Roads from Rome
By Katherine Marshall
FAITH IN ACTION
There was such a flurry of activity in Rome last week that it seemed as if the Eternal City was, once again, the center of the world. Bishops from all over the Middle East met in conclave, new cardinals were proclaimed and new saints were canonized. With a candlelight march, the Community of Sant'Egidio commemorated the dark day in 1943 when Rome's Jewish community was deported to concentration camps.
I was part of two very different events, but for both the core theme was that religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, has much wisdom to offer to the world.
Miguel Diaz, the dynamic U.S. ambassador to the Holy See (and himself a theologian), inspired the first event, a carefully orchestrated, day long quest for practical interfaith success stories. A painting of a Roman bridge, with a couple moving from dark shade toward the sunlit bridge, was invoked as the metaphor for "bridges of hope". Three panels, each with voices from Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions, took on the world's central challenges: poverty and equity, climate change and peace. And Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was both an earnest listener and keynote speaker. The conference attracted scholars and diplomats, including, something I had not expected, many female ambassadors.
The active presence of both the White House and State Department (both President Obama and Hillary Clinton sent welcoming messages) highlighted the Obama administration's strategic focus on pragmatic interfaith initiatives. Dubois' speech focused on shared pain and memory as something that might bind divided groups together: the pain of civil rights struggles as well as the ever-present pain of common suffering in the Holy Land and the HIV/AIDS pandemic: "I would like to explore with you how the presence and memory of pain might spur us towards ever greater interfaith action."
The power of interfaith cooperation is a sound but not always easy message to convey. The main appeal of encouraging different faith communities to work together is that they will leave theological and historical differences aside, and, with better knowledge and some common sweat and tears, build a foundation for real cooperation. That's plainly what the Obama faith team hopes can be the answer to the often posed question: where's the action in its faith approach? My take? It's a sound approach, and the obvious willingness that Dubois and his colleagues show to listen is as powerful a message as the words they pronounce. However, if interfaith action is to anchor the U.S. government strategy, there needs to be convincing evidence that it can actually work.
Shifting gear to a Vatican building nearby, a two-day conference on the Papal Encyclical Caritas in Veritate was far more attuned to theological debates. Organized by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (based at the University of Southern California) and the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, the focus was on the encyclical's implications for the United States. Vatican guru John Allen has reflected on the meeting at some length.
It was a vivid example of the deep reflection and experience that Catholic social thought can potentially bring to bear on the same set of issues that the U.S. Embassy meeting addressed: poverty and equity, climate change and peace. Yet it also raised two questions: first, who is really reading a dense document like the Encyclical, all of 30,000 words; and second, who is listening to reactions to it? For what it's worth, the Encyclical's Facebook page had 27 "likes" when I checked. Cardinal Turkson, the inspiring new head of the Pontifical Council, affirmed in no uncertain terms that give and take is welcome, but it's not clear what would make that come about.
The scholarly discussions in Rome were edifying and challenging, probing deeply into questions about human motivation and exploring the sad divides within the American Catholic Church, between what were termed "pro-life" and "pro-justice" wings. But I found it discouraging that the central theme of the Encyclical -- poverty and inequality -- was not what the group put at the center of its reflection. And the Encyclical, while it offers an extraordinarily rich reflection on many dimensions of the development challenge, still gives almost no attention at all to gender, education, and health, which after all are what human development are mostly about. Chapter 28 is also likely to alienate many passionately committed social entrepreneurs who may come to these words -- "Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good." -- and simply stop reading
We should never forget the inspirational Catholics who work for peace and social justice. They are central to the human development challenges the world faces. You get glimmers of that raw experience, plus the wisdom of history and ethical reflection, in events like those in Rome last week. But unless the Vatican can put aside its emphasis on doctrine, take on board alternative views, and focus on what it knows about addressing poverty, it cannot be a major player in international development circles.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
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