Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Dialogue of Cultures

In his address at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI made an argument whose crucial import was obscured by the unproductive media furor that followed his speech. Pope Benedict argued: "While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons…. Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

Our world is characterized by a dizzying array of cultural conflicts. The news from Iraq that greets us every morning reminds us of the deep cultural conflicts between the West and the various Islamic cultures of the Middle East . Other cultural conflicts manifest themselves in the various efforts to secure basic human rights across the globe. And then there is the cultural crisis in Europe, where the Church, led by Pope Benedict, attempts to keep Europe from forgetting its Christian roots and sliding ever more deeply into secularization. This is not even to mention the deep cultural divides within our own polity, and even, most regrettably, within the Church Herself.

The solution to such widespread division, Pope Benedict urges us to realize, is a reconciliation of Christian faith and natural human reason that conceives of the latter according to the full capacities of its freedom; that is, as open to a reality that transcends the empirically verifiable. Only with such a conception of reason, Pope Benedict concludes, will human beings become capable “of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.” The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, concerned by the deep cultural divides that characterize so much of our world, found inspiration in Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address, and decided to devote its eighth annual fall conference to the theme: The Dialogue of Cultures. One of the key purposes of this conference was to help restore the richness in the notion of dialogue itself, which too often has devolved into a cultural cliché.

The conference opened on Thursday evening with the first of two conference plenary lectures, given by The Most Reverend Elias Chacour, Archbishop Metropolitan of the Melkite Catholic Diocese of Acco, Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee, and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame at the 2006 commencement ceremonies. Archbishop Chacour’s lecture was entitled, “The Role of Religions in Promoting Dialogue.” There, he challenged the conference audience to think more deeply about what it means to pursue a meaningful cross-cultural dialogue aimed at a truly Christian peace.

The second plenary session took place on Friday evening, featuring George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and author of, among many other books,Witness to Hope, the authorized biography of Pope John Paul II. Mr. Weigel’s lecture was entitled, “Reading Regensburg Right.” Other distinguished speakers included Notre Dame professors Alasdair MacIntyre, who delivered a lecture entitled, “How to be a European: Questions for Tariq Ramadam,” and Ralph McInerny who delivered a lecture entitled, “Aristotle and St. Thomas: A Model for the Meeting of Cultures?” We were also proud to host talks by Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., Professor of Oriental Theology at St. Joseph’s University, Lebanon, and Director of the Center for Arab-Christian Documentation and Research, who spoke on, “Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address: A Project of the Universal Dialogue of Cultures, Especially with Islam,” and Wael Farouq,
Professor of Islamic Sciences, Coptic-Catholic faculty of Sakakini, Cairo, delivered a lecture entitled, “Beard, Neqab and Dialogue: Bridging the Gap between Reason and Reality.”

In a fitting close to the conference, The Most Reverend John M. D’Arcy, Archbishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, presided at the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, after which the conference was concluded with a festive banquet. It has become a tradition at this celebratory dinner to close with informal topical remarks by a special guest. This year, Rev. Saad Sirop Hanna, a Chaldean Catholic priest, offered reflections on the importance of a genuine and peaceful dialogue among cultures in his home country of Iraq. On August 15, 2006, Father Hanna, then the head of the theological faculty of Babel College, the Christian University of Religious Studies in Baghdad, was kidnapped after celebrating Mass and held in captivity. Pope Benedict XVI appealed publicly for his release, which occurred on September 11th. Father Hanna’s witness to the possibility and importance of such dialogue was particularly powerful in light of his personal experience with hatred and persecution.

We hope the conference helped many of us to understand more deeply what is required for a genuine dialogue of cultures rooted in truth and aimed at peace. Once again, we would like to express our gratitude to the Maas Family Endowment for Excellence, as well as the Strake Foundation, for making possible this tremendous experience.