Neither Fear nor Fiat: Christian and Muslim Theology in Harmony

One of the themes emerging from the Vatican Synod on the Family is the importance of making sure that the pastoral works of the Church (doctrine, sacramental ministry, counsel) embrace the lived experiences of family life today. Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Canada, reporting for one of the French-language small groups, addressed the need to respond to contemporary realities in the pastoral care of the faithful. His remarks, in part, were reported by the Vatican Information Services on October 14:   “Shared pastoral experiences lead us to see that in the Church, speaking about families means speaking about a human reality that is inscribed in time and in space. … Every family has its genealogy that entrenches it in a history and a culture. … This complexity is the place and the occasion for the manifestation of the mystery and the mercy of God. We wish to express our hope that the Synod will open up a period of patient seeking by theologians and pastors with the intention of establishing the correct directions for family pastoral ministry, translating the horizon of the family to a horizon of communion. We are less in need of adaptations of universal discipline than a solid basis for reflection and pastoral commitment”.

In contrast to Durocher and like-minded Synod Fathers, there are also calls for a maintenance of traditional doctrine and penitential practices. Some of these calls are tinged with fear for the future of the Church. The fear can be heard in sentences that begin, “What would happen if the Church…?”

Talk of a pastoral response that conforms itself to the lived experience of the faithful has an interesting inter-religious parallel. The same theme was taken up by a large group of Muslim scholars last year in an open letter to ISIS. Professor Lofkranz, Visiting Associate Professor in our History and Global & Regional Studies Departments, recently shared the findings of this letter in a campus forum on the European refugee crisis. The pertinent part of the letter is the fifth of twenty-four arguments: “It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings.” The explanation follows.

“Practical Jurisprudence (fiqh al-waq’i): What is meant by ‘practical jurisprudence’ is the process of applying Shari’ah rulings and dealing with them according to the realities and circumstances that people are living under. This is achieved by having an insight into the realities under which people are living and identifying their problems, struggles, capabilities and what they are subjected to. Practical jurisprudence (fiqh al-waq’i) considers the texts that are applicable to peoples’ realities at a particular time, and the obligations that can be postponed until they are able to be met or delayed based on their capabilities. Imam Ghazali said: ‘As for practicalities that dictate necessities, it is not far-fetched that independent reasoning (ijtihad) may lead to them [practicalities], even if there is no specific origin for them.’ [Al-Ghazali, Al-Mustafa fi Usul Al-Fiqh, (Vol. 1, p. 420).]”

“Open Letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri and the Fighters and Followers of the Self-Declared Islamic State,” by 126 Sunni Imams, [2014]. http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/14/english-v14.pdf

The comparisons intended between the Synod and the open letter are the common exhortations to listen to the ‘signs of the times’ and to shape doctrinal and pastoral responses according to what was heard. There is practical wisdom here. Contemporary culture has moved beyond a one-directional hierarchy of authority with teachers whose fiat leaves no room for dialogue. Religious authorities, moreover, cannot serve their adherents or the world with justice when they work from fear of change, which is the antithesis of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

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