Washington — The U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs announced Feb. 8 that it is launching a new National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, and Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich has been named its first Catholic co-chairman.
"As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and goodwill," said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, who is chairman of the committee.
For over two decades, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' ecumenical and interreligious committee has co-sponsored three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues, and Rozanski said the time is right to begin a national dialogue.
"Our current dialogues have advanced the goals of greater understanding, mutual esteem and collaboration between Muslims and Catholics, and the members have established lasting ties of friendship and a deep sense of trust," he said in a statement.
He also thanked Cupich for agreeing to represent the USCCB "in this crucial conversation." The Chicago prelate's tenure as dialogue co-chair will begin Jan. 1, 2017.
The current regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues are:
- The mid-Atlantic dialogue, which partners with the Islamic Circle of North America.
- The Midwest, which partners with the Islamic Society of North America.
- The West Coast, which partners with the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, Calif.
Each is co-chaired by a bishop and a Muslim leader from the corresponding regional organization.
According to a USCCB news release, the three dialogues will continue to meet and "will work collaboratively with the members of the new national dialogue."
The release noted that establishment of a new Catholic-Muslim dialogue follows a 2014 statement from the ecumenical and interreligious committee stating that the Catholic Church remained committed to dialogue with leaders of other religions and Muslims in particular.
It said the church's mandate to engage in dialogue with Muslims comes from "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
The document "states unequivocally that the church urges its members to 'enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.'"
Regarding Islam, the council document said "the church has also a high regard for the Muslims" and that despite centuries of conflict urged "that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding."
The bishops' committee statement said that "Nostra Aetate" "has been consistently upheld by recent popes."
"Sadly, in recent years, there has been a deliberate rejection of this call to engage in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters by some in the Catholic Church and in other ecclesial families," the 2014 statement said. "We understand the confusion and deep emotions stirred by real and apparent acts of aggression and discrimination by certain Muslims against non-Muslims, often against Christians abroad.
"We, and increasingly our Muslim partners in dialogue, are concerned about these very real phenomena," it continued. "Along with many of our fellow Catholics and the many Muslims who themselves are targeted by radicals, we wish to voice our sadness, indeed our outrage, over the random and sometimes systematic acts of violence and harassment -- acts that for both Christians and Muslims threaten and disrupt the harmony that binds us together in mutual support, recognition, and friendship."
At the same time, the statement said, "it is our belief that the most efficient way to work toward ending or at least curtailing such violence and prejudice is through building networks of dialogue that can overcome ignorance, extremism, and discrimination and so lead to friendship and trust with Muslims."