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Archbishop stresses importance of interfaith dialogue, understanding

| Friday, April 24, 2015

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa and delegate to the Arab League from 2006 to 2012, spoke on the importance of interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam in a lecture entitled “The Church and Islam 50 Years after Nostra Aetate.”

“Religion, relayed by inter-religious dialogue, can provide the right atmosphere in which conflicts can be involved,” Fitzgerald said. “Efforts can be made towards greater respect for all individuals, and the goal of harmony and peace be brought nearer.”

Fitzgerald said the “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration passed by the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church in 1965, highlights the importance of mutual understanding among religions.

“Christians are not expected to combat other religions, opposing their religious and cultural expression, but rather, to seek to appreciate and defend the spiritual and moral values enshrined in them,” he said.

“Nostra Aetate” calls Christians to respect religious plurality in an increasingly connected and secular world and recognize the truth found in all these religions, Fitzgerald said.

“It means that the various religions, including Islam, although they differ from Christ — in essential points are not totally rejected,” he said. “They are seen as containing, or at least as reflecting, truth which enlightens.”

Fitzgerald said the document clarifies that non-Christian religions are to be respected not simply because those who adhere to these religions deserve this respect, but also because these religions themselves contain truths that have directed their followers’ lives.

“It would be possible to assert that the different religious traditions are to be taken seriously because they have shaped the religious outlook of the people who have followed these traditions,” he said. “One can’t make a valid distinction between the respect due to the persons and the respect for the religion.”

Even though the importance of Jesus Christ may not be recognized in other religions, that does not prevent non-Christians from attaining the same enlightenment towards which Christians strive, Fitzgerald said.

“The role of Jesus Christ as unique mediator between God and human kind doesn’t exclude subordinate mediations,” he said. “Dialogue with people of other religions is by no means excluded.”

While “Nostra Aetate” is an important refinement in church doctrine promoting the respect of diverse faiths, it also has its limitations, Fitzgerald said.

“Because of its brevity, which was a deliberate choice in order to avoid controversy, it doesn’t do full justice to the different religions in the world,” he said. “It leaves much work for theologians. In this way, it can be considered an invitational document rather than a prescriptive document.”

In the context of a growing perception of Christianity and Islam as opposed world views, it is important to increase dialogue between these two religions, Fitzgerald said.

“Christian-Muslim dialogue should lead to a common search for understanding, to a shared sympathy for those who are suffering and in need,” he said. “A thirst for justice for all, forgiveness from wrong done, together with a readiness to recognize one’s own wrongdoing.”

Fitzgerald said before dialogue can take place, however, the widespread misunderstandings people hold of both the Christian and Islamic faiths must first be addressed.

“A difficulty is in lack of knowledge when one considers populations as a whole,” he said. “There is an ignorance in the West about Islam, and much ignorance about Christianity in countries where there is a Muslim majority.

“There is a constant need to educate people, conveying the true image of Islam, as many Muslims advocate, but also revealing the true image of Christianity.”

Fitzgerald said while the influence of interfaith dialogue is greatest at the grassroots level, it is important for high ranking religious leaders to foster a community of understanding as well.

“Religious leaders are not called upon to formulate concrete political measures but rather to underline basic moral principles,” he said. “They need to be able to support government measures when these are seen to contribute to the common good, but also to criticize them when human dignity is not being fully respected.”

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