Christians, Jews address society's moral challenges

March 07, 1995|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Christians and Jews meeting at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation agreed yesterday that American society must respond to critical moral challenges, but they were less sure about how.

Deane Robbins, who co-chaired the 35th annual Interfaith Institute of the congregation's sisterhood, set the agenda for the four hours of discussions. Referring to "an upsurge of crime" and other examples of modern American godlessness, she said, "The conditions call for a moral reawakening. We need to stress values."

The speakers -- who included a Roman Catholic college president, a Baptist minister and two rabbis -- were unanimous XTC on one point, that the nation is experiencing what one called "a coarsening of society," demonstrated by what passes for popular entertainment.

They said this coarseness is a symptom of moral and ethical decay.

The Rev. Marvis P. May, pastor of Baltimore's Macedonia Baptist Church, put his finger on the underlying problem for religious leaders -- the sometimes conflicting solutions they advocate. "Morality and ethics come by choice," he said. "We have to choose and make decisions."

Although there was broad agreement on what makes a society moral and ethical, such as rejection of cheating and respect for integrity and individual rights, Sister Rosemarie Nassif, president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, brought up a subject that drew a collective groan from the large audience, mostly women, in Dalsheimer Auditorium.

"I'm probably shooting myself in the foot," Sister Rosemarie said as she became the first to address well-meaning people's sharp differences on abortion.

"I am strongly pro-life," she said, "but I know very good people who are pro-choice."

The college president offered a prescription for civil discourse about abortion: "We [opponents of abortion] have to begin with the premise that they [advocates of abortion rights] are very good people."

Sister Rosemarie touched off the closest thing to a debate among the panelists when she said, "It concerns me when we move from freedom of religion to freedom from religion. We are not a country without God. . . . We should be able [in the public arena] to talk about God."

This prompted a warning about prayer in the public schools from Rabbi Ira Schiffer of Baltimore's Beth Am Synagogue. A member of a minority religion, such as Judaism, or even a person with no religion must never be made to feel "a foreigner in his or her own land," Rabbi Schiffer said. "Atheism does not equate with unethical living."

Sister Rosemarie listed five "paths to values" -- the family, religion, education, politics and the media.

Among contemporary experiences of home life, she said, are "the traditional family, the single-parent family, the single-sex family, the dual-custody family, the welfare family and the inner-city family."

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