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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Reflections of a Legionary in Hong Kong
Fostering the art of convergence and cooperation among religious traditions

UN Conference Group on Religious Cooperation

Br. Michael Baggot, LC

As a Correspondent of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights, my long title recently gained for me the unique opportunity to participate in the Chair’s Third International Conference of Bioethics, Multiculturalism and Religion in Hong Kong from December 3-5 at the Hong Kong Baptist University and the December 7, 2013, opening ceremony of its Second Bioethics Art Competition at the Gallery by the Harbour of the Harbour City Shopping Mall.

The event gathered medical, legal, physiological, philosophical and theological experts from 13 countries and 7 religious traditions to discuss the relationship between universal human rights and cultural diversity in life sciences, based on article 12 of the UNESCO Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights.  The Hong Kong conference follows two previous international workshops on “Bioethics, Multiculturalism and Religion” that were held in Jerusalem (2009) and Rome (2011).

Fr. Joseph Tham, LC, a Hong Kong native and professor of Bioethics at Regina Apostolorum University, devoted ample time and effort to coordinate the enriching week.  I was graced to travel from my home in Rome, Italy with three other Regina Apostolorum professors, namely, UNESCO Chair Director Alberto García, Dean of the Faculty of Bioethics Fr. Gonzalo Miranda, LC and Professor of Philosophy Fr. Alex Yeung, LC.

As a professed religious in training for the priesthood, I am accustomed to living with likeminded Catholics.  I had never before spent extended time with such a culturally and religiously diverse group of individuals and was deeply moved by how quickly we were able to create a collegial, even familial atmosphere among the participants.  Although we dedicated hours to intense discussion in the UN-style Council Chamber of the Hong Kong Baptist University, we gladly continued our stimulating conversations over shared dinners and visits to the city.  A 13-hour plane flight from the West to the East brought me to discover not only fellow scholars, but new friends.

During our brief workshop, the UNESCO Chair mission -- “fostering the art of convergence and cooperation in global bioethics” -- became a lived reality.  Each of the sessions treated the understanding of human rights within a particular religious tradition.  After an introductory lecture and two short prepared responses, we engaged in a spontaneous hour-long conversation open to all of the attendees.  The mature discussion allowed us both to confront honestly and respectfully the differences that separate us, and to discover the authentic shared values that unite us.

We worked to dispel the prejudices, stereotypes and ignorance that can hinder constructive cooperation as fellow members of a human family searching for a common good.  Our
UN Conference Group on Religious Cooperation
meeting thus promoted the mutual understanding that is essential to fruitful collaboration in a pluralistic and globalized world.

In each religious tradition, I found admirable elements of truth, goodness and beauty that resonated with my own Catholic faith.  As the Second Vatican Council reminded us in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the great world religions “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (Nostra Aetate 2).  During the conferences and during guided tour with a Buddhist nun at the Chi Lin Buddhist Temple, I perceived the authentic spiritual longing of the tradition to transcend the material concerns that have consumed countless prisoners of consumerist societies.  The Confucian emphasis on family as the central unit of society was a welcome antidote to certain individualistic tendencies promoted in a misguided exaltation of liberty.  In Daoism, I encountered a great sensitivity to the harmony of all of creation that seems to find parallels with the Catholic longing for a new creation of Heaven and Earth so beautifully portrayed in the apse of San Clemente and other Roman basilicas.  Hinduism admirably seeks purification and spiritual liberation from the transitory goods of the world to achieve that union with the divine that alone can satisfy the infinite longings of man’s restless heart.  Islam, with its clear reverence for the Transcendent God, rightly invites men to shape their lives according to the sovereign will of the Source of their very being.  In Judaism, I met my elder brothers of the faith and witnessed their commitment to God who remains ever-faithful and continues to guide His people through the Word that is light for our feet and a lamp for our path.

During our discussions, we often spoke of hearing concepts that were new, yet mysteriously familiar.  Beneath diverse language or cultural expression lay hidden a shared value that awaited mutual discovery and appreciation.

While my interaction with the different traditions increased my respect for their praiseworthy aspects, I knew that our differences were more than mere words, customs, or religious garb.  Along with my increased respect for the other traditions, I left Hong Kong with a more profound gratitude for my own Catholic identity.  In particular, I am grateful for the Church’s heritage
UN Conference Group with a Buddist Nun
UN conference group meeting with a Buddist nun
of reflection on the natural moral law and the gift of the Magisterium.

The long tradition is beautifully summarized in the recent International Theological Commission document, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law, which highlights man’s capacity to perceive the moral order and thus to identify the goods that will fulfill the human nature he shares with all other men, regardless of racial or cultural differences.  This shared sense of the moral goods common to all men provides the foundation for a universal ethical language that can guide relations within a particular society or even at a global level.   Thomistic thinker Jacques Maritain, a principal author of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, insisted that a human rights discourse based on an understanding of natural moral law could promote a peaceful interaction between nations that had recently engaged in brutal violations of human dignity during the horrors of the Second World War.

While the Church has long been a public champion for the capacity of human reason to discover moral truth, she agrees with other religious traditions in the insufficiently of reason alone to assess moral behavior.  She trusts in the revelation of God to reveal to man the splendor of truth about the moral life that cannot be reduced to a cold adherence to abstract norms and values, but as fundamentally a relationship with God culminating in the joys of eternal life.  Since the revelation first entrusted to the Apostles must shed light on new cultural, scientific and economic developments, Christ founded a Church with the authority to definitively discern how to interpret authentically the deposit of faith and morals in any given age.

When significant diversity of opinion in each of the major religious traditions roused our discussions, numerous workshop participants recalled that no final authority existed in their respective religions.  One participant even noted the impossibility of pontificating on moral issues.

I could not help but reflect on how grateful I was that there is one man in Rome capable of “pontificating” definitely on moral issues so as to give the faithful guidance in their moral life.  The Magisterium of the Church, far from representing an imposition of cold absolutist norms without due regard for changing circumstances, is actually a living servant of the revealed Word of God that assures the eternal truth of God’s revelation is properly applied to the changing situations and needs of each era.

I am deeply grateful to the UNESCO Chair for the opportunity to take a small part in their bold and noble mission of “fostering the art of convergence and cooperation in global bioethics.”  Moreover, I eagerly await the 2014 international conference at the Anahuac University in Mexico City from November 10-13, where I will have the chance to deepen my friendship with the Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians who seek to promote and defend the dignity of the human person.



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