Month: November 2007

Pope Benedict’s 2nd Encyclical – Spe Salvi – "On Christian Hope"

Full text of Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi: On Christian Hope.

Some Analysis & Coverage

More to be compiled as we go along, but to echo St. Augustine: Tolle Lege!


Pope Benedict Responds to "A Common Word" (Muslim Invitation to Dialogue)

Pope invites senior Muslims to Vatican meeting AFP Nov. 29, 2007:

VATICAN CITY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI invited a delegation of senior Muslim personalities, who signed an appeal for greater dialogue between religions, to a meeting at the Vatican, according to a letter released Thursday.

The pope praised the “positive spirit” behind the October 11 message signed by 138 top Muslims from around the world and sent to Christian leaders, said Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in the letter sent in Pope Benedict’s name.

The pope wanted to meet a representative group of the signatories at the Vatican, he added in the letter sent to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, head of the Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman.

“The Pope has asked me to convey his gratitude to Your Royal Highness and to all who signed the letter,” Bertone wrote.

“He also wishes to express his deep appreciation for this gesture, for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.

“Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God, the provident Creator and universal Judge who at the end of time will deal with each person according to his or her actions. We are all called to commit ourselves totally to him and to obey his sacred will.”

The letter said the pope “was particularly impressed by the attention given in the letter to the twofold commandment to love God and one’s neighbour.” […]

Bertone said that with a view to encouraging the “praiseworthy initiative” from the Muslim leaders, “His Holiness would be most willing to receive Your Royal Highness and a restricted group of signatories of the open letter, chosen by you.

“At the same time, a working meeting could be organized between your delegation and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with the cooperation of some specialized Pontifical Institutes (such as the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University).”


  • Rocco Palmo posts the full text of the letter from the Pope to the 138 Muslim leaders.
  • Pope invites Muslim scholars to meet with him, dialogue council, by Cindy Wooden. Catholic News Service. Nov. 29, 2007.
  • Vatican: Pope expresses “deep appreciation” for Muslim letter ADN Kronos Int’l. Nov. 29, 2007.
  • “Pope favors dialogue with Islam” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the press office of the Holy See, Zenit News. December 9, 2007.
  • Al-Qaida Reference to Pope “Not Surprising”: Vatican Aide Says Terrorists Worried by a Pontiff Who Dialogues Zenit News Service. December 18, 2007:

    Al-Qaida is worried by Benedict XVI’s efforts to dialogue with Muslims, says a Vatican spokesman.

    Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi affirmed this today when commenting on a one-hour 37-minute video from al-Qaida’s second-in-command, who criticized Benedict XVI’s Nov. 6 meeting with Saudi Arabian King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

    The video from Ayman al-Zawahri was posted Sunday on the Internet. The al-Qaida leader said the Pope’s meeting with King Abdallah, the first ever between a Pontiff and a Saudi monarch, was offensive to Islam and Muslims.

  • Letter by 138 Muslim intellectuals calls on Muslims to reflect upon their faith, says Muslim scholar January 23, 2008:

    The Open Letter 138 Muslim intellectuals wrote to the Pope and other Christian leaders is indirectly addressed to Muslims because it calls on “Muslims to rethink and to re-educate ourselves about our own Islamic,” said Ali Aiyub in a “reflection” sent to AsiaNews. Mr Aiyub, who is Muslim, is the director of the Silsilah Dialogue Institute, whose president is Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

    “For me as a Muslim,” Aiyub writes, “I consider the Open Letter a milestone in the history of Islam in the contemporary world. I would liken it to Vatican II, a revolution within the Catholic Church’s teachings to respond to the signs of the time. This Open Letter serves as bedrock to drumbeat our local interfaith dialogue as path to peace.”

    This document is “a sign of hope and an inspiration to commit myself as a Muslim in the service of dialogue in today’s chaotic world where religion, as has been done since time immemorial, is misused to legitimize selfish motives.”

Discussion of this topic on Against The Grain:

Further Responses to "A Common Word"

[This post is a continuation of a discussion of the recent “open letter to the Pope” [and Christian community at large] by 138 Muslim scholars and reactions — prior posts in this series: “A Common Word” and Christian-Muslim Dialogue 10/27/07; Fr. Christian Troll: Response to “A Common Word” 10/28/07]

Magister: Pope and Muslims “at a great distance”

Sandro Magister turns his attention to the “open letter to the Pope” (and all Christians) — entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You” — from Muslim scholars, and speculates: Why Benedict XVI Is So Cautious with the Letter of the 138 Muslims (www.Chiesa November 26, 2007):

Benedict XVI and the directors of the Holy See appear more cautious and reserved toward this flurry of dialogue.

The Holy See immediately replied to the letter of the 138 Muslims with polite statements of appreciation. But it put off until later a more fully elaborated response.

The only comment on the letter of the 138 so far released by an institution connected to the Holy See – The Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies – has also been kept in the shadows, in spite of the fact that it emphasizes the new and positive elements of the Muslim initiative.

Not even L’Osservatore Romano mentioned it. The only reference made so far to the letter of the 138 in the newspaper of the Holy See was within a note announcing and commenting on the November 6 meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and Benedict XVI. “L’Osservatore” did not even give coverage to the commentaries on the letter of the 138 by two scholars of Islam highly respected by pope Joseph Ratzinger, the Jesuits Samir Khalil Samir, from Egypt, and Christian W. Troll, from Germany.

But it is precisely from reading these commentaries – and that of Troll in particular – that one understands the reason for the caution of the Church of Rome.

Troll notes that the letter of the 138 Muslims, with its insistence on the commandments of the love of God and neighbor as the “common word” of both the Qur’an and the Bible, seems intended to bring dialogue onto the sole terrain of doctrine and theology.

But – Troll objects – there is a gaping distinction between the one God of the Muslims and the Trinitarian God of the Christians, with the Son who becomes man. This cannot be minimized, much less negotiated. The true “common word” must be sought elsewhere: in “putting into effect these commandments in the concrete, here-and-now reality of plural societies.” It must be sought in the defense of human rights, of religious freedom, of equality between man and woman, of the distinction between religious and political powers. The letter of the 138 is elusive or silent on all of this.

Magister goes on to examine the kind of dialogue that Pope Benedict XVI wants — as conveyed in a passage of his Christmas address to the Roman curia, on December 22, 2006:

“In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church.

“It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.

“On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.

“On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.

“As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all -, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.

“The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”

Says Magister: “The letter of the 138 contains no trace of this proposal that Benedict XVI issued to the Muslim world in December one year ago. This is a sign that there is truly a great distance between the visions of these two.”

* * *

That said, anticipates a Vatican response in the near future:

“The Vatican will respond positively, and quite soon,” Dakar Cardinal Theodore-Adrien Sarr told Reuters on Sunday, November 25, during a ceremony to install 23 new members of the College of Cardinals.

“We will not miss this opportunity.” . . .

Sarr said the Vatican planned to invite a small group of the letter signatories for exploratory talks on the way forward.

“There will be a meeting with them to clarify what they want to do.

“After that, we’ll see what we can do.”

Catholic cardinals and experts on Islam see the Muslim initiative as a milestone.

“This is an opportunity the Lord has given us and put into the hearts of people to work together,” said Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias.

“All of us (cardinals) are very happy.”

Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois said a serious and broad Christian-Muslim dialogue would help inter-faith relations in France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim minority.

“This is a significant step.

“I remember that only a few years ago, we regretted there weren’t any Muslim leaders who could take a public stand, for example against terrorism.”

Catholic experts on Islam said the Vatican had reservations about complex theological issues such as whether Christians and Muslims had the same vision of God.

They said there was so much misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims about what each other believed that a serious dialogue about them would help improve relations.

“There are differences and they will always be there,” one said.

“But now is not the time to look for problems. It is important to respond to something so positive with something equally positive.”

Nayed vs. Tauran: No Dialogue Possible?

Numerous sources have cited Cardinal Tauran’s rather blunt dismissal of the possibility of theological dialogue with Muslims, because “Muslims do not accept the possibility of discussing the Quran, because it is written, they say, as dictated by God” and “with such a strict interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the content of faith.” Arif Ali Nayed, one of the original signers of “A Common Word”, responded in an interview with Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service (Islamica Magazine, No. 20):

Cardinal Tauran’s statement to Le Croix was very disappointing indeed. It came at a time of high expectation of responsiveness, and on the eve of the important Naples Sant’Egidio encounter. Many people were expecting Pope Benedict XVI to say something positive about the Muslim scholars’ initiative. Alas, a truly historic opportunity for a loving embrace was simply missed.

Instead, the Cardinal’s statement deeply discouraged Muslim scholars, and annoyed many Muslim believers at the grassroots level. Many such believers blamed their leaders for still approaching the Vatican, given the Cardinal’s attitude and the Vatican’s non-responsiveness to Muslim scholars last year. The Cardinal’s statement was quickly propagated through the press, and almost derailed the whole initiative. Muslim scholars already expressed their views on the Cardinal’s statement in their Communiqué to the Naples encounter. However, the content of the Cardinal’s statement does need to be addressed theologically and hermeneutically.

Nayed goes on to specifically rebut Tauran’s charges, noting the double irony in that it “accuses Muslims of an imaginary theological/hermeneutical closure that is more appropriately attributable to the Vatican’s own pre-1943 closure to historical-critical methodologies” and “holds that upholding the divine authorship of a sacred text is a hindrance to theological dialogue.”

If such belief in divine authorship prevents its adherents from theological dialogue, then the Cardinal would have the same dialogical inhibitions that he imagines Muslim scholars to have. . . .

Rather than unilaterally declaring the impossibility of theological dialogue with Muslims, Cardinal Tauran would have been wiser to ask Muslim scholars themselves as to what kind of dialogue they feel is possible, from their point of view. To unilaterally pre-determine what is possible and not possible for the other, on behalf of the other, is one sure way of achieving closure in matters dialogical.

See also: Scholars troubled by Vatican official’s remarks on Muslim dialogue Catholic News Service. October 31, 2007:

Jesuit Fr Daniel A. Madigan, who serves as a consultant to the commission for relations with Muslims at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said many Christians misunderstand how Muslims view the Quran, leading to a widespread prejudice that assumes Muslims are unwilling or incapable of interpreting the Quran.

“Any act of reading is an act of interpretation: Some Muslims read the Quran as warranting violence, while others do not interpret it that way. Some think it requires the seclusion of women, many others disagree.

“At a time when a substantial group of Muslim scholars of widely varying persuasions is trying publicly to promote a theological dialogue with Christians, it seems imprudent to rule out the very possibility of such an engagement,” he said.

Further Catholic Responses

Muslims have been waiting a response “from the top” to the letter, but that is not to say Catholics haven’t responded — individually (Fr. Samir Khalil, Fr. Troll, Cardinal Scola) and collectively (USCCB).

Cardinal Pell of Australia also mentioned the letter recently, in an address entitled Prospects for peace and rumours of war: Religion and democracy in the years ahead October 29, 2007 (LifeSite News), who praised the letter as a “helpful initiative”:

This letter is one of the most authoritative statements we have seen from Muslim leaders supporting dialogue and friendship between Christians and Muslims, based on a shared belief in God as the God of love, and in the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. […]

Outsiders and insiders have every right to ask spokespersons of the great religious traditions, perhaps the monotheist traditions in particular, how they understand and explain the teachings of their sacred writings on violence and coexistence, and how they explain, condone, or condemn what are, or appear to be, religious wars. This letter is an important contribution to this discussion.

Of particular interest to me is the idea of human nature which the Muslim scholars present in their letter, and the interpretation of the Koran they use for this. The letter argues that the “the three main faculties” of human nature are “the mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice, and sentiment which is made for loving the good and the beautiful”. Christianity teaches that human beings are a unity of reason, freedom and love, and while the emphasis on “intelligence”, “will” and “sentiment” in the Muslim scholars letter should not automatically be assumed to be the simple equivalent of this teaching, it certainly opens up new and positive questions to explore. It also raises the intriguing possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews co-operating to help secular society address its radically diminished ideas of the human person, and the fragmented and incoherent ideas it has about the meaning and value of reason, freedom and love.

George Weigel, on the other hand, is less than hopeful about the prospects of dialogue — also taking note of the omission of the Pope’s December address to the Roman Curia) (“A Disappointing Call for Dialogue” The Catholic Difference. November 7, 2007):

For unless Islam can find within its own spiritual resources a way to legitimate religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority, the relationship between two billion Christians and a billion Muslims is going to remain fraught with tension. “A Common Word” speaks at length about the two Great Commandments; it says nothing about their applicability to issues of faith, freedom, and the governance of society: issues posed, for example, by the death threats visited upon Muslims who convert to Christianity and by the refusal to allow Christian public worship in Saudi Arabia. “A Common Word” also seems rather defensive, as if it were 21st century Christians who, in considerable numbers, were justifying the murder of innocents in advancing the cause of God. But that is manifestly not the case. . . .

Do these 138 Muslims agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority are the issues at the heart of today’s tensions between Islam and the West — indeed, Islam and the rest? Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of practical reason (which bear on the organization of 21st century societies) than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the two Great Commandments (which risks leading to an exchange of banalities)? Why not get down to cases?

In the latest issue of Oasis, Paolo Branca, Senior Researcher and Assistant Professor in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Catholic University of Milan, hails the document as “A Word to be Read and Spread in the Muslim World”:

As we are aware, the Islamic authorities are often influenced by the regimes of the countries where they live, but on this occasion it would seem that the need not to interrupt communication at a religious level has prevailed in respect of any potential reticence or orientations, more or less imposed. Indeed, the document does not linger on the polemic points which have predominated in the preceding intervention but seeks to return to the essence of the two respective traditions in order to identify common elements. . . .

The only weak point would appear to be the fact that one is evidently dealing with a document which has been thought out and written with the addressees in mind, but it is also our duty to give it the necessary importance so that even in the Islamic world it is recognised and valued, especially where discriminated minorities are present and various forms of tension if not conflicts which still involve ethnic-religious aspects.

To limit oneself to say that one could have done more or even worse, completely snub these words pretending to be the only authentic holders of criticism and self-criticism would mean losing out on an opportunity which awareness and a sense of responsibility would instead induce to value for the common interest.

In “The Christians of Arabia Wonder about the Open Letter”, Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap, believes that the letter “should not be left without a positive answer from the Christian side, although there are many open questions”:

Every effort to draw closer to a common understanding is welcome, even though it might be a very tiny beginning. Of course, there has to be further clarification about whether “the love of God” and the “love of neighbour” have the same meaning in both religions. Another crucial point might be that Christians cannot simply see Jesus Christ as one among other prophets, but profess him in his divinity as the living Son of God within the belief in One God in three Persons. However, the open letter can be a first important step in discovering a common ground that will later allow also a common word. Will this word also be a clear one, and not only a common one?

Howbeit expressing his concern about the omission of the Jews from the document:

The lack is the more regrettable as the central importance of the Jews today is crucial because of the political situation in the Middle East, a question requiring an answer which may be found at least partially in the application of the two main commandments by all who are involved. A common word should therefore include also the Jews.

[According to the FAQ accompanying the letter: “Jewish scriptures are invoked repeatedly and respectfully in the document by way of preparing the ground for a further document specifically addressed to Jewish scholars” and “the problems between Jews and Muslims are essentially political not theological” — I’m curious to see how this plays out].

Discussions on Catholic Blogs

Returning to the blogosphere, DarwinCatholic and Wheat & Reeds have responded thoughtfully to my posts on this subject. I’ll try to respond in kind.

First, in Peace Through Strength In The Muslim World, Wheat and Weeds wonders: “To what extent do we owe this letter –which I take as meaningful and a sign of progress– precisely to the Iraq war, since Muslims don’t make the distinction we do between faith and politics?” — recalling an earlier column by John Allen, Jr. on Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria. According to the general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, it was only when Christians responded with firm resolve and defended themselves against Muslim-initiated violence that they saw the need to come to the table: “They saw our people have resolve, and that’s when the decision was made to form a consultative forum of religious leaders.” Along the same lines:

. . . while the letter is ostensibly a response to Benedict XVI’s Regensberg lecture, and I take nothing away from the Pope –I think his “hard line” (really just a hard question) provoked this response, I wonder if we don’t have to see Benedict & Bush as a tag team in favor of Muslim moderation, as Reagan and JP the Great overcame Soviet Communism.

I am certainly appreciative of the firm resolve of the Bush Administration in waging a war against Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, which in Iraq finally seems to be bearing some fruit along these lines. (Writing for The Long War Journal Nov. 17, 2007 — Bill Roggio reported that prominent Sunni clerics, who once supported, justified, or remained silent about al Qaeda’s terror tactics, have now turned on the leading Sunni religious establishment that supports al Qaeda in Iraq).

On the other hand, this is not to say that a good number of Muslims on their own initiative have been moved to reflect on the religious perversions that culminated in the horror of 9/11 and subsequent atrocities across the globe, or have repudiated unjust bloodshed in Allah’s name.

See for example Khaled M. Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists; Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Traditional Muslim Writers and The State We Are In: Identity, Terror, and the Law of Jihad – an anthology of responses to the London bus and subway bombings in 2005, including Shaykh Mohammad Afifi al-Akiti’s “Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians” — a fatwa given in direct response to UK-based jihadi group. Contrary to popular perception, many of those offended are not “moderates” but rather can be described as “traditional” Muslims, who frame the debate rather differently. Aftab Ahmad Malik elaborates:

Today, to reform is seen as a major way to purge extremism, but it is precisely through reform that extremist groups such as Al Qaeda are able to construct their jihadist worldview and claim legitimacy. In addition, the extremists and the reformers share some commonalities. Both want the right to reinterpret Islam as they see fit which can only be achieved by dismissing Islamic tradition. By doing so, both vest every Muslim with the competence to be a jurist. At the heart of both the extremist and reformist understanding of Islam is the individual and the self: there is no need to study the traditional Islamic sciences nor is there any need for recourse to the learned scholars as these give way to an “expression of a personal relationship […] to faith and knowledge.” It should come as no suprise, then, to learn that “few Al Qaeda operatives […] have a religious education,” [with] most having been trained within secular institutions and in technical fields, and it is extremely telling that Osama bin Laden referred to the 9/11 hijackers as belonging to no traditional school of Islamic law.

(The State We Are In p. 26)

It was toward this end that The Amman Message was conceived. Convened by an international Islamic summit to establish a consensus as to “what Islam does and does not allow, who is a Muslim and who can speak for Islam”:

First, the declaration recognized the legitimacy and common principles of all eight of the traditional schools of Islamic religious law (madhhabs) from the Sunni, Shi’i and Ibadi branches of Islam, and of Su, Ash’ari and moderate Sala Islamic thought. Second, it defined the necessary qualifications and conditions for issuing legitimate fatwas. This, in and of itself, defines the limits and borders of Islam and Islamic behavior. Amongst
other things, it exposes the illegitimacy of the so-called ‘fatwas’ extremists use to justify terrorism, as these invariably contravene traditional Islamic sacred law (Shari’ah) and betray Islam’s core principles. Third, the declaration condemned the practice known as takfir (calling others “apostates”), a practice that is used by extremists to justify violence against those who do not agree with them.

H.M. King Abdullah II is building upon these historical developments with political, religious, educational and media initiatives to establish and implement the principles they represent at all levels of culture, education, religion.

What is the potential of such a consensus? — According to the website:

This amounts to a historical, universal and unanimous religious and political consensus (ijma’) of the Ummah (nation) of Islam in our day, and a consolidation of traditional, orthodox Islam. The significance of this is: (1) that it is the first time in over a thousand years that the Ummah has formally and specifically come to such a pluralistic mutual inter-recognition; and (2) that such a recognition is religiously legally binding on Muslims since the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) said: My Ummah will not agree upon an error (Ibn Majah, Sunan, Kitab al-Fitan, Hadith no.4085).

This is good news not only for Muslims, for whom it provides a basis for unity and a solution to infighting, but also for non-Muslims. For the safeguarding of the legal methodologies of Islam (the Mathahib) necessarily means inherently preserving traditional Islam’s internal ‘checks and balances’. It thus assures balanced Islamic solutions for essential issues like human rights; women’s rights; freedom of religion; legitimate jihad; good citizenship of Muslims in non-Muslim countries, and just and democratic government. It also exposes the illegitimate opinions of radical fundamentalists and terrorists from the point of view of true Islam.

Something that may (we hope) bear some good fruit over time.

* * *

In A Common Word: Islam and the Limits of Dialogue, DarwinCatholic expresses his reservations about the kind of “dialogue” anticipated by the signatories to “A Common Word”:

While I respect the sincerity of the signatories of A Common Word, and agree that the three great monotheistic religions do share in common principles of love of God and love of neighbor, I’m not clear how much of the deeper dialogue which they wish the Vatican were more open to is actually possible. For once we have discussed the love of God and love of neighbor, where exactly could we go from there? The one-ness of God, it would seem, and yet here we immediately run into one of the great historic differences between our faiths. Islam does not admit as possible that God should be three in one. And while explaining the Trinity in such terms as to be understandable to a Muslim audience would be a worthy occupation, if a consensus on this were achieved my understanding is that this would consist (for the Muslims) of rejecting traditional Islam. You cannot, so far as I can understand, both accept the trinity and be a good Muslim.

Which brings us to the central problem of religious dialogue: What exactly is the goal? […]

Perhaps open-minded Muslims are ready to grant that Christianity is mostly true so far as it goes (though can we maybe gloss over a few major dogmas like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc.?) and in that sense are open for deeper theological dialogue. But from a Christian point of view the entire revelation of Mohammad is a human invention/delusion at best, and at worse something rather more sinister.

At that point, no wonder the Vatican seems more eager to pursue things on a diplomatic than a theological footing. At the level of achieving greater peace between Christians and Muslims, there’s much to be achieved. At the level of theological dialogue…

Well, I think there are probably good things to be achieved there, but they would need to be achieved through a very non-goal-oriented approach. That, I think, has been the problem with many recent attempts at inter-religious dialogue. Too often these things seem focused on “let us agree on something we can sign together” rather than “let us attempt to find a way in which our beliefs can be presented to each other through a theological/philosophical language that both of us can understand”.

We certainly cannot bridge the gap between the Muslim conception of Allah and Christianity’s own Trinitarian convictions with fine words and diplomatic niceties. To concur with Fr. Troll, Christianity’s Trinitarian convictions are

“. . . not an aspect of Christianity that can be negotiated away. In this regard there are some slight ambiguities in the Open Letter, moments at which a Christian might feel that it is suggesting that there are no fundamental differences between the theologies of the two faiths, or at least that these differences do not really matter. While the warm, inviting tone of the Open Letter’s appeal to Christians is enormously encouraging, it is to be hoped that this can be held together with an approach which takes utterly seriously the points at which Christians and Muslims differ and does not encourage a diplomatic evasion of these points for the sake of a dialogue which would suffer as a result.

However, I am not wholly convinced that the intent of the signatories is a veiled call for conversion. As mentioned in my first post, the document ends with an Islamic theological affirmation of religious pluralism:

For each We have appointed a law and a way. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al- Ma’idah, 5:48)

While I would not begrudge Muslims their desire to convert us (after all, don’t we Christians have the ‘Great Commission‘?), the letter’s conclusion (setting the stage for future discussions) present a challenge to those for whom the very existence of non-Muslims is considered intolerable. In this, “A Common Word” presents itself as a challenge to Muslims as well. To quote Dr. Nayed in his introduction to the letter:

I whole-heartly believe that the true promise of this vital document, “A Common Word”, is that it is a first, but monumental step, toward retrieving and reliving the true Muslim way that was vividly described, long ago, by a spiritual master named Sidi Ahmed al-Rifa’i:

Master Ibrahim al-Azab (may God be pleased with him) said: “I said to master Ahmed (al-Rifa’i): “My master, the seekers discussed the way to God, and had many opinions.” He replied: “My son, the ways to God are as many as the breaths of creatures! Oh Ibrahim, your grandfather (referring to himself) left no way without exploring (except those ways that God did not will for him). Oh Ibrahim, I explored all ways, and found no way closer, more-giving, more-hopeful, and more-lovely than the way of meekness (ajz), brokenness (inkisar), bewilderment (hayra), and poverty (iftiqar) (before God).” [1]

The document reopens precisely this way to God, the way of utter devotion to the One God, and utter love for His creatures. . . .

Such a simple, but profound way consists of:

1. Continuously remembering God and His compassion towards us.
2. Living in gratitude for God’s compassion, through total devotion to Him.
3. Living as intensely as possible in mutual compassion (tarahum) with our neighbors.

The sooner we Muslims rehabilitate and mend our classical networks and institutions, and reconnect them with the rest of humanity in sincere and humble dialogue, the more able we will be to serve God and humanity.

Both Magister and Weigel reference in their writings the Pope’s address to the Roman Curia as a basis for Christian-Muslim dialogue. Perhaps we should also take our cues from the Pope’s address in November 2006 in meeting with Turkey’s Religious Affairs Director, Ali Bardakoglu:

Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham [cf. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate, 1,3]. This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time. As men and women of religion, we are challenged by the widespread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defence of life, protection of the environment and of the resources of the earth. This is because we too, while respecting the legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs, have a specific contribution to offer in the search for proper solutions to these pressing questions.

Above all,we can offer a credible respons to the question which emerges clearly from today’s society, even if it is often brushed aside, the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole. We are called to work together, so as to help society to open itself to the transcendent, giving Almighty God his rightful place. The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.

As an illustration of the fraternal respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together, I would like to quote some words addressed by Pope Gregory VII in 1076 to a Muslim prince in North Africa who had acted with great benevolence towards the Christians under his jurisdiction. Pope Gregory spoke of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another “because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”

Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society, in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the very poor.

Here, Benedict’s message encompasses both the essential goal of “A Common Word” (addressing “the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole” and identifying that which Christians and Muslims have in common — love of God and neighbor, AND the framework in which that love is to be manifested: “freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and respected in practice.”

Q: Is the dialogue anticipated by Nayed really “entirely different” from that envisioned by the Pope?

New Papal Encyclical "Spe Salvi" to be released November 30th

Vatican Information Service:

VATICAN CITY, NOV 23, 2007 (VIS) – The new Encyclical of Benedict XVI, “Spe salvi,” will be presented in the Holy See Press Office at 11.30 a.m. on Friday, November 30. The document will be presented by Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier O.P., pro-theologian emeritus of the Pontifical Household, and by Cardinal Albert Vanhoye S.J., professor emeritus of New Testament exegesis at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Pope relies on Christian hope for encyclical Times Online [UK] November 23, 2007:

As cardinals gathered around the world today for an extraordinary consistory it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would shortly issue the second encyclical of his papacy, on the theme of “Christian hope”.

The 81-page letter to be sent to the world’s bishops was written during the summer both at the Pope’s retreat in the mountains of northern Italy, Lorenzago di Cadore, and his summer residence at Castelgandolfo. The document will exhort Christians not to be afraid in the face of world upheavals, violence, rapid change and “human dramas” but rather to embrace “hope founded on faith”.

The Cardinal Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, said the Pope would sign the document on 30 November, but did not say when the text would be published. It will be the 295th papal encyclical since the first was issued in 1740, and will be entitled “Spe Salvi”.

Happy Thanksgiving

Americans are a grateful people, ever mindful of the many ways we have been blessed. On Thanksgiving Day, we lift our hearts in gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, the people we love, and the gifts of our prosperous land.

Our country was founded by men and women who realized their dependence on God and were humbled by His providence and grace. The early explorers and settlers who arrived in this land gave thanks for God’s protection and for the extraordinary natural abundance they found. Since the first National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington, Americans have come together to offer thanks for our many blessings. We recall the great privilege it is to live in a land where freedom is the right of every person and where all can pursue their dreams. We express our deep appreciation for the sacrifices of the honorable men and women in uniform who defend liberty. As they work to advance the cause of freedom, our Nation keeps these brave individuals and their families in our thoughts, and we pray for their safe return.

While Thanksgiving is a time to gather in a spirit of gratitude with family, friends, and neighbors, it is also an opportunity to serve others and to share our blessings with those in need. By answering the universal call to love a neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves, we make our Nation a more hopeful and caring place.

This Thanksgiving, may we reflect upon the past year with gratefulness and look toward the future with hope. Let us give thanks for all we have been given and ask God to continue to bless our families and our Nation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2007, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage all Americans to gather together in their homes and places of worship with family, friends, and loved ones to reinforce the ties that bind us and give thanks for the freedoms and many blessings we enjoy.

President George W. Bush – Presidential Proclamation: Thanksgiving Day, 2007

* * *

Probably no other holiday speaks to the soul of the American experience like Thanksgiving. The origin of Thanksgiving is thoroughly religious. It’s also very specifically Christian. The Protestant Christians who began this tradition nearly 400 years ago practiced their gratitude in the midst of scarcity, disease, high mortality and a harsh new land. Precisely because of their suffering, they understood their own limitations; their radical dependence on God. For the people who started it, Thanksgiving was never about holiday sales, self-satisfied comfort or an annual nod to the generic Life Force. It was a personal conversation with God. At its heart, Thanksgiving has always been about acknowledging our dependence on God, and offering Him our love and gratitude. . . .

[E]very Thanksgiving is a call to Christians to recover who we really are: children of God with family duties to each other. Gratitude leads to humility; to seeing our true place in creation. And humility is the beginning of sanity — the clarity of mind to see what’s right, what’s wrong, what needs to be done, and the willingness to do it.

Americans are a generous people. It’s one of our enduring strengths as a nation. But we can lose that generosity if we forget who we are, why we’re here, what we owe to others, and Who made us. May God — who after all is the One we’re thanking — bless each of us and our families this Thanksgiving, and turn our hearts in gratitude to the needs of others.

Thanksgiving: acknowledging our dependence on God, By Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

The End of the Stem Cell Debate?

Human induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.

Shinya Yamanaka / Department of Stem Cell Biology / AP

According to the San Jose Mercury Newsa scientific breakthrough on the sem cell research front has the potential to end the stem cell debate, alleviating moral concerns over the exploitation of discarded embroyos:

Advocates on both sides of the ethically charged debate over human embryonic stem cells hailed two breakthrough studies unveiled Tuesday that suggested simple human skin cells might one day lead to a vast array of new treatments without destroying embryos.

Until now, researchers hoping to use stem cells to create replacement organs and medicines for numerous diseases had assumed their best hope was with human embryonic stem cells, which have the flexibility to turn into any tissue type.

But the studies, published in the journals Cell and Science, indicate that other cells plucked from a person’s hand or face may be just as useful. . . .

Although both teams cautioned that more studies are needed to perfect the procedure, other experts proclaimed the accomplishments as a promising way to avoid the ethical debate surrounding human embryonic stem cells, which come from 4- to 5-day-old discarded embryos.

“This is a tremendous scientific milestone – the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers’ first airplane,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology of Alameda. “It’s a bit like learning how to turn lead into gold.”

Time magazine reports how the process — known as “direct reprogramming” is already changing the field:

Ian Wilmut, the pioneering biologist responsible for cloning the first mammal, Dolly, has announced that he will no longer use the cloning method that made him famous to generate stem cells. “Changing cells from a patient directly into stem cells has got so much more potential,” he says.

And generating stem cells is suddenly possible for anyone with a basic background in molecular biology. No special expertise in handling chromosomes, nuclei or eggs is needed.

Finally, the promise and potential of directly reprogrammed cells calls into question whether embryonic stem cells are useful any more. Why go to the trouble of creating embryos when stem cells can be coaxed directly from properly manipulated cells?


  • “A New Day”, by Father Thomas Berg, LC, M.A., Ph.D.. The Weschester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person:

    . . . It will take several days for us to ponder and assess the implications of all this, but even now, and based on what I am hearing from scientists and fellow ethicists who have followed the emergence of stem cell science in recent years, some implications are already clear, and they are marvelous.

    First of all, the putative “need” for new lines of human embryonic stem cells will now fall under much tougher scientific scrutiny as enthusiasm for reprogramming re-dimensions the field. Dr. Wilmut himself was quoted as saying, “This approach represents the future for stem cell research.” Quite a statement from a stem cell pioneer.

    Secondly, controversial therapeutic cloning now loses any plausible grounds for being a scientific and biomedical “must”. I don’t believe today’s news is going to stop researchers from attempting to clone human embryos to harvest embryonic stem cells from them. But their public support will be drastically reduced, and any private monies they had for this will likely dry up as well.

  • “Direct Reprogramming & the End of Embryonic Stem Cell Research” – Commentary in the latest of a series on bioethics issues from Thomas Peters (The American Papist).
  • Michael Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae) is cautiously optimistic.