Promoting dialogue between faith traditions

Times Staff Writer

A new institute established at Loyola Marymount University will try to heal centuries-old wounds between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Huffington Ecumenical Institute was officially launched last month, boosted by a $5-million pledge from philanthropist Michael Huffington that will be matched by the university over several years.

Huffington, 59, a member of the Orthodox Church, said he wanted to “bring orthodoxy and Catholicism closer together” so that they would ultimately be able to share Communion together in a church.


“What they believe in is so very similar, in many respects, that the differences ought to be bridged, and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Huffington said, calling himself an optimist.

The official split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches traditionally dates to 1054 and stemmed from political and ecclesiastical differences.

Differences span a range of theological issues. For example, the Roman Catholic Church sees the pope as its supreme authority on Earth. The autonomous churches that constitute Eastern Orthodoxy, such as the Greek, Serbian and Romanian Orthodox churches, consider themselves both one church and a family of churches. None is under the jurisdiction of another. Also, within the Orthodox tradition, priests can marry.

The establishment of the institute comes on the heels of Pope Benedict XVI’s November visit to Istanbul, Turkey, where he recommitted to working toward reunifying the two churches.

The institute will hold symposiums, conferences and lectures that will be open to the public and will focus on issues such as intermarriage, intercommunion and the historic split, said Jeffrey S. Siker, who is chairman of the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount and helps oversee the institute.

The institute will initially focus on just the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but it will eventually include a “broader scope” that covers some Protestant perspectives, Siker said.

“We want to try and understand each other and promote a more unified vision of the Church,” he said.

Building bridges

Building understanding among faiths was also the main theme when two Jewish and Muslim community organizations came together this month in Los Angeles to launch a program called “NewGround” -- a discussion group made up of people from both faiths -- to promote open dialogue between the communities.

The program is heralded by its leaders as “auspicious” and as “rays of hope” for the communities. Its launch has been about two years in the planning by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and even representatives of the FBI, among others, were present for the kickoff.

“We’ve worked hard to build bridges between two communities often seen as opposite,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “We share a lot of common ground.”

Members of both groups said past attempts at discussion between the Muslim and Jewish communities had often broken down because of 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, group members said they did not intend to ignore these issues, which they called the “elephant in the room.”

Villaraigosa said he hoped the program would be a model for other cities. Calling it a “difficult process,” he urged participants to actively follow up on their discussions.

“Dialogue is important, but dialogue is words, not actions,” said Villaraigosa, adding: “We define ourselves by our actions.... It’s much easier to demonize, it’s much easier to vilify the ‘other,’ than to create understanding.”

The discussion group, made up of about 18 young professionals, met for the first time at the end of February. Program participants will meet twice a month. Other discussion groups will be added later.

“We are transcending some major divisions, despite so many commonalities,” said Imam Jihad Turk, who spoke at the kickoff event, held at Los Angeles City Hall. “We cannot judge on the other side of the division. The only way to judge is to become a part of one another.”

The ceremony began with a prayer from an imam and closed with a prayer from a rabbi.

Power of religion

Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher who was awarded the Templeton Prize on Wednesday, believes that religion’s power to divide, as well as unite, is worthy of academic study. The prize, given to advance the scholarship of religion, is worth more than $1.5 million.

“We don’t fully understand why some take a whole category of people they don’t even remotely know and inflict violence by flying planes into buildings,” Taylor said in an interview.

Committing violence against others in the name of religion, he said, “gives them their own sense of their own purity, their own goodness, and they get some orientation in their lives by projecting all the evil on some enemy.”

But noting religion’s power to heal, Taylor pointed to Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, and retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu as exemplary leaders who “broke the cycle” of violence by drawing on their Christian faith.

A Roman Catholic, Taylor said his church took an important step in promoting understanding when Pope John Paul II opposed the war in Iraq.

“It’s one of the things that may help heal this rift with the Muslim world that a major Christian denomination did not go along with this kind of mindless attack, which of course, a few centuries before, we did and the popes were preaching crusade,” he said. “This time the pope was preaching against the crusade.”

Election contention

The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, has invalidated the election of a bishop in the conservative Diocese of South Carolina, which has rejected her authority.

The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, a Bakersfield priest, was elected last fall as bishop of South Carolina. His home diocese, the San Joaquin, has also rejected Jefferts Schori’s authority and in December took an initial vote to leave the denomination. Jefferts Schori decided Thursday that several dioceses had failed to submit required written consent for Lawrence’s election.

Her decision was made on the eve of a key private meeting of all Episcopal bishops in Texas that started Friday.

The church must decide by September whether it will accede to demands from leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion that it bar official blessings for same-sex unions and stop consecrating gay bishops.


Times staff writers K. Connie Kang and Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.