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Too Many Homilies Cloud Spiritual Path to Peace

RELIGIONS FOR PEACE: A Call for Solidarity to the Religions of the World; By Francis Cardinal Arinze; Doubleday: 146 pp., $17.95

April 13, 2002|ZACHARY KARABELL | Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Scandals over sexual abuse are rocking the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Ever-rising ethnic and religious tensions in places such as Kashmir and Israel/Palestine are engulfing entire regions in hate. And the religious undertone of terrorism and the war on it remains ominously unresolved. In that context, now is a good time for a leading cleric to make the case for how religion can create a better world.

Cardinal Francis Arinze is one of the highest prelates in the Catholic Church. Born in Nigeria, he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1985, and he now heads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Innocuous as that sounds, it is a bold new venture for the Vatican. The notion of an organized interreligious dialogue dates only to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, and Arinze has been a recent leader of the church's efforts.

"Religions for Peace" is a series of essays on the problem of world peace and what religion can do to promote it. It comes with ringing endorsements from Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, from the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and from the secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. And it promises to show "what the various religions can actually do to promote peace."

Rather than offering a path to peace, however, Arinze presents a compendium of homilies: "War does not lie primarily in armaments or missiles. It arises from the human heart"; "the effort to build peace has to be sustained, while resisting discouragement and fatigue"; "justice is a necessary foundation for peace." There is absolutely nothing objectionable about these statements. Their truth is so self-evident that almost no one, of any culture, would disagree, but without tethering them to the more complicated world as it is, they can sound hollow.

The Vatican may reflect the will of the divine, but it is also a multifaceted bureaucracy attending to the lives of a billion people. No matter how senior or how holy, bureaucrats speak in generalities when they speak in public. And Arinze uses the vague language that bureaucrats have always used.

In subtle ways, however, Arinze points to some of the more intractable issues underlying his call for peace. He enjoins everyone to embrace religious pluralism and to engage in dialogue with other faiths. Only through interfaith understanding and compassion, he says, can we avoid wars of absolute truth against absolute truth. But he cautions that some people are more appropriate to carry on this dialogue than others. "Interreligious dialogue is ... not for those who are problem children in their faith communities....It would be a mistake to allow such doubters into the arena of interreligious dialogue."

In churchspeak, this is a strong statement. Peace is enhanced by interreligious dialogue between true believers, not by argument or discussion between academics or politicians. A devout Muslim should represent Islam, while a devout Catholic should represent Christianity. Only they are connected to the importance of God, to the demands of prayer and to the knowledge that there is a greater power than human will. That is a stance that some could argue with, and perhaps that is why the cardinal takes so few of the stances.

Though Arinze presents multiple examples of interfaith dialogue, of prayer activities to end war and of the role of the faithful in calling for peace, he does not adequately tackle the link between religion and war. He mentions it but dismisses it as a false problem. True religion, he says, abhors war. Therefore, any who use religion to justify war and violence are not truly religious. That is a convenient answer. It may also be a true answer. But it is, like much of what he writes, too pat to be a useful answer.

It's impossible not to celebrate the sentiment expressed in "Religions for Peace." At the same time, if the best the Vatican has to offer is homilies, a call for prayer and more interfaith dialogue, Arinze fails to show why such things are imperative.

Others have written eloquently about prayer and dialogue as powerful forces for world peace and have not sounded simplistic.

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