Rahman's Rights; Lutherans in Rome

Afghan Case Points Up a Wider Issue

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, MARCH 30, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI recently appealed for the life of an Afghan who was facing the death penalty for having converted from Islam to Christianity.

An Afghan court subsequently dismissed the case against Abdul Rahman, who on Wednesday was offered asylum by Italy.

The Pope's plea on Rahman's behalf also appealed for respect of religious freedom worldwide. That plea was strongly seconded by Monsignor Felix Machado, the undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In an interview prior to Italy's granting of asylum, Monsignor Machado told me that he encourages acts of solidarity with Rahman from Catholics in keeping with the Church's mission of promoting freedom of faith.

"Rahman has been set free by the law but there might sometimes be illegitimate elements that will want to harm him," he explained. "Therefore, I think his appeal for help of this kind should be responded to with generosity and through this case we may truly see how religions can collaborate for the greater good of humanity and peace in the world."

The monsignor emphasized that religious freedom is an issue that goes beyond the recent case in Afghanistan.

"There are too many who suffer the affliction of religious oppression," said the member of the Roman Curia. "The release of Rahman is very good news. Not only in an isolated manner, but also for the situation of the globe, as it may help spread good news and assist others to think more openly along these lines."

Monsignor Machado says it is a fundamental calling of all people of good will to promote the right of every human to choose and practice his own religion.

"While limitations can come from groups of people trying to impose their ideas on the rest," he said, "that must be resolved by calling people to dialogue."

"Dialogue is based on building up trust and confidence … many times when there is no dialogue, there is no trust," the monsignor continued. "And when there is no trust, people don't listen. And when people don't listen, the few that want to impose their way of looking at things tend to win -- and that's sad."

The monsignor recalled a message of Pope John Paul II on what our response should be: "He said: Religions shouldn't become obstacles in the way of peace. They shouldn't become part of the problems, but rather prove that there are real and peaceful solutions."

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Ecumenical Pilgrims

Benedict XVI comes from the land of Martin Luther, the man who helped to trigger the Protestant Reformation.

Today, almost 500 years later, those whose ecclesial roots go back to the Germanic lands are working to seal the gaps and heal the wounds that have opened within Christendom over the centuries.

Last week saw an example of this when delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ECLA) passed through the Eternal City on an "ecumenical" tour of Europe. While here, they presented to Benedict XVI an icon of St. Augustine.

The Reverend Lowell Almen, ECLA secretary, said the group found the Rome visit inspiring, especially the stop at St. Peter's Basilica. There they realized the great amount of prayer that has been offered on that site, almost unceasingly, since before the fourth century.

"It's a lesson in the continuity of the Church and the faithfulness of people," the minister told me, "as well as to the Gospel throughout the generations."

He said the members of his group were here because "ecumenism is obviously a matter of churchly enterprise and endeavor."

"It involves theological study and commitment," he said. "But another dimension of ecumenism is personal -- in developing mutual understanding and mutual trust."

To build that understanding, the delegation met with Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

"This kind relationship and contact has been going on for a number of years," said Lutheran Bishop Roy Riley of New Jersey. "More recently, we were privileged to have Cardinal Kasper come to Chicago in part as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the joint declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification."

While Cardinal Kasper spoke with the group about ecumenical developments, the ECLA took the chance to bring him up to speed on the relationship between the two denominations in the United States.

The Reverend Almen reported: "The U.S. Roman Catholic and Lutheran dialogue has been going on now for 40 years and has yielded some very significant results."

This year the two sides already have completed the 10th round of talks on the theme of the Church of salvation, its structures and ministries. The talks focus on some of those issues identified in the annex to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Catholic-Lutheran relations have also developed at the grass-roots level.

"In Camden, New Jersey," Bishop Riley explained, "the second poorest city in the state, the Roman Catholic diocese and the Lutheran diocese there have worked hard together to provide a witness and advocacy for people who are living in poverty. The relationship between Lutheran social services and Catholic Charities can be crucial."

Nevertheless, the ecumenical road isn't easy. Certain questions continue to divide the two sides, from theological matters to ministry issues.

Still, ECLA feels it has an obligation to "do what they can to address those questions and to pursue deeper mutual understanding for the sake of the Gospel and in faithfulness to Christ," said the Reverend Almen.

"We recognize that as Lutherans, only half a millennium has passed," he said. "But, here in Rome, in Istanbul, London and Geneva, we can feel the thousands of years of being involved in the history of one, holy, catholic/universal and apostolic Church. It represents an opportunity to deepen our awareness and pass it on to generations to come."

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Scott Hahn on Pope's Theology

As one of the world's great theologians, Benedict XVI bases his every action on a "unitive approach."

This is according to Scott Hahn, who has been in Rome teaching a course on "The Theology of Pope Benedict" at the University of the Holy Cross.

Hahn, who holds the Benedict XVI Chair at St. Vincent College, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, says we can turn to the Holy Father's trademark combination theology -- exegesis with dogma, the Old and New testaments, etc. -- to find the key to each move he makes in his pontificate.

A recent example of this was the fusing of two pontifical councils into one -- that of Culture with that of Interreligious Dialogue.

"I think," Hahn said, "there's a common misperception that would see the move of putting the interreligious dialogue under culture as something that might diminish the importance of interreligious dialogue, as though unity isn't a priority for this Pope."

The contrary is true, says Hahn. "In fact, the move may be based upon a penetrating insight that Pope Benedict has sustained for decades in his own research or writing."

"This is," the professor explained, "that in the West, we have such a separation between religion and culture. And we don't have an easy time understanding other cultures -- not only African, but the Arab and Asian worlds as well."

As Benedict XVI based much of his study on St. Augustine, Hahn turns naturally to the Augustinian concept when he reflected upon ancient Rome that "Culture is an expression of cult."

In the West, Hahn added, "you have a secularized culture that is divorced or devoid of religion in the name of freedom, falsely so-called. …

"If you look at what he's been writing for decades, you will see how, in fact, Pope Benedict's capacity to understand cultures in religious terms, and religions as an inner-cultural expression, would have naturally inclined us to accept this sort of move. And in this move, I think the Pope is going to enrich and deepen ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, not diminish it, much less trivialize it."

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