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Dialogue touches on role of religion in society, impact on common good
Catholic News Service photo
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, fourth from left, look on April 10 during the
Catholic News Service photo
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, fourth from left, look on April 10 during the "Faith, Culture and the Common Good con ference at Georgetown University in Washington. The program was part of a Vatican-sponsored "structure for dialogue between believers and nonbelievers" called the Courtyard of the Gentiles. Other Courtyard events have taken place in Mexico City and aroun d Europe. 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — In the first U.S. rendition of a Vatican-sponsored dialogue project at Georgetown University April 10, conversations touched on the role of religion in society, raising questions about when the combination is healthy for the common good and when it is not.

The Courtyard of the Gentiles, a structure for dialogue between believers and nonbelievers initiated by Pope Benedict XVI, played out at the Jesuit-run university with two diverse panels of academics and activists, interspersed with smaller conversations among an even more diverse audience and bracketed by a concert and a theatrical performance.

Opening the plenary session, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, pointed to two sayings that set the tone for the discussion that followed: The opening line of 16th-century poet John Donne's work, "No man is an island, entire of itself"; and the call by Jesus to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

Speaking in Italian, Cardinal Ravasi observed that the quote from Jesus, even in the Scripture passage's original written language of Greek, is "smaller than a tweet," the 140-character form of social communications typically followed on cell phones.

He also repeated a Jewish rabbinical saying that when people mint coins, they all come out the same. But when God makes everyone in his image, they all come out differently.

Cardinal Ravasi's remarks led into a wide-ranging discussion among panelists representing several faith traditions about how the common good is sometimes enhanced and sometimes adversely affected by the interactions of religious institutions and government.

Columnist Michael Gerson, an evangelical who was a speechwriter and adviser to President George W. Bush, told of returning that morning from the Central African Republic, where he'd gone in connection with his role as an adviser to ONE, a bipartisan organization fighting extreme poverty and preventable diseases.

He said he found the situation there frightening because the conflict with faith-based overtones, in which thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, arose in a very short time in a country with a long history of peaceful interfaith mingling.

Gerson said he was particularly struck upon learning that in addition to attacks on Muslims by militias portrayed as Christians, children of interfaith marriages are being targeted for murder. Aid organizations, working in collaboration with Christian and Muslim leaders, were evacuating such children, he said.

As the world observed the 20th anniversary of genocide in Rwanda, in which as many as 1 million people were killed in a politically motivated slaughter primarily of ethnic Tutsis by ethnic Hutus, Gerson said he was reminded that the multicultural and multifaith society of the United States is fragile and requires lots of work.

"There is something natural in favoring your family, your group, your tribe above others," he observed.

The common good requires a set of social circumstances that "allow everyone to flourish," Gerson said.

Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who focuses on secularism and atheism, among other topics, told of a visit to a public school science fair the evening before by way of illustrating what he considers a healthy combination of faith and "non-faith."

At the school in the Maryland suburbs, where an old friend's third-grader had a project on display, he said there was the usual assortment of cardboard posters on food dyes, earthquakes and volcanoes.

"I also saw people wearing yarmulkes, people wearing crucifixes, people wearing head scarves," he said. There was diversity of racial and ethnic groups, a range of skin colors and many different languages were spoken.

"There we all were, but it was a secular space," Zuckerman said. "No religion was privileged." And people of various faiths as well as people of no religious faith at all were participating on an equal footing.

Problems arise, he said later, when a particular religious faith is linked with nationalism, as is the case in many countries where a state religion becomes entwined with political power.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, secretary for health care and social services for the Archdiocese of Boston and a professor in religion and public life at Harvard University, said the balance of faith, culture and the common good depends much on how well a society accepts the common good as a goal.

Enshrining the right to religious freedom in a country's constitution only goes so far, he said. "If it's not a part of the culture, you will have disorder."

"The common good is about a society that recognizes the whole is greater than the parts," Father Hehir said. "Not to subordinate the individual, but it must provide a series of 'goods' if all are to flourish."

Saba Mahmood, an associate professor of sociocultural anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley, whose work focuses on secularism and religion, particularly Islam, said the Muslim Public Affairs Council maintains that the real threat to religion is not from secularism. Rather, she explained, the danger lies in religious nationalism, because that leads to atrocities like those in the Central African Republic and Bosnia. She said she has been struck by how similarly religious nationalism plays out in dissimilar countries.

"Demonization of 'the other'" is practiced in the name of religion and in the name of secularism, she noted.

Previous iterations of the Courtyard of the Gentiles have taken place around Europe and in Mexico City. The name comes from an ancient tradition of the Temple of Jerusalem, where the Courtyard of the Gentiles was a place where Jews and non-Jews would meet to debate questions about the nature of God and human existence.

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