Dialogue was the topic Monday at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Sisterhood’s 55th annual Interfaith Institute.
The event, which featured a panel discussion from Rabbi Andrew Busch; Rosann Catalano, a Catholic and senior staff scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies; Sanaullah Kirmani, Islamic scholar and advisor to Muslim students at Towson University; and Rev. Chris Chantelau, pastor of Divinity Lutheran Church in Towson, analyzed the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, one of the most important events in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church.
In addition to allowing for services to be conducted in languages other than Latin, the pivotal gathering of thousands of bishops from around the world from 1962 to 1965 redrew the church’s relationship with other religious groups, including the Jews. Notably, in “Nostra Aetate,” a document that emerged from the gathering, revoked the allegation of deicide against the Jewish people.
“In one brief, dense paragraph, the Roman Catholic Church overturned 2,000 years of teaching,” Catalano, the event’s keynote speaker, told the packed crowd in BHC’s Straus Social Hall. But today, she warned, much of that progress is at risk of being lost.
With much of the world’s Jewish population confined to just a few places in the world, and with the Catholic Church growing steadily in many parts of the globe where there are no Jews to put a human face to the religion, Catalano told attendees, the perception of Jews among the world’s Catholics could easily shift back to include anti-Jewish aspects.
Chantelau agreed, saying that many people in his own congregation have very few acquaintances outside the Christian faith.
“Baltimore is the kind of community where it’s incredibly important” to engage in dialogue between different faiths, echoed BHC’s Busch, adding that the Jewish people have a responsibility to reach out and engage with people of other faiths as well. “We learn [the lessons of our ancestors] by continually going back to the discussion.”
Attendees ran the gamut of religions and included a dozen students bused in from Mercy High School.
Kirmani applauded the Vatican II council’s acknowledgement of Islam as an Abrahamic religion, but observed that the religion has long faced a challenge in its ability to define itself. It took a long time for real Muslim voices to be heard over the numerous scholars and experts in the field of religion fighting to define Islam, he said. And today, with radical extremists dominating headlines all over the world, mainstream Muslims again find themselves fighting to be heard.
“Learn from the other who the other is.”
For Chantelau, the difficulty in dialogue comes in relation to his own religion’s hierarchical structure. Unlike the organized, tiered configuration of the Catholic Church, the lay people — who vote on the church’s position on all major issues — hold a major portion of the power in the Lutheran Church, he said. As such, the official positions of the church often reflect more the popular opinions of the day rather than the religion’s own theological teachings or scripture, he explained, pointing to his own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s position on Israel, in which the church essentially sides with the Palestinians.
“We like to be in dialogue,” he said. “But there’s some confusion, really, in those positions.”
During a break for lunch, attendees discussed the topic of interfaith relations in groups of fewer than 10.
“It’s difficult to have a dialogue when you’re so isolated in your own congregations,” observed Pat Collins, a Presbyterian attendee.
Panelists faced questions that ranged from how to balance the discussion of similarities with the acknowledgement of differences to how politics influence religious relations.
“Learn from the other who the other is,” suggested Catalano. “Our cities are in chaos because we don’t know how to live with differences. Our world is in chaos because we don’t know how to live with differences.”