National Catholic Register


‘A Vital Force for Goodness and Peace’

An Irish cardinal on the power-and-abuses of religion

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM


Cardinal Daly has long been a champion of peace. Each year Cahal Cardinal Daly retired archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland chose World Day of Peace celebrated January 1 to address themes related to peace and reconcilation. He said he was called to be “a bridge-builder, a minister of reconcilation.” While on a recent trip to Auschwitz, Poland, for a conference entitled “Religion and Violence, Religion and Peace,” he spoke with

Luxmoore: Last month you joined several dozen senior Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders at the formerAuschwitz concentration camp for a conference on “Religion and Violence, Religion and Peace,” organized by Sacred Heart University's Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. What were your impressions of this unprecedented interfaith event?

Cardinal Daly: First, it brought together a remarkable gathering of representative and significant people from the respective communities, and it took place in a positive spirit. Personal friendships were formed in three days between people who had never met before and would ordinarily never have done so.

I believe an important step has been taken towards better interfaith relations. The contributions by Muslim representatives—many of whom feel left out of the dialogue, or are unwilling to enter into it—was a special feature.

The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding has come of age with this conference. It has extended its outreach into the various religious communities and become more convinced of the need to pursue its contacts with ever greater courage. In this way, it has witnessed the value of the initiatives it first took five or six years ago.

The 30 listed addresses at the conference included keynote expositions on the roots of peace in the New Testament, Torah, and Koran, as well as speeches setting out the contrasting perspectives of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Churches. There are now plans to publish the proceedings as a textbook for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim seminaries.

Besides this, we also hope to develop more detailed study guidelines. In a world which is becoming smaller, thanks to growing mobility and migration, we all need to understand the faith traditions of others. Religion is a vital force for goodness and peace, but it can also be a destructive force, when basic tenets are misunderstood, sometimes by their own professed adherents. So the more we understand each faith's real doctrines, as distinct from their distortions, the better. And there's no way of arriving at that understanding without meeting, listening, and sharing with people who are fully committed to their own faith.

The conference's organizer, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, paid tribute to the sensitivity to Jewish concerns shown by three participating Catholic cardinals—you, Franciszek Cardinal Macharski of Krakow, Poland, and William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore. He also praised the mea culpa articulated at the Vatican under John Paul II, most recently in last March's Reflections on the Shoah. Yet local tensions are still widespread between Christians and Jews. In Poland, recent months have witnessed renewed Catholic-Jewish disputes about religious symbols here at Auschwitz. What can be done to ensure the positive results of this leadership dialogue filter through to public attitudes?

There was a remarkable degree of consensus that relations between the Catholic Church and world Jewry have improved beyond recognition in the past 20 years, defying all expectations. And yes, there was also particular admiration for the Pope's own work.

Jews feel understood and respected, but all the great world religions have precisely the problem you mention. There's either apathy and indifference towards that kind of [interreligious] sharing, or there's active opposition to it. As for those who assembled here, some were veterans of interfaith dialogue, whereas some were new to it—particularly among our Islamic brothers, who were less accustomed to this kind of discussion. But we all came away with the realization that we need to work harder, according to our abilities, to sensitize people to the need for dialogue and prepare them for it.

Religious tensions haven't only flared in interfaith relations. In the Balkans, Christians have killed Christians; in Algeria, Muslims are slaughtering Muslims. The New Testament and Koran both expressly forbid religiously motivated violence, yet political agitators and demagogues often claim a quasi-religious justification. Isn't that the experience of your native Ireland too?

I heard echoes in the conference discussions of the kind of difficulties we've had in Ireland, particularly in situations where religion has come to be associated with conflict. The feature common to all such cases is suspicion and lack of trust for “the other.”

As Professor Martin Marty of Chicago University pointed out, insecurity like this is a force for fundamentalism. It arises when people attempt to withdraw back into their own communities, to what they regard as their own certitudes, seeing these as the glue which holds their world together and will cause it to fall apart if allowed to soften. This basic sense of danger and distrust fuels fundamentalism, which leads indirectly to conflict. This is why we all came away committed to developing trust, as well as genuine understanding and respect for each other's traditions.

After what I experienced here—the mutual respect shown by people of different faiths—it would be a scandal to tolerate the idea that Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, who belong to the same Christian faith, can't reach the same degree, or an even greater degree, of mutual trust, and can't show a common determination to build a shared future together. Please God we won't have to tolerate it.

Yet the skepticism looks certain to continue. In Northern Ireland, as in the Balkans, critics say, religious leaders have often pledged their dedication to dialogue. But in real situations of conflict, their practical influence has usually been minimal. Hasn't the time come for religious leaders to give their peace commitment a more political face?

We were clear that we have to maintain a clear distinction between the Church and politics. We aren't politicians. But it's true that, indirectly, in the broad sense of politics, our message is for this world—not just about it, but for it, because God has ordained that we live in the world. Many examples were cited of how religion has had an impact on political decisions.

There was a general agreement that the strongest, loudest voices being heard today for human rights, which are the fundamental condition for peace and justice, are Church voices. This was a crucial factor in the peaceful change from communist totalitarianism to democracy. And today, confronted with the increasingly serious challenge of practical materialism and neo-capitalism, the voices for human rights are again coming from the Church. This impact of religion on society is more necessary now than ever.

The Pope has made the need for metanoia, conversion, and atonement a key theme of preparations for the coming millennium. He's called on the Church to acknowledge the sins and errors committed in history by its members. Do we really stand on the threshold of something new?

There was a great deal of talk about this. Cardinal Keeler outlined John Paul II's program in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, drawing particular attention to its inter-Church and interfaith dimensions. This mood of expectation was often echoed at the conference. It's always dangerous to engage in rhetoric about a “new dawn”—we must be realistic. But there was a genuine sense that we could indeed be entering a new era.

Perhaps that sense of hope reflects the location of your meeting. Jews made up 90% of the estimated 1.5 million people who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers at Nazi hands. But the victims also included tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims too. It's a Jewish cemetery first and foremost, but also the place of destruction of all human civilization.

The setting of this conference was all-important. The experience of coming together at Auschwitz-Birkenau was over-powering. Indeed, it's almost impossible even to speak of it—what's there to say in the face of this immense evil? And yet there was also a strong conviction that the greater that evil's destructive power, the greater must be our faith, and our constantly renewed commitment to ensure it cannot and will not be unleashed again.

What happened here won't be forgotten, but it should also be remembered without bitterness. We must always be aware of the potentiality for evil which exists in our human nature, but we should also remember that this is counterbalanced by the potentiality for good — a good which was so much in evidence in the atmosphere during our three days here.

Jonathan Luxmoore