Need seen now for bringing Catholic-Muslim dialogue to wider public

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego comments at a public session held during the March 7-8 National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue in Chicago. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego comments at a public session held during the March 7-8 National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue in Chicago. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

By Paulist Father Thomas Ryan
Catholic News Service

CHICAGO (CNS) — Regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues over the past 20 years “have been open and honest, appreciating our commonalities and being honest about our differences,” said Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

“We have to bring it to the wider public in this era of fear and mistrust,” he added.

He made the comments as Catholic and Muslim leaders and scholars met March 7-8 for the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The dialogue is co-sponsored by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The 33 participants took on the complex topic of the names of God that are used in both religions. The dialogue itself was not open to the public, but a public session was held March 8.

During the dialogue, the presenter on the Catholic side, Father Sidney Griffith of The Catholic University of America in Washington noted how the 99 names of God which Muslims draw from their scriptures and honor in praying with beads call Christians to examine their own Scriptures more deeply to see where these names for God find representation in Christian Scriptures as well.

“The beautiful names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” noted Father Griffith, “are the primary names of God that appear in our Christian holy Scriptures. And the theological formulas that have evolved over the centuries in church councils represent our efforts to understand these names of God.”

Father Griffith said that talking about God’s names and attributes can be an occasion for Christians to say, “You think we Christians go too far, but we don’t think you Muslims go far enough. However, if our differences cannot find a resolution, they can at least find a better understanding of how we come to what we believe.”

In his response to Father Griffith’s presentation, Irfan Omar, an associate professor of theology at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, reflected that what is of most importance is that all the divine names used by Muslims and Christians honor the one God of all creation, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses and Mary.

Pim Valkenberg, a professor of religion and culture at The Catholic University of America, made the point that, for Christians, talking about the Trinity is a question of who Jesus Christ is. “Jesus influenced the ideas that Christians have about God,” he said. “For Christians, in God there is relationality. For Muslims, there is singleness in God.”

In another presentation, Zeki Saritoprak, a professor and holder of the Beddiuzaman Said Nursi chair in Islamic studies at Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Cleveland, spoke on “An Islamic Theological Approach to the Essence and Attributes of God.”

He described three categories for the divine attributes with examples for each: the essence of God (power, almighty); actual activities of God (mercy, anger); attributes related to God’s beauty and kindness (generosity and compassion).

In a discussion period, Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy in Brooklyn, New York, and chairman of Catholic Relief Services, expressed his conviction that the time has come to turn the bilateral process of dialogue into a trilateral process involving Jews, Christians and Muslims together.

“The once-thought ‘impossible’ real collaboration between Jews, Christians and Muslims is now very doable,” he said.

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich is the Catholic co-chair of the national dialogue. The Muslim co-chair is Sayyid Syeed, director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances.

The USCCB’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has co-sponsored three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues for over two decades — mid-Atlantic, Midwest and West Coast. In February 2016, the committee announced the launch of a national dialogue.

Addressing the session open to the public were San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy, co-chair of the USCCB West Coast Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, and Sherman Jackson, a professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California Dornsife.

“Christians and Muslims are communities of believers who read their sacred texts, pray, and seek to serve the poor,” said Bishop McElroy. “These parallel pathways are forged by common insights.”

Nevertheless, he noted, the doctrinal elements that separate the two faiths are not minor, and said there should be four characteristics to their dialogue:

— It must reflect an overriding sense of friendship among the participants.

— It must reflect honesty in delineating the differences in the two traditions.

— Participants must keep before them a sense of awe at the depth and beauty of expression of key elements in their faiths and practice.

— There must be a concern to relate the dialogue’s formal theological reflections to the larger faith communities that the participants represent.

“How can we broadly convey this deepened level of friendship and truth to Catholics and Muslims within our nation? It does little pastoral good for a national dialogue to focus on theological themes if the pastoral life of our members is not affected,” Bishop McElroy said. “We will have to create new structures that ensure that the dialogue responds to the relations between our followers with each other.”

He added: “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. It depends on love of the one God and love of neighbor.”

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Father Ryan, who is at the Paulist Center in Boston, is a member of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

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