Conference organized by European People’s Party
Working group on intercultural and interreligious dialogue
European Parliament, Strasbourg
16 May 2017
Intervention by Rev. Dr. Manuel Barrios
Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue
Spanish Bishops’ Conference
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour for me to participate as speaker in this conference on “the peace
potential of religions” here in Strasbourg, during the plenary session of the European Parliament. I thank very much the European People’s Party, its Working Group on Intercultural and Religious Dialogue for this opportunity. I find it very appropriate and praiseworthy for a political group to engage in a structured and regular dialogue with Churches and religious representatives, as the EPP does. Churches and religions have much to offer to the political community in the way of insights, values, world views, solidarity, spiritual renewal, which are so much needed in our world. A world that is in agony and threatened by many things. My name is Manuel Barrios. I am a catholic priest and I a work in the Spanish Bishops’ Conference since 2011 as director of the Secretariat for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
I want to argue in this brief speech that religion, when it is authentically lived and taught, not only nurtures peace, but it also enhances humankind, making persons and communities more genuinely human and full. The reason for this is that the human being, as the Bible teaches, is made in the image and likeness of God, that is, he has an inherent transcendent dimension, he is open to the Ultimate Reality in his very being. His very nature, as the existentialists say, is to ex-ist, to exist outside himself, in reference to the Other. This is what Saint Augustine also expresses in his famous quote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”.
It is true that today many people, mainly in the West, don’t think this way. What they have seen and learned in the social sciences, in the media, and in public discussion brings them to consider religion as dangerous and as a hindrance to human development; as something that promotes or gives grounds to fanaticism, terrorism, bigotry, superstition and that threatens basic human rights, like freedom of conscience and equality between men and women. Many, to avoid this danger, lobby to reduce the presence of religion in the public sphere and use the means at their disposal to discredit religions and religious leaders. Obviously, I don’t believe this. I believe that religion is inherent to the human person as such and if well practiced brings him to fulfil his potentialities.
But let’s go back to the initial question: What is the peace potential of religions? What can we do to enhance it? What can the religions offer to our world? To answer this I will make a brief reference to Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt a few days ago and his speech at the University of Al-Azhar and also to the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic of the Parliament of World Religions.
But first it is important to state one basic principle that is of paramount importance for world peace. It is the fundamental human right to freedom of religion. Though this might seem to us self-evident, it is not so. For the religious minded person it is difficult to accept that another person does not adhere to what he considers the Truth, with capital letter. For him this Truth is the most important thing in his life, it is a Truth that is valid for everyone, it is a Truth that has directly to do with eternal salvation, therefore he feels he has the duty to lead others to it. Accepting religious freedom as a fundamental human right, a right that implies that someone can choose a different truth, might be difficult to recognize for him. It was difficult for the Catholic Church. The path that brought finally to the declaration on religious freedom of the Second Vatican Council was not easy. This document was promulgated in the last session of the Council after much discussions and clarifications, and it was not accepted by all. The path undertaken by the Catholic Church has to be undertaken by all Churches and religions if we want peace. Accepting religious freedom does not imply that men and women are not obliged to seek truth and once found to adhere to it; it means that this obligation falls and exerts its binding force upon the human conscience and cannot be imposed by external coercion.
In his speech in the university of Al-Azar in Cairo, Pope Francis spoke of Egypt as the
land of civilizations and the land of covenants. He spoke of the importance of education and the quest for true knowledge, for wisdom. He taught that in interreligious dialogue one has to put together respect for one’s own identity, the courage to accept differences and sincerity of intentions. He said that the only alternative to the civilty of encounter, fostered by good education, is the incivility of conflict. In relation to the role of religions he said: “especially today, religion is not a problem but a part of the solution: against the temptation to settle into a banal and uninspired life, where everything begins and ends here below, religion reminds us of the need to lift our hearts to the Most High in order to learn how to build the city of man… Sinai reminds us above all that authentic covenants on earth cannot ignore heaven, that human beings cannot attempt to encounter one another in peace by eliminating God from the horizon, nor can they climb the mountain to appropriate God for themselves”.
In relation to the image of Mount Sinai, pope Francis spoke of the ten commandments that were promulgated there. He quoted Pope John Paul II who, in his Jubilee pilgrimage to Mount Sinai in the year 2000, said: “The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical Lord. They were written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place. Today as always, the Ten Words of the Law provide the only true basis for the lives of individuals, societies and nations. Today as always, they are the only future of the human family”.
Here, I gather, is where the great peace potential of religions lies. Beyond engaging in interreligious dialogue and religious leaders giving example of friendship and cooperation, beyond the defence of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion and conscience, beyond declaring the sacredness of human life against every form of violence, beyond praying for one another and imploring from God the gift of peace, beyond doing all we can to eliminate situations of poverty and exploitation – all things that are very necessary – religions can offer and are called to offer a spiritual renewal that our world desperately needs, a change in the hearts of people, a change based on the “binding values, convictions and norms which are valid for all humans, regardless of their social origin, sex, skin colour, language or religion”, as the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic states.
According to this proposal of a Global Ethic Project*, it is possible to define a set of “binding values, irrevocable standards, and personal attitudes” that are common to religions, without ignoring the differences between them; in other words, it is possible to arrive to a minimal fundamental consensus on a set of core values and attitudes we all share. These can be summarized in the six ethical principles of a global ethic: humanity, the Golden Rule, non-violence, justice, honesty and partnership between men and women.
Keeping alive this sense of global responsibility based on these values and passing it on to future generations, promoting peace, justice, truthfulness and partnership, is the special task of religions and their main way of contributing to peace.
Thank you very much!
*According to the Global Ethic Project, If we take a close look at world religions, we
find in them similar ethical teachings. Common to them is that every human being must be treated humanely and that we must do good and avoid evil. A basic principle that is found in many religions is the golden rule: what you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others. From this basic principle there arises a set of guidelines that are also common to religions. Namely:
- Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life, in accordance with the commandment: “You shall not kill!”; or, positively expressed: Have respect for life!
- Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order, in accordance with the commandment: “You shall not steal!”; or, positively expressed: Deal honestly and fairly!
- Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness, in accordance with the commandment: “You shall not lie!”; or, positively expressed: Speak and act truthfully!
- Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women, in accordance with the commandment: “You shall not commit sexual immorality!”; or, positively expressed: Respect and love one another!