Archive for June, 2008

Interview With John Kenney, an Augustinian Scholar

BURLINGTON, Vermont, JUNE 19, 2007 ( Zenit.org ).- Benedict XVI is moving the Church away from religion, in the modern sense of the term, and toward a deeper understanding of Christianity, says an Augustinian scholar.

In this interview with ZENIT, John Peter Kenney, professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College, in Vermont, discusses the role of St. Augustine in the thought and work of Benedict XVI.

Kenney is the author of “The Mysticism of St. Augustine: Rereading the Confessions,” published by Routledge in 2005.

Q: What Augustinian influences do you see in the Holy Father’s work, especially his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” and his general-audience catecheses?

Kenney: Both the encyclical’s hidden architecture and many of its themes are Augustinian.

I was initially struck by the Holy Father’s discussion of “sacramental mysticism” — the ecclesial dimension of Christian contemplation. This is an important theme in the “Confessions,” part of the emancipation of Augustine’s thinking from pagan Platonism.

Too often Augustine has been misread as a proponent of an individualistic sort of mysticism, whereas a close reading of the whole of the “Confessions” shows his mature recognition that the human soul can only come to know God when nested in “the living soul of the faithful,” the Church.

In this first encyclical, the Holy Father also offers a nuanced discussion of the role of the Church in reference to politics and the state that is very much in keeping with Augustine’s position in “The City of God.”

What the catechetical talks have exhibited is just how deeply the Holy Father’s thinking is informed by the whole range of patristic theology. He has, as you know, been proceeding chronologically, discussing both major and minor authors in some detail.

I think it is worth keeping in mind that the Pope’s thought is not just Augustinian, but broadly patristic.

Q: Augustine is known for his Order of Love — “Ordo Amoris” — emphasizing love over the intellect. How do you see this fitting into the pontificate of Benedict XVI?

Kenney: Clearly Benedict XVI believes in the objectivity of truth and in the possibility of the right ordering of human affections in relation to that truth. These convictions were central to Augustine’s own conversion and they remained at the core of his thinking.

The “Ordo Amoris” emerged in Augustine’s thought because of his own startled recognition that God is transcendent being itself and we are made in the image of that reality. Our deepest longings, loves and desires can finally be fulfilled only if we order them correctly in relation to their divine source.

For lots of historical reasons, Augustine has sometimes been interpreted as emphasizing love over the intellect.

But the Holy Father understands Augustine in his proper patristic context, as discovering eternal truth within the soul and calibrating human desires in reference to their ultimate divine foundation.

It is the dysfunction of our age that we fail to understand that calibration — something that Benedict XVI’s pontificate seems intended to remind us.

Q: How does Augustinian thought differ from Thomistic thought, and how might that influence Benedict XVI?

Kenney: I’d be very reluctant to see Benedict XVI’s affinity with Augustine in terms of any self-differentiation from the thought of Aquinas. Indeed the Regensburg address emphasizes the common intellectualism of Augustine and Aquinas in contrast to the voluntarism of Duns Scotus and the later medieval nominalists.

Both Augustine and Aquinas hold that our knowledge of goodness and truth mirror, at least to some limited extent, the inner nature of God.

God is not so remote and his will so inscrutable that we have no means of knowing him as infinitely good. So for Benedict XVI, Augustine and Aquinas exemplify the great synthesis of biblical faith and Greek philosophy.

They are its twin pillars in the Latin West, even if their philosophical theologies do differ, given their distinctive appropriations of Platonism and Aristotelianism. But it is their common character that Benedict XVI has been emphasizing.

Q: Do you think Benedict XVI identified with Augustine early on because they were both thinkers who became pastors out of necessity?

Kenney: Yes, perhaps that’s true. His doctoral dissertation, completed a few years after his ordination, was on Augustine’s conception of the Church.

This suggests a connection with Augustine early on in his life as a priest. But I suspect that the root of this identification went even deeper and lay in his recognition of the Church as an anchor of sacred truth in a world riven by dehumanizing secular ideologies.

He had, after all, first-hand experience of such ideology in the Germany of his adolescence. Like Augustine, he identified the Church as a divinely ordained community that prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem.

So the events of both their lives brought them to see the unique role of the Church in a fallen world and also to discern the pastoral aspects of their own vocations.

Q: What might be the historical significance of having an Augustinian-influenced Pope at this time in world history?

Kenney: One of the most powerful themes in Augustine’s thought is the universality of the Gospel. This is what drew him to Catholic Christianity rather than to Donatism, which seems to have been the dominant tradition throughout much of his native North Africa.

For Augustine, Christianity is by its very nature global, and the Gospel is intrinsically universal in its message and scope. And so the Church can never be just a local sect or a national institution.

Augustine was a member of that post-Nicene generation who articulated what we think of as the Catholicism of the Church and who sought to build a communion of faith across the peoples of the ancient world. There is therefore much in Augustine that speaks to our present age of globalization.

Q: Where do you think Benedict XVI is trying to point the Church and the world right now?

Kenney: He’s pointing us away from religion — in the modern sense of the term. Religion is a category of modernity, usually understood to mean either individually authenticated spiritual experiences or else a particular type of collective ideology based on socially defined values.

To think of Christianity in such terms is to drift toward the relativism that Pope Benedict has so famously decried. Hence Benedict XVI has insisted that personal spiritual experiences can only become meaningful within the shared context of a lived theology. And the collective life of the Church is far more than a form of social or political association. Christianity is not an ideology.

These modern representations of religion can constitute a reduction of Christianity to psychological, sociological and political categories and can result in a denial of its claims to transcendent truth.

Benedict XVI has a masterful grasp of all these reductionist tendencies and he has pushed back hard in order to restore recognition of the richness and depth of Christianity.

So one might say that we have a Pope who is opposed to religion — and in favor of Christianity. Thank God for that.

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Interview With Director of Linacre Center

LONDON, JUNE 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Rational arguments need to take priority in the debate on bioethical issues, says the director of the Linacre Center for Healthcare Ethics.

Helen Watt, of the only Catholic bioethics center in the United Kingdom and Ireland, recently spoke to ZENIT about the opportunity Catholics now have to engage modern Europe in an authentically grounded ethical debate.

The Linacre Center’s International Conference is being held July 5-7 on the topic of “Incapacity and Care: Moral Problems in Healthcare and Research.”

Q: How is the ethical debate on health care issues in Europe today different from 30 years ago?

Watt: Thirty years ago, in vitro fertilization was a new and shocking development — as were the embryo experiments which paved the way for it. Now IVF is standard procedure for anyone who wants to have a child, and does not object to the manufacturing process and attitudes involved. The embryonic child resulting is treated more like a possession than like a new member of the family.

Often the debate is now between extreme libertarians, who defend a frankly consumerist attitude to medicine and parenthood, and those who want to set some limits, but lack the moral framework they need to do so in a credible way. This means that the principled approach offered by the Church often gets pushed to the sidelines — though fortunately not always.

Q: Where are the main battle lines now drawn with regard to bioethical issues in Europe?

Watt: One battle line is euthanasia, by act and by omission. Another is respect for unborn life, in relation to abortion, IVF and embryo experimentation.

Another battle line is, of course, marriage and parenthood. This last area is closely linked to IVF — as in, for example, the bid to expunge the requirement in British law that fertility doctors must take account of the child’s need for a father.

While some in Britain hope to tighten abortion laws, other countries in the European Union are under pressure to “liberalize” restrictive laws on abortion. There is also a strong push for European Union funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The hope is that countries which have recently joined the European Union, such as Poland, will bring fresh insights to the rest of Europe, rather than be themselves caught up in the secular/consumerist drift.

Q: What are the signs of hope that the trend toward the legalization of euthanasia and stem cell research will be halted?

Watt: The Dutch experience has shown how close the link is between voluntary and nonvoluntary euthanasia, once some lives are deemed not worth living.

While Belgium followed its neighbor and legalized euthanasia, similar legislation was recently defeated in Britain by a coalition of pro-life and palliative care groups — although there is certainly a need for vigilance with regard to euthanasia by omission.

On the stem cell front, there are wonderful advances being made with adult and umbilical cord stem cells — ethical alternatives to the use of cells from destroyed human embryos. It’s an exciting time for adult stem cell researchers, who can point to many actual treatments of human patients.

Italy is one country that has made huge strides in enacting laws protecting human embryos, showing that progress in this area can be made even after many years of permissive practice.

Q: The issues of IVF, human cloning and embryo screening all revolve around the status of early human life. Why is it so difficult to convince people of the humanity of the embryo, or even to keep it in the common consciousness as an issue?

Watt: It’s a combination of pragmatism and a failure of imagination. On the one hand, people want to be able to keep doing embryo experiments and using abortifacient contraception. On the other hand, the embryo is challenging in its appearance, despite the powerful case for its continuity with the older human being.

We live in an image-led age. The embryo is small, and looks different from the adult — which does not, of course, prevent it having human rights and interests, just like any other child.

The kind of emotional engagement that ultrasound makes possible for older unborn children is often not possible with the embryo. There is a need to appeal to reason rather than just to the emotions.

Q: How can the Church better educate Catholics about contentious ethical issues?

Watt: The Linacre Center specializes in providing arguments for the Catholic view of bioethics which do not require a prior acceptance of the Catholic faith.

We aim to show that the merits of this view can be recognized by anyone of good will using their reason. This approach encourages a robust realism that reaches out to people of other faiths and of no faith.

Recently, Benedict XVI spoke of the need to rediscover the natural law tradition, especially in an age of skepticism and relativism. He was, I think, encouraging the Church to speak out on issues affecting public policy in a way that uses reason to reveal the objective basis for her teaching.

It would be good to see bioethical issues given a little more priority in teaching from the pulpit. Many people are simply unaware that the Church opposes IVF, for example. Even those who know this may be quite unaware of the riches of Catholic theology on sex and marriage.

It is important to reach young people at school and university before they have committed themselves, in their work or personal lives, to secular ideologies. The Linacre Center hopes to do more in this area, funding permitting — as well as providing information and support to health professionals under pressure to conform to an anti-life culture.

Q: Why do you think the Church’s contribution to ethical debates is ignored so readily in modern Europe?

Watt: Ethical debates in Europe vary from country to country. In Britain the dominant philosophy is one of pragmatism coupled with scientism, and a suspicion that any reference to moral absolutes must be religiously grounded.

A result is that there is very little rational debate in bioethical areas. Debate is seen as merely a way of placating the public, or at best reaching a compromise between differing interests without articulating a coherent moral framework.

This is not the case in some other countries, where there are much stronger religious and cultural supports for moral reasoning of a kind that can enlighten our understanding of human life and its purpose.

All too often, the Church is ignored because she is seen as anti-science — instead of anti-killing — and as anti-freedom — instead of anti-oppression of others and enslavement of oneself.

The media is often irresponsible in its portrayal of Church teaching and generally too shallow in its approach to allow people to see the rationality and beauty of the Church’s message.

Moreover, it must be said that many of us, both clergy and laypeople, are far too timid when it comes to expressing Church teaching in these areas, and why it is true and good and leads to happiness.

It would be a good start if we began holding our governments to account — and judging ourselves by the same yardstick by which we assess them. We have a wonderful message to convey, and should do so with confidence and enthusiasm.

New Studies Reveal Close Relationship

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JUNE 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The fortunes of family life and religion may well be linked, say experts in recent studies. W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is the author of a research brief published in May by the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families.

“Churches are bulwarks of marriage in urban America,” he affirmed in the brief “Religion, Race, and Relationships in Urban America.” Wilcox started by observing that in spite of widespread concern over the breakdown of marriage and family life in contemporary society, so far little attention has been paid on religion’s influence for the family.

His attempt to remedy this omission is based on a reading of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCW), sponsored by Columbia and Princeton Universities.

The dramatic changes in family structures are graphically illustrated by Wilcox.

— From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from 5% to 33%.

— The divorce rate more than doubled to almost 50%.

— The percentage of children living in single-parent families rose
from 9% to 27%.

Poor and minority families have suffered even more. In 1996, for example, 35% of African American children and 64% of Latino children were living in married households, compared to 77% of white children.

Wilcox argued that religion can influence family life in four ways.

— Religious institutions promote norms strengthening marriage, for example, the idea that sex and childbearing ought to be reserved for marriage, and broader moral norms that support happier, more stable marriages.

— Religious faith endows the marital relationship with a sense of transcendence.

— In many religious groups there are family-oriented social networks that offer emotional and social support, plus a measure of social control that reinforces commitment to the marital bond.

— Religious belief and practice provides support to cope with stresses such as unemployment or the death of a loved one. A greater psychological resilience, in turn, is linked to higher quality marriages.

Paradox

Wilcox does, however, admit that religious participation is by no means an automatic guarantee of a happy family life. In fact, what he termed “one of the paradoxes of American religious life,” is the contradiction between the high level of religious practice among African Americans — the highest of any racial group — and the reality that they have the lowest rate of marriage of any racial or ethnic group.

Turning to an analysis of the data from the FFCW survey, Wilcox argued that it shows how religious attendance — particularly by fathers — is associated with higher rates of marriage among urban parents.

Moreover, churchgoing boosts the odds of marriage for African American parents in urban America in much the same way it boosts the odds of marriage for urban parents from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Paternal church attendance is particularly important for urban relationships, Wilcox maintains. If a father goes to church regularly, then he is more likely to enter into marriage and also to have a relationship of higher quality.

Benefits of belief

The arguments raised by Wilcox are similar to those put forward by Patrick Fagan in a paper published by the Heritage Foundation last December. In “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Fagan argued that “religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families and the community.”

“Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages and well-behaved children,” he pointed out.

Numerous sociological studies, Fagan continued, show that valuing religion and regularly practicing it are associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.

Among other points, these studies reveal that:

— Women who are more religious are less likely to experience divorce or separation than their less religious peers.

— Marriages in which both spouses attend religious services frequently are 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships.

— Religious attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability, confirming studies conducted as far back as 50 years ago.

— Couples who share the same faith are more likely to reunite if they separate than are couples who do not share the same religious affiliation.

Moreover, Fagan pointed out, religious practice is also related to a reduction in such negative behaviors as domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse and addiction.

Losing God

Mary Eberstadt looked at the other side of the coin in the relationship between family and religion in an article published in the June-July issue of the magazine Policy Review. In the article “How the West Really Lost God,” she reflected on the causes of secularization, a phenomenon particularly notable in Western Europe.

The thesis often put forward, Eberstadt observed, is that secularism came first and that this had a negative impact on family life in Western Europe. She argued, however: “At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families.”

In support of her case Eberstadt pointed out that European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice observed in recent decades. Within Europe she cited the example of France, which saw fertility decline much sooner than in many other European countries, and is also a nation where secularism is stronger.

Ireland, by contrast, withstood the winds of secularism until a short time ago, and it was also a country with strong families. The recent erosion of religion in Ireland was preceded by a collapse in Irish fertility, Eberstadt added.

Turning to the United States she commented that the higher level of religious practice could be due to the greater number of children.

Evangelicals and Mormons, who unlike Catholics are not prohibited from using contraceptives, also have larger families. Maybe, Eberstadt posited, there is something about the family that inclines people toward religiosity.

She then examined the dynamic that exists between family life and religion. The experience of birth leads parents to a moment of transcendence. As well, the practice of sacrificing oneself for the good of the family and children may lead people to go beyond selfish pleasure-seeking. In addition, the fear of death, in terms of losing a spouse or child is a powerful spur to faith.

As for the well-known fact that women tend to be more religious than men, maybe Eberstadt argued, this is due to their more intimate participation in the birth of their children compared to a man’s role.

While fertility rates in Europe and many other countries are now very low, this could change as the disadvantages of single motherhood and the social and economic consequences of shrinking populations weigh more heavily.

“There is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too,” Eberstadt contended. While quick to admit that, “merely having families and children is no guarantee of religious belief,” a resurgence in family life could well strengthen religion.

The authors of the studies cited here would probably be the first to admit that the interaction between religion and the family is complicated and that many other factors play a part in the strengthening or weakening of both. No doubt more research is needed, but these initial efforts point to some interesting relationships.

The natural family, Ebserstadt concludes, “as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people.” A symphony unfortunately marred by many discordant notes today, but whose return to harmony would be of immense benefit.

“What the World Needs Now … Is Faith”

CARDIFF, Wales, JUNE 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s talk to the Muslim Council of Wales on June 9 at the University of Cardiff.

* * *

“Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue”

Vice-Chancellor,
Secretary General,
Archbishop Smith,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is very good to be here with you today. It is a pleasure to come to Wales, a land whose history, language and landscape have inspired powerful music and striking poetry, from the tales of Taliesin and Owain Glyndwr long ago to the eloquent frustration of the Anglican priest-poet R.S. Thomas, who is typical of generations born here who felt alienated from their language and culture. The situation is quite different today; the Welsh language has a much higher profile and the Welsh Assembly looks after much of the country’s political business. I feel privileged to have been asked to come and address you on a theme that is close to my heart, that of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. I hope it will become clear that I am thoroughly committed to enhancing and maintaining this dialogue not only in Wales and the rest of Britain, but also throughout Europe and in the wider world.

Tiger Bay

The Muslim community in Cardiff is important for several reasons. When men from Yemen and Somalia came to work on the coal ships, many of them settled in the Tiger Bay area and married local women, so from the start it was an integrated group. The mosque they built in the 19th century was probably the first in the United Kingdom, and the replacement that was opened in 1947 was made to look like a Yemeni “mud mosque”. The fact that the mayor of Cardiff was at the opening ceremony shows that Muslims were already a well-established and respected religious community here, and what is more significant is that in those days religious groups seem to have lived happily alongside each other. The city of Cardiff looks quite different now, and the 1947 mosque was replaced in the Butetown redevelopment, but I hope the religions in Cardiff will always be aware of the humble but proud beginnings of the Muslim community here, and that everyone will work hard to maintain the tradition of peace and respect for each other that is a precious element in Cardiff’s civic heritage. That is also, of course, a model for any civilized community. Cardiff could easily be the beacon for the rest of Britain in terms of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

“What the world needs now …”

Religion is very much back on the agenda in international organizations like UNESCO and the United Nations, and in national governments throughout the world, while it was previously regarded, to be quite frank, either as a nuisance factor or as an enemy of enlightenment. What is on their agenda is not so much the content of religion, what we believe, but the effects religion is perceived to have on society. In the run up to the year 2000, police departments around the world were asking religious groups to help them identify sects that might be planning dangerous events to mark the beginning of the new millennium. This concerned Christian and Jewish groups first and foremost, and the atmosphere in and around Jerusalem was particularly tense for the security forces and police at that time. Since 2001 the spotlight has been locked on to Islam. This has obviously created an atmosphere where ordinary Muslims feel very uncomfortable and unfairly singled out by people who often seem not to understand them at all.

The positive side of current preoccupations with the social role of religion is that our various religions are all much more visible. We are often challenged to contribute in various ways to social cohesion, and thinkers and policy-makers have had to question earlier notions that religion might naturally fade away in our enlightened society. For reasons we may not like, they have to take us much more seriously than was the case ten years ago.

One person who realized a long time ago what was going on is Pope Benedict. Let me tell you why I say that. Early in the year 2004, the man still known to the world as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is a distinguished theologian in his own right, agreed to meet the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas for a public discussion in Munich. They met as representatives of two sides of a discussion that has been going on in Europe for some 200 years. Religion, represented here by a theologian, and reason, represented by a philosopher, are often seen as competing elements in western culture. Advocates of western secular rationality are very keen to point out the pathological elements of religion; while the cardinal recognized that religion does have this negative side, he also asked the philosopher to admit that reason has a similar weakness, particularly if it gives religion no room and tries to make it a totally private affair. According to the cardinal, if either side in the debate in Europe ignores the need to be open to learn from the other, the results can be catastrophic.

I think it is significant that Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say that we should not allow ourselves to focus exclusively on Europe. Seeing other cultures as inferior or insignificant would be an example of “western hybris, for which we would — and to some extent already do — have to pay dearly.” He also made the point on that occasion that every major culture has the same tensions as Europe; he referred explicitly to Islam, with its “broad rainbow” of adherents. He addressed the same theme in his talk in Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006. His main point, of course, as we know, is that there can be no real identification between authentic religion and violence.

I agree with Pope Benedict XVI and want to take the point a little further. Many of you will remember a song that was popular when I was a lot younger. Burt Bacharach wrote the music and Hal David wrote these lyrics: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s much too little of.” Those words are true, but only up to a point. For me, love is not “the only thing that there’s much too little of”; I think the world needs belief or faith, too. If I did not believe my faith made a difference in this world, I could not stand here and speak to you. If the members of the Muslim Council of Wales were not convinced their religion can do enormous good in the world, they would not have organized this evening. We all believe not only that there is a God, but also that our religion commits us to working for good in the world, in a thousand different ways. There are still tendencies in some quarters to make sure religion has no public voice, but this takes no account of the fact that many of our contemporaries are searching for meaning and purpose; our culture is in search of its spiritual identity, some would even say its soul.

The space for dialogue between our religions and our culture has to be a public one. In other words, religious communities need to be able to operate with a certain degree of autonomy. If politicians at national or local level — or even academics, for that matter — think they know what is best for religions, they will not act in our best interests, and could well be tempted to try to manipulate the ways we contribute to society. Generally, I think they treat us with great respect, but this is a difficult time for many people involved in governing and policing our society, and nobody should be blind to the risk of basing decisions about religious groups on sociological or security-driven criteria. Times of perceived crisis are not the best times for making or changing laws.

Of course we should not presume that people anywhere will respect us. We have to earn their respect, and when we have it we need to work to keep it. The Christian Gospels tell us that, while the people welcomed Jesus with songs of celebration when he entered Jerusalem for the last time, he made that journey on a donkey, which I take as an eloquent sign of the humility with which we can best play our part in the life of our country.

Being similar and being different — telling the truth about each other

I first heard about Islam when I was studying to become a priest in Rome. It may surprise you that every Catholic priest is expected to study not only theology but also philosophy, in order to grasp the concepts with which the Church expresses herself in different situations. The leading light in Catholic thought has traditionally been St. Thomas Aquinas, and we learned very early on in our studies that he was deeply indebted to the works of several scholars from the Arabic-speaking world, many of whom were Muslims like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, although we referred to them by the Latin versions of their names — Avicenna and Averroes. I mention that because it is proof that, in some periods of history, Christian and Muslim scholars did not hesitate to acknowledge their debt to each other, which is consoling in an age when people presume we eye each other with suspicion. This is simply not so.

As I have said, I am convinced religious communities have a role to play in British society, but that role can be played well only if the various religions are able to be open and honest about each other. One particular principle comes into play here, which is that I should never allow myself to be put into a position where I am telling other people what Muslims believe. I should automatically contact a Muslim friend and ask him or her to do that. Likewise, it is not good for Muslims to tell other people — or each other, for that matter — what Christians believe. It is always better to ask one of us. This is important if we are to avoid offering the world caricatures of each other, and it is necessary to avoid being tricked by prejudice into thinking we understand more than we do. Perhaps this is something that should happen as a matter of course in our schools, but here comes one of the major differences between us. In the case of the Church, it is obvious whom you should approach. Islam is organized in a quite different way, and it is never easy for even the most friendly outsider to know who is the best person to ask when an explanation of Muslim beliefs and traditions is needed. This obviously means we need to know each other personally, in order to build up the trust that is necessary for such delicate tasks to be done well.

The basic thing that unites us is not always obvious to people, but it is something Pope John Paul II stressed when he addressed a very large gathering of young Moroccans in a stadium in Casablanca in 1985: “Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings. We live in the same world, marked by many signs of hope, but also by multiple signs of anguish. … We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection.” He spoke movingly to these young Muslims about his faith: “It is of God himself that, above all, I wish to speak with you; of him, because it is in him that we believe, you Muslims and we Catholics …” and he reassured them of the reason for his visit: “It is as a believer that I come to you today. It is quite simply that I would like to give here today the witness of that which I believe, of that which I wish for the well-being of the people, my brothers, and of that which, from experience, I consider to be useful for all.”

I really like the fact that the address to young Muslims in Casablanca stressed what unites Christians and Muslims above all else, and that is that they believe in the one God and see God as their creator. But one has also to be open to differences, for example in the ways Christians and Muslims understand what is meant by believing in one God. For centuries Muslims have been puzzled by Christians who claim to believe in one God like them, but then start speaking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Anyone involved in theological dialogue between Muslims and Christians has to accept that the Trinity can be a stumbling block.

What is vitally important in any dialogue between us is our respect for the truth, especially in the sense of being faithful to our identity. Dialogue becomes fruitful only when everyone involved feels able to say what he or she believes, or what identifies him or her as a Muslim or as a Christian. This obviously requires a capacity to listen without correcting the other person’s standpoint, a willingness to accept diversity together with a desire to learn from the other without ever feeling one’s own beliefs are being belittled or criticized. If I look back to my schooldays, I remember there was a strong tradition of debating, where a cardinal rule was to have total respect for the other speaker, while feeling free to put his ideas to the test. Perhaps that was good training for true dialogue, where respect is of paramount importance, and there can be open and honest discussion of what everyone says. A very important text for Christians on this point comes from the First Letter of St. Peter, which gives this advice: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Tomorrow’s World?

What we do today will shape the world in which the children of tomorrow will live. What can we do together to ensure that tomorrow’s world will allow them to grow and develop fully as human beings and as believers? I have three simple suggestions to make.

1. My first suggestion is not really mine, but it is one I have taken to heart, and I think I know how we can develop it together. You may know that, from time to time, there are meetings for representatives of bishops from all over the world. These meetings are called synods. Pope John Paul II convoked special synods for each continent, as well. There were two European synods, and after the second one he issued a document called The Church in Europe, or Ecclesia in Europa. It contains an assessment of the current situation and some goals and objectives for the Church. “There is one need to which Europe must respond positively if it is to have a truly new face: ‘Europe cannot close in on itself. … On the contrary, it must remain fully aware of the fact that other countries, other continents, await its bold initiatives, in order to offer to poorer peoples the means for their growth and social organization, and to build a more just and fraternal world.’ To carry out this mission adequately will demand ‘rethinking international cooperation in terms of a new culture of solidarity. … Europe must moreover become an active partner in promoting and implementing a globalization ‘in’ solidarity. This must be accompanied … by a kind of globalization ‘of’ solidarity and of the related values of equity, justice and freedom.”

I think the idea of a globalization of solidarity is wonderful, and I am glad to say that CAFOD, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, has set in train a project called Live Simply, designed to help people live in solidarity with the poor. It has often struck me that Islam asks of its followers a similar commitment to solidarity with the poor. This seems clear in the idea of having a banking system that works in accordance with the basic principles of Islam. My thought is not that I should open an Islamic bank account, but rather that it may be time for Christian and Muslim economists to put their heads together to see what we can learn from each other in the sphere of genuine commitment to solidarity with the poor. Looking at the newspapers or the television news sometimes makes me shudder at the fate of so many people in the world who live in such a shocking state. But I feel uncomfortable and guilty if I cannot react. I do what I can; I imagine we all do, but I have a feeling that, together, we could do so much more.

2. A second thing we could undertake together to improve the state of tomorrow’s world for our children is to work for genuine freedom of religion. I have already mentioned that many British Muslims feel misrepresented or at least misunderstood in our media and in public opinion. You are not the only ones, but unfortunately in the present moment much more is being said about Islam than about Christianity or other religions. More than this, there are times when we may all feel that we are not exactly muzzled or silenced, but we are most certainly not free to express our deeply held convictions, sometimes simply for reasons linked to so-called political correctness. I think there are ways we can work with those who form public opinion to solve many of these problems, and I am certain that we should do this together. At the Catholic Church’s most recent major council, the second Vatican Council, which took place in the 1960s, many observers were very surprised that the Council’s declaration on religious freedom was not a plea for religious freedom for Catholics, but for everybody. Religious freedom is seen as a natural right of every human being, to be respected by every government.

People often seem surprised to hear that this is Catholic teaching, and they delve into history to prove that the Catholic Church has not always given the best example of respect for people’s rights in the religious sphere. It would be foolish and churlish to claim there have not been shocking failures in this regard in the past, but here we are looking to the future and the world in which tomorrow’s children will grow up. It would be equally inaccurate to ignore the fact that there are places where Christians are not allowed to practice their religion openly, or at all. On June 21, 1995, John Paul II sent a greeting to those present at the opening of the beautiful mosque that now overlooks the city of Rome. This is what he said:

“A grand mosque is being inaugurated today. This event is an eloquent sign of the religious freedom recognized here for every believer. And it is significant that in Rome, the center of Christianity and the See of Peter’s successor, Muslims should have their own place to worship with full respect for their freedom of conscience. On a significant occasion like this, it is unfortunately necessary to point out that in some Islamic countries similar signs of the recognition of religious freedom are lacking. And yet the world, on the threshold of the third millennium, is waiting for these signs! Religious freedom has now become part of many international documents and is one of the pillars of contemporary society. While I am pleased that Muslims can gather in prayer in the new Roman mosque, I earnestly hope that the rights of Christians and of all believers freely to express their own faith will be recognized in every corner of the earth.”

We prove that we believe in religious freedom when we are prepared to speak up for other people’s right to exercise it, and not just our own. If we can learn to act together in favor of religious freedom for all, we shall certainly influence tomorrow’s world for the better.

3. If you have ever visited a Benedictine monastery you will have been greeted silently. In prominent places in every Benedictine house you see a short Latin word, Pax, or peace. The atmosphere of silence that marks the monks’ day is meant to create a peace you can almost touch, but that is only a sign of a much deeper, inner peace. Among Muslims, the first thing a visitor would say is as-salaamu aleykum, Arabic for peace be upon you. Both Muslims and Christians traditionally, instinctively want to be at peace and to bring peace wherever they go. I thank the God who made us all that, in recent years, the leaders of all Britain’s major religious communities have stood together in front of politicians, in front of the media, in front of our fellow-citizens, pleading for those who have influence to do all in their power to achieve peace, rather than the catastrophic and obscene waste of life that so many news bulletins bring into our living-rooms. That is not what God wants and it is not what we want. There is always a better way and, as various Popes have said, war is never a good solution and always an admission of defeat. We all know the children of tomorrow’s world deserve better, and we know the human race can do better. As long as we continue to say this together, we shall be building healthy foundations on which future generations can build.

I want to conclude my talk this evening with something John Paul II said in January 2001, when the new ambassador of the Republic of Iran to the Holy See presented his letters of credence to the Holy Father. I think it sums up much of what I have been saying:

“In the dialogue between cultures, men and women of good will realize that there are values that are common to all cultures because they are rooted in the very nature of the human person — values which express humanity’s most authentic and distinctive features: the value of solidarity and peace; the value of education; the value of forgiveness and reconciliation; the value of life itself.”

I believe those are values that bring us very close indeed. Thank you!

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 15, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Mother Angelica remains relevant to people because they can’t turn away from her directness, her passion and her lovable humor, says friend and biographer Raymond Arroyo.

Arroyo, director of EWTNews and host of “The World Over,” is the author and editor of two books on the woman religious. “Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles” was a New York Times best-seller and has recently been translated into Spanish.

He is also the editor of the recently released “Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality.” It is a collection of the nun’s unpublished private lessons and prayers.

In this interview with ZENIT, Arroyo discusses the life of the cloistered nun, and what lead to her success in the global world of television and radio.

Q: Has the popularity of your books on Mother Angelica surprised you?

Arroyo: No, I can’t say that it has. Mother is one of those beloved figures in the Church who resonates with people around the world.

Much like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa, Mother Angelica has touched people by her witness. But unlike those iconic figures, Mother comes into people’s homes each day.

For decades she has brought them hope in those moments of despair or confusion — and that leaves an incredible impact. She is truly a spiritual mother to millions.

I think that the biography of Mother Angelica helped the public see the personal side of this woman of faith — and to appreciate her great sacrifices and daring. It’s also a heck of a story.

The recent collection of her unpublished teachings and advice, “Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality,” has given people an opportunity to profit from Mother’s personal philosophy and practical spirituality. The mail I’ve received from readers is truly remarkable.

Q: Mother Angelica is not a stereotypical nun and your biography makes this clear. In what ways do you think her particular feminine genius can inspire others?

Arroyo: Mother is definitely not a stereotypical nun. She appears stereotypical, but beneath the habit is this gutsy, determined woman who wields an incredible faith.

Her feminine genius resides just there I think: in her radical faith, in her abandonment to God’s will in the present moment. Additionally, she had an intuition that allowed her to see events as they were and to follow her heart and God, always.

We need that feminine aspect in the Church today. Mother used to say that the faith had become too “heady,” too theoretical. And I think she is right.

In the new book she says, “Most people today are seeking master’s degrees, then they forget the Master.” She never forgot her Master.

Isn’t it curious that some of the same people who were the most outspoken advocates of “women’s power” in the Church, were the first ones trying to shove Mother Angelica back into the cloister once she appeared on the scene?

The idea of an orthodox, faithful woman leading people to Christ was a threat somehow. It shouldn’t have been. Time has shown that it was actually a blessing.

Q: How would you describe Mother Angelica’s spirituality?

Arroyo: Mother described her approach as “nitty-gritty,” “sock-it-to-’em” spirituality.

Her style was always very practical, and easily applicable to the lives of her listeners. She grew up on the streets of Canton, Ohio, among poor, working class immigrants.

Those are the people she attempted to reach, whether in person or on television. But buried in her funny, earthy approach was always the profound wisdom of the Church.

She used to say, “If you have two legs and you’re breathing –you’re called to holiness, sweetheart.” And people believed her. She didn’t teach theology, she taught people to be more like her Spouse.

She held that living example of Jesus up for the world to see and dared all comers to try to match it. The reason she remains relevant is that people can’t turn away from her directness, her passion and her lovable humor.

I mean, how many nuns do people know who describe the eternal judgment to intimates this way: “Everyone drags his own carcass to market, so be careful.”

Q: What do you think was Mother Angelica’s most significant contribution to Catholic television and to Catholic media, in general?

Arroyo: Global Catholic media is Mother’s great contribution to the Church. Before her there was no readily available Catholic network in the United States or anywhere else — and after her there is much talk and a lot of public relations, but nothing with the reach of her enterprise.

Mother Angelica is the first woman, never mind nun, in the history of broadcasting to found a nonprofit cable network, and the only religious to ever do so.

The Eternal Word Television Network is now seen in more than 140 million households around the world, heard on over 100 AM/FM stations in the United States, on its own shortwave radio network, and on a stand-alone Sirius channel.

Pretty good work for a crippled, cloistered nun with only a high school degree and innumerable physical ailments. Her whole life is a witness to the power of faith and to what she tagged the “theology of risk.”

Q: What has been the most profound lesson you’ve learned from Mother Angelica?

Arroyo: For years, Mother had been urging me, and her legions of viewers, to live in the “present moment.”

The week before the biography was published in 2005, Hurricane Katrina took our home and evicted my family and me from New Orleans.

We didn’t know where we were going to live, where we were going to send the kids to school, where our friends were. And yet there was this sense that this was part of God’s plan for us.

Mother often says that “most people live in the past or in the future.” We fret about the things we can’t control or stew over things long gone. In doing so we are not at “home in the present moment.”

I once asked Mother to describe the present moment for me, and she said: “We have to ask God, ‘What are you calling me to do, right now in this present moment?’ Not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now. God’s will is manifested to us in the duties and the experiences of the present moment. We have only to accept them and try to be like Jesus in them.”

This living in the present moment kept Mother attuned to the desires of God throughout the day and attentive to what he expected of her moment by moment.

The teaching became a great consolation to my family and myself after Katrina, and I continue to practice it even now. Three weeks after we lost the house, I became the only homeless author on the New York Times best-seller list.

The present moment is funny that way.

Q: What do you anticipate happening in the future of Catholic media? Will it continue to grow as it has under Mother’s watch?

Arroyo: All of Mother’s efforts were rooted in her prayer life. She didn’t play a nun on television; she was a nun.

If Catholic media efforts are to thrive in the future, they must find their sustenance in prayer. They must also be attentive to the needs of their audience in this “present moment.”

Mother reached people where they were and translated the timeless teachings of the Church into an idiom and a format that could reach a contemporary audience. If others can follow her example, they will flourish.

There is whole chapter on “Embracing Inspiration and Risk” in the new book. In it Mother says: “Never put a lid on God. … Your plans, your projects, your dreams always have to be bigger than you are so God has room to operate. Nothing is too much for the Lord to do — accent on the ‘the Lord!'”

Given the culture we find ourselves in today, and the anemic Catholic efforts out there, there is little time to waste. Mother would say: “Get cracking.”