"Gaudium et Spes" at 40; Mulling Over Islam

At Conference, Families Are at the Fore

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, MARCH 24, 2005 (Zenit.org).- At a three-day conference hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the document "Gaudium et Spes," families took center stage.

A session last Friday at the event marking the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council pastoral constitution featured a presentation by Helen Alvaré, associate professor at the Catholic University of America.

Alvaré spoke about the Church's decision to "become a champion of marriage and family life through such documents as 'Gaudium et Spes,'" and what that decision meant.

Saying that the themes and concerns sounded in the 1965 document "have proved quite prophetic," Alvaré hoped to "show forth the wisdom of its reading of the state and importance of the family in the modern world."

Among her most striking observations was "that 'Gaudium et Spes' describes the problems confronting the family as flowing from misguided understandings of 'freedom.'"

It was "precisely in the name of such misguided 'freedom' that the disfiguring of the family proceeded in the decades following this document," she said.

She cited examples including "no-fault divorce;" legal recognition of premarital and cohabitation agreements; abortion promoted as "women's ticket to equal entrance into the public square and to great sexual freedom;" and new reproductive technologies.

Alvaré noted that freedom as understood by "Gaudium et Spes" incorporates more respect for the weak and vulnerable. She added: "The elite have left a terrible family legacy for the poor to suffer disproportionately."

This point seemed to be shared by some delegates at the recent U.N. conference on women, which I attended in New York.

They echoed Alvaré when she says that the poor and minority groups have "reaped the whirlwind" of the "alternative" family forms such as cohabitation and single parenting, "first championed, then abandoned by the mostly wealthy." The poor, Alvaré noted, have far fewer resources to recover from their choices.

Another theme shared by "Gaudium et Spes" and the U.N. women's conference dealt with what Alvaré describes as the "unresolved story that is the entry of mothers into the workplace."

The Vatican II document, she said, was "one of the first sources to demand that societies allow women to do justice both to their responsibilities at home and their work outside the home, while unequivocally ranking the woman's contribution to the home as the 'irreplaceable' one."

She notes how it "dared to indicate that women would need what women are now demanding ... work schedules and benefits that allow them to take proper care of their families."

The topic of motherhood prompted most of the questions from the floor. This gave rise to suggestions about how parents, especially those involved in religious education, can give input to the Holy See for future documents and pastoral approaches.

Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said: "What we are doing now is an example of what is possible." But, "we have to increase these ways and means of exchanging."

He said that his council is organizing an autumn seminar on women and development, which will correspond to a new Web site where browsers are invited to make their observations, suggestions and comments.

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Seeking Common Ground

The centrality of the family in society was one of the shared points of dialogue between Catholics and Muslims in a recent series at the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas, in Rome.

This series was presented by Sandra Keating of Providence College, in Rhode Island. Since earning her licentiate in theology at the Pontifical Institute of Islam and Arabic Studies 12 years ago, Keating has visited Rome to teach in a variety of schools for its spring and summer programs.

"Many [participants] come from diverse backgrounds," she told me, "which is great because though in the past it hasn't been a 'top of the list' dialogue, it has become extremely important for where we are in our world today as we are trying hard to establish better relations with the Muslim world."

Her seminars, entitled "Islam and the Church," showed how Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

Other academics such as Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa and Daniel Ali, of the video series "Islam and Christianity," say that this growth of the Muslim population, gives Christians an unprecedented opportunity, and duty, to learn about Islam.

Keating agrees that it is vital for Christians and Muslims to understand each other's faiths, especially in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I find that often Christians are very interested in Islam but have many misconceptions," she noted. "And though it's hard to summarize a religion in a short amount of time, I try to give an overview of the theology and a bit of the history on what Muslims believe."

Keating follows this step by "examining the Church documents, especially since the Second Vatican Council on mission and dialogue and then at the end of the course I looked at Islam as a particular example of dialogue in terms of how the Church has engaged in it and where it's at right now."

Yet when discussing what ecumenical possibilities exist between the faiths, Keating says that it is dangerous to make "agreement" the primary goal of dialogue.

Rather, it should "deepen our own understanding of our own faith and the beliefs of others," she said. "When we come together in dialogue what we are trying to do is come to a better comprehension of how to adhere to the faiths of others and then be led to more deeply consider our own."

Here, Keating recommends examining the common causes and values shared between Catholicism and Islam.

She listed the importance of prayer, Marian devotions, bioethical matters, the centrality of the family, and secularization as issues that are crucial to each faith. These, she said, can form a solid basis for working together.

"This is a reason why Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church are often times treated with great respect by Muslim leaders," Keating said. "They recognize in Catholics a common people of faith."

Lejla Dimiri would agree with Keating's assessment.

The Muslim Ph.D. student says of her experience at the Lay Center: "Though I come from a multi-religious society where both Muslims and Christians live together, this is the first time I am living with Christians who actually practice their faith. A great majority of my friends are either priests and seminarians or sisters.

"We go to class together, study in the library together, and drink tea together. In other words, we share the daily experience of student life together."

Dimiri says that before coming to Rome and meeting people such as Keating, she had no idea of the richness of the Christian spiritual life.

"I have come realize this fact which has made me understand my own scriptures in a more profound way as well," she says. "If I had not had this Roman experience I would not have had a chance to grasp the Koran's praise of Christian monks for their humbleness and humility. And especially describing their attitude as they listen to the word of God: 'thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the Truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us as among the witnesses.'"

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.