidst all the platitudes and happy talk.
These protocol issues are a reminder that Catholic-Muslim dialogue is always a matter of apples and oranges, inevitably raising the question: Who speaks for Islam? That’s not a question for Catholics; it’s the pope who speaks most authoritatively for the Church. But it’s also a fact that the pope is by far the world’s most visible religious figure, commanding the brightest spotlight and wielding the largest megaphone. That alone makes a photo-op with him especially desirable for the lucky few, particularly if their aim is respect and respectability by association. According to one of the Catholic participants, speaking frankly to the French Catholic daily La Croix, on condition of anonymity:

At first, one sometimes had the sense that the Muslims wanted to take advantage of the Church to give themselves a respectable image. Later, they sought to involve us in political issues, notably Palestine. Finally, it was hard for us to come to agreement on religious freedom.

Consider last November’s well-publicized meeting between the pope and Saudi King Abdullah. Recall that the monarch gave Benedict the improbable gift of a sword — that’s right, a sword — while taking away a tourist trinket that his minions deceitfully spun into an unprecedented papal award in full-page ads in the Washington Post, New York Times, and London Times. Bear in mind that by meeting with the pope, Abdullah was able to convey different messages to separate audiences. For Westerners, the meeting was meant to lend legitimacy and respectability to bogus Saudi claims of moderation and tolerance (repeated at the U.N. this week). For the Muslim world, the impression sought was one of equality with the Vatican on grounds of the Abdullah’s status as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” the source of the monarchy’s hotly-disputed claim to Muslim preeminence. There was, however, no visible progress on the pressing issue of absent pastoral care for more than one million Christian guest-workers in Saudi Arabia.

The papal spotlight figured prominently in the pre-talks coverage in the European press, with the added twist that the pope actually owes his Muslim interlocutors a turn on the papal stage as due reparations for his 2006 remarks at Regensburg. According to Le Figaro, Regensburg was “undoubtedly the most grievous wound of his papacy,” but the high-level “Catholic-Muslim Forum … might however mitigate the evil” caused by his words. Le Monde piled on, claiming that “Benedict’s pontificate, less inclined to exchanges with other religions than his predecessor’s, is marked by gestures that provoke bewilderment in the Muslim world and among proponents of Muslim-Christian dialogue.” And so on.

That’s certainly not how Benedict himself views his role and responsibilities.