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CURIA-POUPARD Mar-13-2006 (820 words) One in an occasional series. With graphics posted Feb. 8 and photos March 13. xxxi

Culture is key to interreligious dialogue, says Vatican official

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Culture is the key to engaging in dialogue with people of other religious faiths and those who profess no religious beliefs, said the head of the Vatican's councils for culture and interreligious dialogue.

Through culture, Catholics can reach out to those in their communities and discuss the importance of basic human values, French Cardinal Paul Poupard told Catholic News Service in an interview before he was named interim president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue March 11. The cardinal has been president of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 1988.

Culture is not just about colorful local customs, culinary specialties, or what hair or clothing styles each new generation of young people have adopted; "culture is the soul of a people," he said.

It includes how people see or define concepts such as "love, suffering, the 'Weltanschauung'" or the overall perspective from which one interprets the world, he said.

Pope John Paul II created the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982 with the aim of helping the world's cultures encounter the message of the Gospel. He named then-Archbishop Poupard head of the new council's executive committee, then president of the council six years later.

The 75-year-old French cardinal has written hundreds of articles and scores of books on everything from Galileo Galilei to the history of the world's religions. His works have been translated into dozens of languages, even Armenian and Chinese, he said as he thumbed through the rare editions.

The library and living room walls in his Vatican residence are packed ceiling to floor with books. Souvenirs from his many travels sit on whatever surface is not covered by a book.

The soft-spoken cardinal said cultures have enormous power over people and can either support a person's faith in the divine, weaken it, or be indifferent to an individual's religious beliefs.

Communist culture in the Soviet Union, for example, promoted "a culture of opposition in which a whole arsenal of laws were made to destroy faith," he said.

But cultures that are indifferent to religious beliefs seem "allergic to Christian values," he added.

The dominant culture may not try to destroy Christianity outright, he said, but it may "promote an image of the world in which there is no place for God." It may even propose its own set of values to override the beatitudes, so instead of "blessed are the poor and the peacemakers," it glorifies wealth and violence, he added.

The cardinal said the culture council was established "to help the church realize this reality and to reflect on the fact that (a particular) culture is not something that's given just once and for all but changes" over time and across communities. He said becoming more cognizant of where one's values come from can help people adhere to values that uplift human dignity.

Cardinal Poupard said the council for culture already has been promoting interreligious dialogue on a local level through Catholic cultural centers. The centers, run by local parishes, regularly hold cultural initiatives about a new book, film or social problem.

He said there are thousands of Catholic cultural centers in the world -- nearly 300 alone in Milan, Italy. The cultural gatherings are enormously popular and draw people from every faith or even no faith at all, he said.

The centers that have had the most impact are those in countries that are predominantly Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, he said. In these centers, he added, the church has the opportunity to talk about values that are important to Christianity.

He said in many Muslim countries "it's the Muslim intellectuals who call up the priest, asking, 'Father, when is the next debate?'"

"This is very important because it means (the center) is seen as a place of free exchange, and this way one participates in an indirect, but deep way," in discussing how people see the concepts of "man, women, the family, work, culture and Christian values," he said.

"In every culture, just like in every person, there is a battle" between tendencies that will either help a person or hurt people and "harm human dignity," he said. Culture should be what "helps man live with more humanity," he said.

The culture council also has made enormous strides in ecumenism, especially with the Russian Orthodox Church. He said his discussions with Orthodox leaders over the years often have focused on similar challenges about how to "carry on the faith in today's new cultures" of secularism and indifference.

He said the culture council has been able to make many inroads in ecumenism "because in the area of culture, there is no opposition," no issues that provoke contrast or conflict.

END


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