This past June 1, the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to make a "plea for enlightened moderation" to his Islamic brethren around the world.
Deploring "the devastating power of plastic explosives . . . [and] high-tech remote-controlled devices" and "the proliferation of suicide bombers," General Musharraf went on to concede that "the unfortunate reality is that both the perpetrators of these crimes and most of the people who suffer from them are Muslims."
That very same day, the Rome-based ZENIT news service, reporting on an interreligious conference in Qatar, noted that the head of the committee for dialogue with monotheistic religions at Cairo's Al-Azhar university, Sheikh Fawzy Fadel Al-Zafzaf, had told the conference that "Islam is a religion of peace that respects human life."
Is President Musharraf right and Sheikh Al-Zafzaf wrong? Or is the Pakistani general wrong and the scholar from Al-Azhar right? Perhaps the answer is that both are right, at least to some degree.
To Musharraf's credit, he squarely faced the hard fact of the matter: the overwhelming majority of terrorist mayhem in the world is committed by Muslims, who all too often cite religious motivations and religious legitimation for their deeds.
Sheikh Al-Zafzaf is right to remind his Catholic listeners that the murder of innocents is not commanded by the Qu'ran. But what is to be done about those Muslims who insist that their terrorism is divinely warranted?
Public authorities have one set of responsibilities in the face of Islamist terrorism. What about religious leaders? Can interreligious dialogue contribute anything to the struggle against terrorism?
I think it can, if the dialogue is conceived strategically. If interreligious dialogue decays into merely another form of political correctness, Catholics will be of little assistance to those Muslims who want to challenge the Islamist radicals.
"Enlightened moderation" in the Islamic world, of the sort President Musharraf envisions, will not be advanced if Catholics, fearful of giving offense, give their Muslim interlocutors a pass on the tough questions.
Our Muslim dialogue partners must know that, just as they would expect us to condemn Christians who claim divine sanction for terrorism, we expect them to condemn Islamist radicalism on explicitly Islamic grounds.
By the same token, Catholics should try to help Islamic religious leaders, scholars, and lawyers develop an Islamic case for the acceptance of pluralism, for a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics, and for the other basic elements of what we call "civil society."
The great question for Islam as a culture-forming religion - a question whose resolution will shape a lot of 21st century history - is whether Muslims can develop a genuinely Islamic case for civility amidst diversity in society by drawing on their own sacred texts and legal codes.
It is arrogant to expect a billion Muslims to become good secular western liberals; it's also foolish, because they're not going to do it.
The question is not whether the West can help facilitate a version of Fr. Neuhaus's "naked public square" in the Islamic world. The question is whether Islam, within its own scriptures and history, has the resources to support those Muslims who want to build modern societies around the conviction that it's God's will that we be tolerant of those who have different understandings of God's will.
What do Catholics bring to that discussion? We bring some recent history. It took the Catholic Church until 1965, in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, to articulate a Catholic theory of pluralism and tolerance. More than 150 years of robust (and often fractious) argument preceded the Declaration.
Surely Catholics learned something from that experience. Perhaps that something could be of use to our Muslim interlocutors as they try to forge a development of social doctrine, as it were, in their own religious tradition.
That's the strategic purpose that should shape Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the 21st century: to help Muslims develop an Islamic case for the civil, tolerant society.
"Jaw, jaw is better than war, war," Churchill famously said. But the "jaw, jaw" must be purposeful, if it's to help prevent "war, war."
That's why it's time to start thinking of interreligious dialogue in frankly strategic terms.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Lay ministers: Rise to the challenge at parishes
As a new member of our parish council I was given a book to read by our chairperson, John.
The book is entitled Excellent Catholic Parishes by Paul Wilkes. It is a 2001 publication of the Paulist Press and a great source of inspiration for the Catholic laity of all ages.
Reading about parishes from every area of the country leaves me with a feeling of wonder that there are so many ways to interpret Christ's command that we serve Him by serving one another.
Seniors like myself sometimes have a problem feeling good about the future of the church. Maybe it's because we lived through the lush days of pastors with two and three assistants and flocks of nuns to staff the schools and hospitals.
Today we are feeling the pinch of fewer priests and religious and even combining parishes to stretch those we have. Where, oh where, are the Bells of St. Mary's parishes today?
Well, take heart! Parishes all over the country are rising to the challenge by utilizing their rich untapped resources: the people.
Our pastors today may not have any ordained assistants, but instead they have dozens of lay ministers.
According to Wilkes, there are already thousands of well educated laymen working in parishes and more than 30,000 in training when this book was published three years ago.
They have earned degrees in theology, religious education, and parish administration as well as social justice and counseling and liturgical studies.
One of the most unusual parishes I read about is St. Francis of Assisi in Portland, Ore. The administrator is a woman! She is Valerie Chapman, a divorced mother of six, who was well trained for her role. She has a master's degree in education with an emphasis on religious education with healthy doses of sociology, psychology, and theater arts."
If that seems unusual, so is the constituency of her parish, which serves so many homeless people that it has a shelter and a guard for their shopping carts. They live the Gospels of social justice by feeding over 300 homeless every day in their St. Francis Dining Hall.
"There was a time when our progressive liturgy was emphasized because it was innovative and popular," Valerie says.
"We had to grapple with the question: Is that who we really were?
"We saw that without contact with the poor, we were turning into an elitist club. How we meet Christ in one another - beginning with the people who come to our dining hall - really what is important.
"This faith community has grown to see that faith is more than an hour on Sunday morning. That dining hall is a holy place, and when one of the guests comes in RCIA and into the fuller life of the parish, it is cause for great celebration."
Another parish described by Wilkes is St. Pius X in El Paso, Texas. I was especially impressed with the answer given by their pastor, Fr. Banuelas, when he was asked if there was a priest shortage there.
He replied, "Yes and no. Yes, in that people might not be anointed before death by a priest, or a priest might not take the casket to the cemetery, or their classes might not be taught by a priest.
"No, there is no priest shortage because the mission of the church becomes more credible when laypeople are also the leaders . . . Laypeople don't have the restrictions clergy do; they are everyplace. That is why this is a very creative time in the church and a most exciting time to be a priest . . . because the priesthood is multiplied time and time again out in the world by our parishioners."
I cannot help but think that this is an exciting time to be a layperson in this Madison Diocese as well. This month we will see the first class of deacons ordained in our diocese.
Twenty men have completed the intensive formation required for ordination. They will be able to assist our pastors with the overwhelming responsibilities of funerals, weddings, baptisms, and sermons, to name a few of their ministries.
It is a great time to be a Catholic whose life spans six or more decades.
"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.