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U.S. expert: Catholic history could be relevant to Muslim struggles

Author: Arts and Letters

ROME (CNS) — The story of the Catholic Church’s embrace of religious liberty may have relevance to the current internal struggles of the Muslim world, said a U.S. expert on church affairs.

Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told a Rome conference Jan. 17 that internal pluralism exists in Islam and “this is good news.”

“It’s good news for Islam that there are competing traditions and voices and interpretations of what ‘jihad’ might mean and how it might be applied,” he said.

He cited the emergence of courageous Muslims who speak about the options of nonviolence in Islam, about democratization and about acceptance of a pluralistic society.

It’s a long process, but this kind of internal debate ultimately opens up alternatives to violence, he said. Ultimately, he said, demographic and economic pressures favor the pluralists in the Islamic world.

Appleby’s speech detailed the internal evolution within the Catholic Church that led to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (“Dignitatis Humanae.”) That document said religious liberty is a human right and that people should not be forced to act in a way contrary to their beliefs.

Appleby noted that an 1832 encyclical by Pope Gregory XVI described religious freedom as “madness.” But dialogue continued in the church, and the Vatican II decree can be described as the product of internal pluralism at work, he said.

“By any reasonable assessment, ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ was a striking reversal, by which the church abandoned its previous claims to political privilege, renounced the theocratic model of political order, and laid the groundwork for its new role as global proponent of religious liberty and universal human rights,” Appleby said.

The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, also featured speeches by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and James Towey, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Cardinal McCarrick said two fundamental premises of “Dignitatis Humanae” were the dignity of the human person and the proposition that constitutional limits should be set on the powers of government to prevent encroachment on religious freedom and practice.

He praised a succession of steps by the U.S. government and Congress to protect religious freedom at home and abroad.

But, responding to a question, the cardinal also identified a new danger to religious freedom in the United States: legislative attempts to impose on church institutions “that which we cannot morally do.”

“I see this as a growing threat,” Cardinal McCarrick told the Rome audience.

He said one example was trying to oblige Catholic hospitals to offer abortion procedures; another was an effort to require church agencies to provide spousal benefits to unmarried employees.

In Maryland in 2003, Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal William F. Keeler of Baltimore promised to go to jail rather than obey a law on sex abuse reporting that would have required priests to break the seal of confession.

Towey argued that the concept of a strict separation between church and state in the United States is often exaggerated. He pointed out that the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is not found in the U.S. Constitution, but in a letter of Thomas Jefferson — a man who, two days after writing the phrase, attended Sunday church services in a federal building.

Towey said the constitutional clause saying there should be no law respecting an establishment of religion did not mean to install “ruthless secularization” in society.

He said the Bush administration has rightly moved away from the banishment of anything religious from the public square, while respecting four important principles: no favoritism, no discrimination, no funding of inherently religious activity and no coercion.

Originally published by CNS Reporter (from Catholic News Service) at on January 19, 2006.