Church leaders could yet shape global politics

The missing ingredient in the search for peace is forgiveness, argues Father Dermot Lane , in advance of another historic meeting…

The missing ingredient in the search for peace is forgiveness, argues Father Dermot Lane, in advance of another historic meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi

On Thursday, an international gathering of leaders of the major religions in the world will take place in Assisi, Italy. The purpose of the meeting, convened by Pope John Paul, is to provide an opportunity for religious leaders to pray for peace in the aftermath of the traumatic events of September 11th, 2001. The last time a meeting of this kind took place in Assisi was October 1986. The events of September 11th have added a particular poignancy to next Thursday.

For some time Hans Kung has been arguing that there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and no peace among the religions without dialogue, and no dialogue among the religions without attention to theological foundations.

Inter-religious dialogue has moved to the centre of the theological stage and is no longer an option but something intrinsic to the nature of Christian faith. To be religious in the future will require that one be inter-religious. The study of another religion is a helpful way of appreciating one's own religion.


The events of September 11th have made an indelible mark on both political and religious consciousness right across the world.

From a political point of view, new international alliances have been established in the struggle against terrorism. Whether military might against terrorism in a world of global injustices is the best way of ensuring "peace" is questionable.

What is disturbing about the attacks on America is the association of religion with acts of terrorism. The use of terms such as "holy war", "martyrdom", "heavenly reward" and "God" to justify these and other acts of terrorism brings religion into disrepute. When one religion is diminished all religions are diminished.

It is wrong to condemn the Islamic religion because of the evil acts of a few claiming to be Muslims. Muslim leaders around the world have condemned these evil acts. The Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin issued a joint statement recognising the contribution of the Muslim community in Ireland at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment was surfacing on our streets. The visit of the Taoiseach to the Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh was also a welcome corrective.

Significant advances have been made in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue since the Second Vatican Council. A new awareness exists that the birth certificate of Christianity contains a Jewish address, that Christianity cannot be understood without an appreciation of Judaism, and that in the early decades of Christianity Jews and Christians prayed and worshipped together.

Developments have also taken place in the Christian-Muslim dialogue. The encounter between Christians and Muslims recognises the shared patrimony that goes back to Abraham. Broad agreement exists concerning the unity of God, an appreciation of Jesus as prophet, and a special regard for Mary the mother of Jesus. Substantial differences, however, continue to exist among religions.

For Christians Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate, the unique mediator between God and humanity, and the Saviour of the world. At the same time inter-faith dialogue will help Christians see how the Spirit of God is active in other religions and how other religions present themselves as ways of salvation for their followers. Within this dialogue between the religions there is a need for theological humility. No religion can claim a monopoly on the mystery of God because there is always more to learn: "if you have fully understood, then it is not God" (Augustine). Religions in dialogue have the potential to forge a new religious imagination that could revitalise the relation between faith and the society.

In his Peace message on January 1st, 2002, John Paul emphasised that there can be no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness. We are familiar with the link between the peace and justice, but less accepting of the place of forgiveness in a world that is increasingly unforgiving. Justice is an important step on the difficult road to reconciliation.

Without forgiveness there is merely coexistence, whereas with forgiveness comes trust and the building of community; it is forgiveness that disarms and transforms. We in Ireland know this difficult truth in the context of the Troubles in the North. The Good Friday agreement has faltered because there has been little political forgiveness and insufficient ecclesial forgiveness.

Is it possible that the meeting in Assisi next Thursday could convince the world about the importance of forgiveness in bringing about peace and justice? Is it conceivable that the religions of the world could initiate a process among themselves that would lead to mutual forgiveness? Is it feasible that the religious leaders united in prayer and witness at Assisi might influence the course of local and global politics? We can at least hope.

  • Dermot A. Lane is president of Mater Dei Institute of Education, a college of DCU, and parish priest of Balally, Co Dublin