ROME – Beginning Thursday, the Vatican will be hosting an interfaith conference with the aim of mobilizing religious support for implementation of the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals,” a set of 17 goals and 169 targets aimed at helping the world’s poor as well as the environment.

Sponsored by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the event’s title is “Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Listening to the Cry of the Earth and of the Poor,” and it’s set to take place March 7-9.

In addition to an all-star lineup from the Vatican, representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Sunni Court of Saida in Lebanon, as well as exponents of Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, and African aboriginal perspectives will all take part.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who leads the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said at a Vatican news conference Tuesday that the aim of the conference isn’t to trace the development of the SDGs but to “marshal the moral force of religion behind their implementation.”

“We need to work together,” Turkson said, “for no source of wisdom can be left out, just as no one can be left behind!”

Sister Sheila Kinsey, who helps lead a joint “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation” commission for the main Rome-based umbrella groups of men’s and women’s religious orders said the hope is to act on “Pope Francis’s pastoral program for change” as expressed in his 2015 encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato si’.

While we await the concrete outcomes of the gathering, three before-the-fact observations suggest themselves.

Synod preview

In some ways, the gathering this week could offer a sneak peek of many of the themes likely to surface in October, when Pope Francis convenes an Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops devoted to the Amazon region.

Press coverage of that event is likely to concentrate on whatever it says about the viri probati, meaning the idea of ordaining tested married men to the priesthood in order to serve isolated rural communities. Debates over married priests in the Catholic Church are almost irresistible from a media point of view, and participants in the looming synod have already said the subject will come up.

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However, at least in Francis’s mind, that’s almost certainly not the heart of the matter. Instead, the pontiff is summoning the meeting because he believes the Amazon contains some of the world’s most impoverished and marginalized peoples, and it also symbolizes the threats to the environment posed by what he would consider an especially rapacious and short-sighted model of development.

In that sense, whatever surfaces at the interfaith conference this week could well end up helping to shape the agenda of the bishops’ summit in October – which, in turn, could influence the social and political priorities of this papacy for some time to come.

Francis’s model of dialogue

This week’s conference is also a classic example of Francis’s model of both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in action. The idea is to steer clear of sterile doctrinal and theological debates, which have been picked over for centuries and proven remarkably intractable, in order to focus on shared humanitarian and social values in the here-and-now.

That’s been Francis’s approach to relations with other Christian churches, symbolized by his partnerships with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the first among equals in the Orthodox world, on matters such as Israeli/Palestinian peace and the fate of migrants and refugees. It’s also a trademark of his approach to relations with other faiths, where usually the theological difficulties are even more insuperable.

Critics, however, might object that by shifting the focus from theology to what amounts to politics, Francis simply has swapped one set of dividing lines from another.

For sure, there’s nothing in principle that prevents a Catholic and, say, a Jew or a Muslim from collaborating in the fight against climate change. The reality, however, is that not all Catholics, Jews and Muslims have the same view on that issue – some in each tradition regard it as an urgent priority, while others in each camp see it as a distraction or even a Trojan horse for an alien worldview.

In other words, the pope’s action-oriented understanding of dialogue may relativize confessional boundaries at the price of enhancing ideological divides. It’ll be interesting to track this week, for instance, whether there are any climate change skeptics or defenders of free-market capitalism from any of the religious traditions on hand.

The importance of the sisters

Tuesday marked the second and third times, respectively, over just a two-week span in which someone representing the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the main confederation of women’s religious orders, has occupied a prominent spot on the Roman stage.

During the pope’s Feb. 21-24 summit on the clerical sexual abuse scandals, one of the keynote addresses was delivered by Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, who sits on the UISG executive board. Afterwards, she and other members of the board staged a news conference that received wide coverage.

On Tuesday, the UISG headquarters in Rome was the setting for an event sponsored by the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations as well as the Vatican embassies of Great Britain and Peru to mark the UN-designated “International Women’s Day.”

Also on Tuesday, Sister Sheila Kinsey, an American Franciscan nun, took part in the Vatican news conference presenting the interfaith conference on the SDGs.

Kinsey ticked off several principles she said form the foundations of the meeting:

  • “Time is greater than space.”
  • “Our unity prevails over conflict.”
  • “Realities are more important than ideas.”
  • “The whole is greater than the part.”

This new-found prominence for nuns in general, and for the UISG specifically, marks a significant change from the climate not so long ago, when it was difficult for officers of the UISG to be invited to Vatican events or even to obtain meetings with popes or Vatican officials. At least to some extent, it’s a reflection of Francis’s efforts both to empower women and also to heal perceived divides between the Vatican and religious orders.

It will be interesting to see how the UISG responds to its new entrée – whether it will maintain the critical edge that long led officialdom to hold the group at arm’s length, or whether it will decide that pushing discreetly for change from the inside is a better strategy than doing so vocally from the outside.