|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
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
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
“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
“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
Information on Marco d’Aviano may be found
* * *
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
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
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
“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,’”
* * *
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
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
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,
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
* * *
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
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 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
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
* * *
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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