Local Catholic-Muslim dialogue can make a difference

Nine years after the horror of the terrorist acts that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, we continue to seek healing and perspective. With it apparent that some recent terrorists have been recruited from among citizens and residents of our own country, anxiety about terrorism and its relationship to Islam has been heightened.

The planned mosque near the World Trade Center site and the threatened burning of the Quran by a Christian congregation in Florida have sparked passionate discussions in our country about the nature of Islam. Is it a religion of peace or of violence? Can its adherents be good citizens of the United States?

As Catholics, we ought to be very circumspect in the midst of the often extreme rhetoric and arguments made around these questions. It was not so long ago that Catholicism was thought to be incompatible with good citizenship in the United States.

We bristled, and still do, when members of other churches have inaccurately summarized what we believe.

Moreover, extremists, abusive priests, or sinful members from our own fold do not define us. We have come to expect fairness in civil discourse about our faith, even if it is not always practiced.

But what we expect regarding our own faith, we must practice in regard to others. In fact, a firm principle of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue that we do well to remember is to let those with whom we are in dialogue define and explain their own beliefs rather than try to do it ourselves.

The Second Vatican Council, in its ground-breaking “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” also called “Nostra Aetate,” took a positive view toward other faiths:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all [people].” (para. 2)

The council declared that we “through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these [people], as well as the values in their society and culture.” (para. 2)

There is no doubt that dialogue between Christians and Muslims has a long way to go on the world stage. But there is no reason why it cannot happen locally among us here in South Carolina.

All ecumenism and all interreligious cooperation ultimately find their best success in grass roots relationship-building. Whether dialogue happens informally with colleagues or neighbors or formally in community events, it has great potential to build understanding, trust, and cooperation.

This is where we in the United States can lead:  if interreligious cooperation and collaboration can be practiced here, we provide an example “indeed, a challenging sign of hope” to the rest of the world.

The Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Diocese of Charleston can assist local efforts of dialogue or study. The office trains parish ecumenical representatives.

These persons are appointed by the pastor or administrator of the parish to assist in local Catholic participation in ecumenical and interreligious activities. They sometimes do so with the help of a parish committee but always under the guidance of the pastor/administrator.

The office can also provide guidance and advice for dialogue with Muslims or suggest resources for study.

You can reach us at  ecumenical@pal-metto.com or (803) 345-7407.

Father C. Alexander McDonald is the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs officer for the Diocese of Charleston.