SOME 700 Christian and Jewish leaders from 97 countries met with leading scientists and academics here last week to discuss modern social and scientific challenges for today's religious leaders.
``Never has man been so close to being a partner with God in creation nor has he had as much power to do good as harm,'' says David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland. That is the raison dtre of the unprecedented conference he helped organize.
Participants ranged from Indian nuns and Brazilian rabbis to well-known leaders of the religious world. They included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from the Vatican, widely considered a representative of conservative Roman Catholicism; the Most Rev. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the Anglican Church in Great Britain; and Rabbi Rene Sirat of France, president of the Conference of European Rabbis.
This ecumenical event came in a favorable context: A peace process is going on in the region, and in December, Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations. But it was harshly criticized by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment in Israel as an unnecessary contact with the Christian world.
Not surprisingly, the ethical questions raised by the advance of biotechnology dominated the debates.
The complex relationship between science and moral principles is not a new theme. ``500 years ago, the French writer Francois Rabelais was already saying that `science without a conscience spells doom for the soul,' '' Mr. Sirat says. ``We religious leaders must recognize that our scientific knowledge is limited and that the religious answers lag far behind scientific progress.''
Jose Maria Cirarda, the Catholic archbishop of Pamplona, Spain, attended a workshop on the beginning of life and another on bioethics. ``It is the first time that I've heard such clear and accessible exposes by scientists,'' he says. ``And it's also the first time that I have listened to a rabbi explain the Jewish definition of the beginning of human life. For him, it is when the fetus has a human appearance; for us, it starts at the moment the ovule has been fertilized. But I value above all how the scientists here refuse to take a moral stand and turn to us, clergy, to give the ethical answers.''
This call from the scientific world for moral guidance was emphasized by Prof. Patricia Baird, who directs genetic research at the University of British Columbia. ``We must ask ourselves how we will use our increasing scientific knowledge. Some of the new technologies are beneficial, but if they are misused they represent a danger for the social fabric. It is necessary to look for an international and global ethic. We scientists ... both need to listen and to talk,'' she says.
Professor Baird has experience in doing the latter, having led a recent Canadian Royal Commission of New Reproductive Technologies whose final report to the Canadian government is called ``Proceed with care.''
In order to seek advice before passing legislation, several governments have created similar ethical committees in which religions leaders have participated. Sirat was, for example, a member of the French one.
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan and frequently mentioned as a possible future pope, sees the job of morality consultant as an integral part of contemporary religious leadership. ``We [religious leaders] must put a human face on problems that are treated by technicians, politicians, or other secular leaders. Religious leaders should always be ready to bring the ethical, moral dimension and the dimension of faith public policy debate,'' he says.
Contemporary society challenges both Jewish and Christian leaders. Their answers might be different, but ``we are building here a network of friendship and cooperation that we will be able to use,'' says the Rev. Hans Reitzel, a Presbyterian pastor with long experience in Morocco.
The responsibilities of religious leaders in ethnic and nationalist conflicts were addressed in the debates particularly, because ``the images religions give of themselves are those of fundamentalism, ultra-orthodoxy, exclusion and rejection,'' Sirat laments.
Many references were made to the current situation in the former Yugoslavia and more generally to the ethnic problems that have arisen with the end of the Soviet empire. As testimony to the participants' good will and awareness of the dangers lying ahead, they signed a ``Scroll of Tolerance.''
The signing of such a document in Jerusalem is remarkable. The city, holy to three major monotheistic religions, has seen many more chapters of its history covered in blood and religious hatred than enlightened by the ecumenism displayed at the conference. Some participants regretted that it was only a two-way encounter between Christians and Jews. The third component of the religious triptych, the Muslim clergy, was unfortunately absent.
``The idea is to extend this type of encounter to all sons of Abraham and even beyond,'' Rabbi Rosen says. ``But there is an objective political reality which makes it impossible to bring Muslim religious leaders here [to Jerusalem] and we must walk before we can run.''