National Catholic Reporter ®

January 17, 2003
Vol. 2, No.21

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Optimism on the Christian-Muslim front; Papal appeal for peace; Vatican ‘note’ on politics

 “The good stories don’t make news . Dialogue is often fruitful when there is nothing, because it’s the absence of conflict. Dialogue is there to build up harmony. When everything is going well, no one speaks about it.”

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue
Before Sept. 11, 2001, a few high-ranking Catholic officials were saying that the relationship between Christianity and Islam is among the most important challenges facing the church. How Christians and Muslims interact, these leaders said, will help determine whether the world veers towards peace or chaos.

     That was before Sept. 11. Afterwards, every church official I know is convinced of the significance of the Christian-Muslim relationship, which among other things makes Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald a very important man.

     Fitzgerald, 65, was tapped in October 2002 as the new president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. As such, he is the Catholic Church’s point person for relationships with other religions, including Islam. He sat down for an interview with NCR Dec. 28, which will be part of an upcoming piece about John Paul II and Islam.

     Unlike some curial officials with little expertise in the area for which they are responsible, Fitzgerald, an Englishman, is the real deal. He is a Missionary of Africa with a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian and a B.A. in Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. From 1968 to 1978 he was on the staff of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, the last four years as director.

     From 1978 to 1980 he performed pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Khartoum in Sudan. From 1969 to 1971, he also served off and on as a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He is co-author of Catalysts: The White Fathers of Africa (Dublin, 1980, revised 1998) and Signs of Dialogue: Christian Encounter with Muslims (Silsilah Publications, Zamboanga City, 1992).

     It’s become a cliché that radical Islam has replaced Communism as the enemy of the West, and at times the dynamics do seem remarkably similar. Just as during the Cold War, today there are “hawks” who accuse “doves” of being “soft on Islam,” and we debate the wisdom of compromise and accommodation versus “peace through strength.” When George Bush recently praised Islam as a “religion of peace,” for example, Pat Robertson, a leading voice on America’s religious right, testily said that no one had elected Bush “theologian-in-chief.”

     Often enough, the hawks seem to have a point. From Nigeria to Indonesia to Pakistan, one could be forgiven for concluding that conflict, not convergence, describes the future for Islamic-Christian relations. Many Catholic leaders who live cheek-by-jowel with Islam, especially in Africa, seem skeptical about peaceful co-existence. More than one African bishop has described the situation to reporters this way: “When the Muslims are a minority, they want dialogue. When they become the majority, they want to impose shariah.”

     Fitzgerald is no Polyanna, but he’s determined not to let conflict have the last word.

     “It can seem almost impossible to dialogue with Muslims, and yet we have to dialogue,” he said. “I would not deny that there is a mood of pessimism, particularly among Western people who feel that we can’t trust Muslims. That is one of the obstacles we have to overcome in building, and rebuilding. Dialogue is something you start afresh every day. You just can’t give in.”

     This is not just a will to believe; Fitzgerald says he can point to payoff from the church’s efforts. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of these developments, since they represent the kind of concrete breakthrough that is the fruit of much patience and hard work, and that almost never makes headlines.

     For example, the International Islamic Committee for Relief, a large mainstream Muslim organization, has created something called the “International Islamic Committee for Dialogue” as a result of contacts with the Catholic Church. It’s a consultation of Muslim groups of widely differing points of view that come together to talk about the promise and peril of contact with non-Muslims. It offers a forum in the Islamic world that did not previously exist, Fitzgerald said, and in itself represents a new level of commitment to dialogue.

     Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Insitute, sometimes referred to as “the Vatican of the Islamic world,” has also created a permanent committee for dialogue with monotheistic religions, also a result of its experience of dialogue with the Catholic Church. The committee has recently reached out to the Anglican Communion and other Christian churches to initiate a formal dialogue. Fitzgerald noted that the Vatican and Al-Azhar have established a joint committee for on-going relations that meets annually, and officials at Al-Azhar have asked that the meeting take place each year on Feb. 24 — the anniversary of John Paul’s 2000 visit to Al-Azhar.

     In Pakistan, Fitzgerald said, the Pakistan Association for Inter-religious Dialogue is doing impressive work bringing Christians and Muslims together despite a very difficult social and political situation. The group recently opposed a proposal for creating a separate electoral system for Christians, arguing that Christians should play a normal part in social life rather than being consigned to a political ghetto. In northern Ghana, Fitzgerald said, a similar association is involved in a joint project to educate people about the two traditions, and they’re doing it together. Pointing to another example of progress, Fitzgerald said that American Muslims, followers of Wallace Dean Muhammed, have expressed delight in meeting the pope.

     Why don’t we hear more about such successes?

     “The good stories don’t make news,” Fitzgerald said. “Dialogue is often fruitful when there is nothing, because it’s the absence of conflict. Dialogue is there to build up harmony. When everything is going well, no one speaks about it.”

     On the Catholic side, one success story that does draw some attention is the annual “people and religions” conference sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio. In recent years the conference has been held in Lisbon, Barcelona and Palermo, and both Jerusalem and New York have been suggested as possible sites for September 2003. Some observers have criticized the event for bringing together the same people to hold the same conversations each year, but Fitzgerald offered an interesting way of responding to those complaints.

     “I don’t think you should see this as an occasion for new dialogue. I think that the new participants involved in the Sant’Egidio dialogues are the people who are listening, whether it’s in Palermo or Barcelona or Lisbon,” Fitzgerald said. “It provides an occasion for these people to tune into what is happening in the world of inter-religious dialogue. It’s like a show in a sense, an act. It’s more, of course, but it does go from place to place providing a model of how this sort of thing is done.”

     In the end, Fitzgerald acknowledged that as a professional practitioner of dialogue, he perhaps has a bias towards optimism, but nevertheless he insisted that progress in relations with Islam is possible. 

     “Dialogue is always idealistic,” he said. “The real foundation of dialogue is a willingness to allow oneself to be converted to God, to be changed. The good news is that many people genuinely have that willingness, on both sides, thank God.”

     Time will tell if Fitzgerald is right. In the meantime we can at least take comfort that Fitzgerald, who knows Islam so well, sees dialogue as something more than a pipe dream.

* * *

     That Fitzgerald and his fellow dialoguers have their work cut out for them is clear from two recent events.

     First, Cardinal Severino Poletto of Turin told his flock on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, that they cannot allow good manners to deter them from evangelizing new arrivals in Italy, especially Muslims. 

     “These brothers do not have the right to come and cancel our identity, just as we do not have the right to cancel theirs,” Poletto, 69, said. “Normally we respond to the phenomenon of immigration saying that we need to integrate, welcome, and legitimize the clandestines so that they do not live in illegality; that we must accept those who come honestly seeking bread or work, while not accepting those who come to be delinquent.”

     “But when is it ever said that we have to carry to the Muslims the proclamation of Christ, not using the logic of a base proselytism, but in obedience to the command of Christ?” the cardinal asked. “Welcoming people, Caritas, and listening centers aren’t enough; we need evangelization and catechesis.”

     Of course, nothing Poletto said is inconsistent with respectful dialogue. Yet even if the tension isn’t a logical one, some Muslims will doubtless be irked by the suggestion that they should consider changing religions in order to avoid threatening the identity of a historically Christian nation. The delicate balance between evangelization and tolerance will need constant pastoral attention, especially given the already tense atmosphere.

     That tension is well illustrated by the second event, centering on a 43-year-old Italian of Scottish origins, Adel Smith, who converted to Islam in 1987 and has appointed himself the mouthpiece in Italy for the most intransigent, pugnacious form of Islam imaginable. Italy’s mainstream Islamic organizations say he represents maybe 4 or 5 people in the entire country, but he draws maximum exposure on Italian TV because he’s willing to spout provocations, asserting the superiority of Islam and predicting doom for Christian infidels. (One Islamic leader has even suggested that he’s a creature of the far-right Northern League, because he conforms so precisely to the stereotype of the “Islamic threat” to which they love to point). 

     Think of Smith as inter-religious dialogue, “Jerry Springer” style.

     In early January, Smith appeared on a broadcast devoted to the rapport between Islam and the West. When the subject turned to Sept. 11, Smith ventured the view that the attacks on the Twin Towers were “a maneuver internal to the United States, a kind of coup d’etat.” Carlo Pelanda, editorialist for the right-wing newspaper Il Foglio, screamed “terrorist” at Smith and leapt from his seat, triggering an exchange of slaps, punches and kicks between the two men, though it didn’t seem to do much damage.

     A few days later Smith turned up on another TV show, a regional program in Verona, for a segment with the deliberately incendiary title of “Adel Smith Against Everyone,” and things turned ugly again. Halfway through the taping a group of 38 young men in black jackets from the ultra-right Forza Nuova movement burst into the studio, yelling “you’re a criminal” at Smith and hurling eggs. They then set upon Smith and his associate Massimo Zucchi with their fists, leaving both men with black eyes. Zucchi got the worst of it since Smith spent most of the two-minute and fifteen second assault hiding behind a chair. (Note: Somebody obviously tipped Forza Nuova off, since the decision to put Smith on the air was made only at 3 p.m. that day, and the studio was at the end of a labyrinth of hallways that only someone who knew the way could have found. Once again, shades of “Jerry Springer”).

     Forza Nuova is almost as much of a “virtual movement” as Smith’s radical Islamic group. It claims a membership of 2,000, and even if that number is not exaggerated, which some analysts believe it is, it’s hardly representative of broad Italian sentiment. Forza Nuova presents itself as a defender of Catholic identity, opposing abortion, calling for higher birth rates, opposing Masons and “sects,” and calling for greater state support of the church. Yet much of this seems rhetorical, largely an excuse for harassing immigrants.

     The irony, then, is that Smith and Forza Nuova are mirror images of one other. Because they attract disproportionate media interest, they produce a distorted image of Christian-Muslim conflict. One could just ignore them, except that given the way life imitates art, sooner or later their faux hatred may well lead to the real thing.

* * *

     One further news item regarding Fitzgerald. His Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue is holding a conference this week entitled “Spiritual Resources for Peace,” bringing together religious leaders from various parts of the world, such as India and Sierra Leone, to talk about how the spiritual resources of religious traditions can be tapped to work for peace. In addition to meetings, the group is to make a Thursday afternoon visit to Rome’s Jewish ghetto. On Saturday, Jan. 18, Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick will give an address, with another by Patriarch Michele Sabbah of the Latin Rite church in Jerusalem. A panel discussion will follow. These two speeches, given by men who represent legitimate religious communities, are open to the public, though sadly I suspect that whatever Adel Smith is doing at that moment will attract more interest from local TV.

* * *

     A possible new flashpoint in Christian/Muslim relations looms in April, when John Paul will beatify Marco d’Aviano, a 17th century Capuchin priest who rallied Christian resistance to the Ottoman Turks’ siege of Vienna in 1683. 

     A fiery preacher, Marco d’Aviano tapped the Polish king Jan Sobiesky as leader of the “Holy League” forces, composed of the armies of Austria, Poland, Venice, and the Papal States. Marco d’Aviano is buried in a Capuchin crypt in Vienna, and is remembered as the patron saint of a Christian Europe that defeated Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa’s dream of an Islamic empire on the continent. (His biography records that he celebrated Mass for the troops just before battle, leading them in repeated cries of “Jesus! Mary!” During the fighting, he brandished a crucifix at the Turks, shouting, “Behold the Cross of the Lord: Flee, enemy bands!”)

     To his defenders, Marco d’Aviano was a holy man of peace reluctantly drawn into war, as well as a wonder-worker and mystic. Detractors, however, ask why the pope has chosen this moment to raise up a symbol of Christian-Muslim conflict rather than of dialogue. Some Muslims may see it as an implicit call to a new anti-Islamic crusade. Perhaps the beatification is a classic case of John Paul’s instance that dialogue cannot come at the price of compromising one’s identity. (It cannot hurt that one of the primary witnesses to the Capuchin’s holiness is a Polish king).

     Information on Marco d’Aviano may be found at www.padre

* * *

     On Jan. 13, John Paul II addressed the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See (some 177 nations and international organizations have relations with the Holy See). The pope reiterated his appeal for peace, mentioning Iraq for the first time by name.

     By now, it is clear that John Paul and most of his Vatican advisors are against the idea of a “preventive war” in Iraq. In consequence, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, has been much sought after by journalists for comment. On the war, he says in a straightforward way that sometimes we have to agree to disagree, but that the shared values between the Vatican and the United States are more fundamental than any differences.

     Nicholson could take some comfort from the Jan. 13 address, because John Paul at least acknowledged that war could sometimes be a “last resort.” His previous statements over the Christmas holidays, albeit indirect, had been more absolute, calling peace “not only possible but obligatory.”

     One of Nicholson’s more interesting comments came on Vatican Radio after the papal address. John Paul had appealed for respect for international institutions and agreements: “Today political leaders have at hand highly relevant texts and institutions. It is enough simply to put them into practice,” he said. “The world would be totally different if people began to apply in a straightforward manner the agreements already signed!”

     Nicholson was asked by the Vatican Radio host how he squares this with the U.S. track record under President Bush of refusing to join the Kyoto Accord, pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and declining to acknowledge the new International Criminal Court. His response was deft: the pope, he said, was speaking not of these matters, but of Iraq and North Korea and their refusal to live up to international agreements. In that sense, Nicholson argued, the pope and Bush were saying the same thing.

     That’s adept spin, though how far it reflects what the pope actually had in mind is open to debate.

     In order to further make the case for the U.S. position, Nicholson is organizing an event for early February in which the conservative American Catholic writer Michael Novak will be invited to explain how the Catholic “just war” theory might be applied to justify a preventive strike against Iraq. Though plans are still being made, the event should take place sometime over the days of Feb. 8-10.

* * *

     On Thursday, Jan. 16, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a “doctrinal note” entitled “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” It reflects the outlook of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the congregation, whose views on the intersection of faith and politics I examined in my book Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 2000).

     Ratzinger’s chief concern, and it is of long standing, is stated up front: “A kind of cultural relativism exists today. … As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principle of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.”

     Catholics, Ratzinger argues, enjoy a legitimate freedom in choosing among various solutions to specific political problems, but are never free to ignore basic moral values reflected in church teaching. Catholics must be “morally coherent.” 

     From there, Ratzinger moves on to the predictable applications of this idea, insisting that Catholic politicians may never support abortion, euthanasia, scientific research that involves the destruction of embryos, divorce, same-sex marriage, drug use or prostitution. Catholics must support freedom of choice in education, religious freedom, and an economy at the service of the human person and the common good.

     Ratzinger’s language on war and peace is especially interesting.

     “Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned. Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. Peace is always ‘the work of justice and the effect of charity.’ It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders.”

     While this is certainly not in contradiction with the recent anti-war statements from John Paul and other Vatican officials, it does strike a different note.

     Ratzinger ends with the observation that the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of freedom of conscience is not based “on a non-existent equality among religions or cultural systems of human creation,” and hence the council “does not therefore contradict the condemnation of indifferentism and religious relativism by Catholic doctrine.”

     At the Vatican Press Office, we were given two written comments on the new document from Cardinals Joachim Meisner of Cologne, Germany, and Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, Italy. The choice is interesting, since both men are viewed as on the theological and political right. Neither sits on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

     Meisner picked up on language in the document criticizing Catholic organizations and publications that have supported “political forces or movements with positions contrary to the moral and social teaching of the Church on fundamental ethical questions.” Ratzinger does not spell out what exactly he has in mind, but part of the backdrop is doubtless the massive support in Europe from Catholic movements and associations for the “No-Global” protests. The anti-globalization movement here sometimes has Catholic groups alongside Communists and anarchists, all rejecting the “new world order” of global capital, and has long been a subject of concern for the Vatican and some European bishops.

     “The denunciation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the deficits of many Catholic associations and organizations is more than understandable,” Meisner says.

     For his part, Biffi returns to one of his familiar themes, the defense of Catholic culture. Biffi generated controversy in 2000 by suggesting that Italy should give preference to immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries such as the Philippines in order to maintain its Catholic identity. 

     “Among the duties of the Catholic who is politically involved is also that of defending, making known, and making appreciated, also in service of a true humanism, this our incomparable ‘family treasure,’” Biffi wrote.

* * *

     On Dec. 20, I reported that the new secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Angelo Amato, has opposed the idea of a new Marian dogma that would declare Mary Coredemptrix, highlighting her cooperation with Christ’s work of redemption, and Mediatrix of all graces. Such titles, Amato has written, are confusing theologically and unnecessarily provocative ecumenically.

     The issue offers another marvelous example of pluralism within the Vatican, because Amato’s views are by no means universally shared in the Roman Curia. 

     Consider a Dec. 11 interview given by Monsignor Arthur Calkins, an expert on Marian doctrine, to Austria’s Catholic news agency, Katholischer Nachrichtendienst. Calkins is an official of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, erected by John Paul II to oversee implementation of the 1988 indult granting permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass. In the interview Calkins is asked to respond to Amato’s arguments. (Note: This was before Amato’s appointment was announced. At the time Amato was still a professor at the Salesian University and a consultor to the doctrinal congregation).

     Calkins was asked if Amato was right that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had considered defining these Marian dogmas and had decided against it. 

     “I’m afraid not,” Calkins replied. “The situation at the Council — and especially behind the scenes — was far more complex. The fact is that many bishops entering the Council wanted a statement on Mary as Coredemptrix and/or Mediatrix of all graces (the concepts are intimately related) and some even wanted a dogmatic definition on the matter.”

     Calkins is then asked to respond to Amato’s argument that the Council saw Mary not as Coredemptrix but as the most sublime fruit of the Redemption.

     “The assertion that Mary is the object of the Redemption is not denied by anyone who seriously upholds Mary’s role as Coredemptrix,” Calkins said. “As a creature, Mary needed to be redeemed and her redemption was accomplished ‘in a more sublime way’ from the first moment of her conception precisely in view of the role that she would play in the Redemption. Indeed, the very same text that Fr. Amato cites also states that Mary ‘is inseparably linked with her Son’s saving work.’ This is an assertion that is consistently made in the magisterium about no one except Mary and it is a statement precisely about her role as Coredemptrix!”

     “I trust that Fr. Amato was not aware of his misuse of Sacrosanctum Concilium #103. Unfortunately, it reminds me of Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement: ‘I wonder at the adroitness of theologians who manage to represent the exact opposite of what is written in clear documents of the Magisterium in order afterward to set forth this inversion with skilled dialectical devices as the true meaning of the documents in question.’ [The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985) 26].”

     Given that Ratzinger, Amato and Calkins all now have their offices in the same building, the Palazzo Sant’Uffizio, this could theoretically make for some interesting conversation.

    The full text of the Calkins interview can be found at

* * *

     In a little noticed move from last September, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has ruled that a Catholic priest must trace the Sign of the Cross with his right hand each and every time he wishes to bless either persons or articles. 

     The decree, signed on Sept. 14, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, specifies that if a priest wishes to administer any blessing whatsoever, even if the appropriate ritual book does not specifically require it, he must trace the Sign of the Cross using his right hand. The decree has worldwide validity, and hence overrides any local practice to the contrary.

     The decree was published in the November 2002 edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official compendium of Vatican documents, and is signed by the former prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, and the secretary, Francesco Pio Tamburrino.

     Though the decree does not supply a reason, Vatican sources say the concern was to preserve the specifically Christian character of a blessing by a Catholic priest, especially in cultures with other ritual forms that some priests may be tempted to substitute under the guise of “inculturation.” One source told NCR that the congregation got the idea for issuing the decree after an ad limina visit of bishops from Brazil, where indigenous and syncretistic folk religions have a large popular following.

* * *

     Given that the 30th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court falls in this month, the abortion issue is sure to be back in public discussion. The Catholic Church is still struggling with how best to resist the normalization of abortion that Roe v. Wade symbolizes. One strategy is to fight for re-criminalization, or at least for the most restrictive statute possible. Another is to abandon reliance on the state to enforce personal morality, and to make the case for life through the culture.

     These are not mutually exclusive methods, but there is perhaps a certain tension between them. The more time Catholic leaders spend lobbying and attempting to persuade legislators, the less time they may invest in winning the broader cultural argument.

     This tension comes to mind while reading a recent news item in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper. On January 11, the paper reported that in the first nine months of 2002, some 9,196 abortions were performed in Roman hospitals, a number comparable to the country’s other large urban areas. (The number of doctors willing to perform abortions in Rome is smaller than normal, but the number of procedures is not). The statistic that hit home, however, was that at Rome’s Santo Spirito hospital, a complex located perhaps 500 yards from the Vatican, there are eight abortions performed every week, more than 300 a year. If any place on earth should be shaped by the Catholic pro-life argument, one would think a hospital in the shadows of St. Peter’s and named after the Holy Spirit would be it. 

     Even at a symbolic level, the reality at Santo Spirito suggests the church has some work to do.

* * *

     John Paul made a rare direct reference to the American sex abuse crisis in a Jan. 10 audience with students and faculty from the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome.

     “At a time of difficulty and suffering for Catholics in the United States, I assure all of you of my prayerful solidarity,” the pope said, in English. 

     “Dear brothers, amid the challenges and hopes of the present moment, I urge you to keep your gaze fixed on Jesus, our High Priest, who never ceases to inspire and perfect our faith.”

     Later that day, Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, likewise addressed the scandals during a Mass for alumni of the NAC.

“After a tragic year for the church in the United States, that prayer of the leper seeking physical healing could well be for us a prayer both corporate and personal,” the archbishop said. 

     “If we are to recover from the terrible wound our church has suffered over the past year, then we must be saints,” Foley said.

* * *

     Speaking of the American community in Rome, we recently lost a cherished member when Paulist Fr. Greg Apparcel left the Church of Santa Susanna, the American parish, after six years to return to California. He will take up duties as the creative force at Paulist Productions, the unique apostolate that under the direction of the late Paulist Fr. Ellwood “Bud” Kieser gave us the films Romero and Entertaining Angels. God knows the world could use more movies that take the life of the spirit seriously, and Apparcel’s talents will be well employed in Malibu. But he will also be missed in Rome.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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