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Posted June 1, 2006

Interview with Cardinal George Pell

In early April, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, gave a lecture in Naples, Florida, for Legatus, a group for Catholic businessmen, which made global headlines for its blunt talk on Islam. “Considered strictly on its own terms,” Pell said, “Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for fear-reaching renovation is severely limited.” Some Muslim leaders accused Pell of “ignorance,” while more hawkish Western commentators praised Pell for giving voice to concerns that many harbor privately.

This week, Pell was in Rome for meetings of the Vox Clara Commission, which advises the Congregation for Divine Worship on issues of liturgical translation. On Tuesday, Pell set down with NCR to discuss his views on Islam, as well for a brief review of translation matters.

You open your speech by observing that views on Islam range from “naïve optimism to blanket pessimism.” Where would you locate yourself?

That’s a good question. I’m often asked this about the church, and I normally say that I try to be a realist. Thus it’s quite secondary whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic. I think it depends very much what part of the world you’re in. In our part of the world, I think you have reasons for steady optimism.

Are you thinking of Indonesia?

Indonesia , and we’ve got 250,000 or 300,000 Muslims in Australia.

There was recently a riot between Muslim immigrants and locals in an Australian beach town.

Yes, but nothing resulted from that. There’s been no further incident. By and large, I think we get on quite well.

What accounts for that?

The numbers aren’t huge, and Australian society is basically pretty tolerant, although it’s sometimes not described as such. It’s tolerant of many things, including a whole variety of different national backgrounds.

Looking at the global scene, it would seem that disaffected Muslims these days drift towards political jihadism, while disaffected Christians drift towards “sects” that promise prosperity and individual fulfillment. Why do you think that is?

That’s an interesting question, and I haven’t thought about this at all. I suppose the first thing I would say is that I suspect those things are more a function of the societies in which Christians and Muslims live rather than the religion itself.

But one can see this in Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims share the same society but drift off in different ways. Surely the social context isn’t everything?

I’d also say that Islam is a much more war-like culture than Christianity.

Some say that the focus in Islam is much more on the social and political order, the ummah, than in Christianity.

I’m not sure how relevant that is to your question, but it’s true. They don’t have a separation of church and state like we do. But I think the more significant factor is the presence or absence of jihad, and what that means. I’ve had it asserted to me is that in the relationship between the Islamic and non-Islamic world, the normal thing is a situation of tension if not war, or outright hostility. You have to declare peace. ... That’s what’s been alleged. A state of tension or hostility between Islam and the dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world, is constant.

Does it seem to you that the constant temptation of Christianity is to make religion a private affair, while the constant temptation of Islam is to identify church and state too strongly?

I wouldn’t underestimate the strength of the personal faith of Muslims. One of the things that’s very striking is to go into mosques in the Middle East and places like that, and to see the Muslims at prayer. Many of the ones I’ve seen, at first glance, seem to have a much more vivid sense of the transcendent than you get when you come into a church in the West.

But that very quickly translates into attachment into a certain kind of state. To reverse the question, is Islam without at least a notional striving towards an Islamic state conceivable?

We don’t yet know. It was only after the First World War that they were encouraged, or even allowed, to live in a non-Islamic state. I think that was a development that enabled them to cope with their changed circumstances. They weren’t allowed to live in non-Islamic states, and many are still encouraged not to mix with non-Muslims.

So you believe jihad is not a modern distortion of Islam, but something that arises from its internal logic?

That’s the million dollar question. I don’t know. It remains to be seen. To put it another way, can a good moderate Muslim be faithful to the Koran? I think it depends on who’s going to win where, if there is going to be a struggle between the moderates and the extremists.

I notice you use the subjunctive. You don’t think there’s such a struggle now?

Yes, I do. But I’m not sure in how many places the moderates are prevailing.

You said that you would accept “with reservations” that Christians and Muslims both worship the same God. What do you mean?

We’re both monotheists, we both believe there is only one God to be adored. That’s an ontological point. Another notion is to what extent our concepts of God are compatible.

For example, Christians believe God is Triune and Muslims don’t.

That’s right. Also, whether God is love. To what extent there’s redemption through suffering. Some of the things you mere mentioning, about the difference between individualism and corporatism, or the state. An enormous difference follows from the presence or absence of the Incarnation.

In inter-faith settings, would you recommend against use of this formula that we are common believers in the one God?

No, I don’t think so. An initial reason I wouldn’t dissuade people from that is because John Paul II used it. I wouldn’t recommend against it, but I know that it’s disputed. It’s disputed by some Muslims and by some Christians. Ontologically, there’s only God. It’s just to what extent you can match the different understandings.

You also said there are different concepts of the human person, and you expressed the Christian concept as a unique intersection of freedom, love and intelligence. How do you understand the Muslim concept?

I’m not nearly as well informed on that side of it as I am the Christian side, but I’m happy to say something. I don’t know to what extent they have a concept of conscience like we do at all. It’s tied up with their understanding of the Koran, which they believe is directly the word of God as dictated by Gabriel. The pope has made this point. Whereas with our Scriptures, we recognize that there is a human author who worked under the power of the Spirit. Although I’ve gotten into trouble for saying this, there are errors in Scripture. Not religious errors, but misunderstandings of geography and other matters. Even when there’s no separation of church and state, that makes a difference.

So one problem might be whether a Muslim anthropology can account for the intersection of reason and faith?

That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s a question, and I’d be very interested in hearing an educated Muslim talk about that.

You’re raising questions rather than proposing definitive conclusions?

Exactly. I know enough to be a nuisance. I’m continuing to read and talk with people, and I think this is a legitimate question.

You said, “Considered on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion.” What did you mean?

I’d be thinking about the general historical and political record of Islam. Now you might say that for a lot of our history, we weren’t particularly tolerant either. To that objection, I’d say, ‘Show me where they’re tolerant.’

But you seem to want to say that Christian intolerance is a distortion of Christianity, but Muslim intolerance is not a distortion of Islam.

The million dollar question is whether they are distortions of Islam. I’m not sure. It’s difficult to find periods of tolerance in Islam. I’m not saying they’re not there, but a good deal of what is asserted is mythical.

Many will say that we in the West put too much emphasis on the Taliban or post-revolutionary Iran, whereas if you look at Indonesia or Turkey or other very populous Muslim nations, the picture is much more positive.

That is certainly true. In those places, the power of the mullahs has been curbed, often by highly secular or explicitly secular governments. What I’m thinking of ... have you seen this collection of documents by Bat Ye’or on “dhimmitude?” This is a collection of sources that goes for hundreds of years. [Cardinal] Francis George pinched my copy, and he’s never returned it! It sets out the way dhimmis [non-Muslims] were treated in all the different Muslim societies.

So we’re talking about different sense of the word ‘tolerate,’ perhaps the difference between tolerating as second-class citizens versus recognizing the inherent dignity in others and treating them as equals?

Yes, giving them equal status. It seems to me it’s rather more difficult to find examples of this second kind of toleration. I stand as one less wise, and I’m happy if people can point them out to me. Some Muslim clerics have defended the practice of having Christians walk on the other side of the street on the grounds that this way they can be protected.

Raising the question, protected from what?


Just two days ago, the President of Iran cast doubt on whether the Holocaust really happened. If a senior churchman were to say something like that in the West, the fallout would be deafening. Does the tepid response from Islamic leaders to that sort of thing worry you?

It’s interesting. It’s not a reason for optimism. You would publicly dissent from the Iranian president as a Muslim leader with some temerity. You’d be a brave person to do it. I’d say he is typical of the worst of Islam.

At some stage, doesn’t someone have to have some temerity?

I think so. It might even be one reason why I said something.

You said that President Bush’s ambition to export democracy to the Middle East is a risky business. Why?

The President of Iran was voted in by the people, and Hamas was voted in by the people. You can’t guarantee that because you give everyone a vote you’re going to get a reasonable regime. If you could get democracy long enough, it probably would shake down to something reasonable. The problem is you’re likely to get extremists in, and they’ll just change the rules.

Procedural democracy by itself isn’t enough to guarantee a reasonable government.

I think that’s true everywhere.

What else is needed?

I think Christianity is an enormous advantage. One of the American writers I quite enjoy is Rodney Stark. I’ve just read his latest book The Triumph of Reason, tying up capitalism and democracy and human rights. Whatever [you think] about that, you need a whole set of cultural presuppositions for democracy to work well, not least to avoid the dictatorship of the majority, to respect the rights of minorities.

You need premises that democracy by itself can’t supply.

I think that’s right.

You said our elites in the West don’t understand Islam.

I said that initially they are disadvantaged. It’s not just that they aren’t religious, but they’re inclined to dismiss religion and the importance of religion to all sorts of people.

You think this is still true post-9/11?

I don’t know. I suspect it might be less true than it was. It’s certainly less true in Australia. I’m not sure to what extent this is true or significant in many parts of Europe, in places like Britain or Holland or Belgium or Switzerland. I’m not sure what the score is there. I don’t know whether there’s been any purchase on this idea at all, of the importance of religion.

You spoke in passing about Muslim immigration in the West, and that we tend to think of the religious affiliation of immigrants as irrelevant. Do you think there should be restrictions on Muslim immigration in the West, along the lines suggested some years ago by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi?

He got into all sorts of trouble for suggesting there should be limits, but he’s raised a very real and interesting question that needs to be debated and discussed calmly, not in the aftermath of some atrocity when there could be a ferocious and horrendous reaction against Muslims.

Why are some forces resistant to discussing the religious dimension of immigration policy? Is it just religious indifference?

I think it’s deeper than that. I think some seculars are so deeply anti-Christian, that anyone opposed to Christianity is seen as their ally. That could be one of the most spectacularly disastrous miscalculations in history.

Is that just your gut instinct?

I don’t know whether I’ve read this or not, but I sense it. It’s not an established thesis.

You give an interesting comparison between Russia and Yemen with regard to fertility rates. To put it crassly, are you worried that Muslims are out-breeding Christians?

I think that some people with a decidedly Christian point of view in Europe should be interested in the question. When John Paul II first started to talk about the ‘culture of death,’ I thought it was over the top, just a bit too much. But I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I think it’s intimately tied up with, first, the collapse of Christianity, and also the decline of hope. The presence or absence of children is substantially allied with a world view. You’ve only got to look at the difference in the birth rates between the red states and the blue states in the United States.

You say that faith creates a future.

I believe that.

Oriana Fallaci and others warn that Europe may become an outpost of Islamic civilization. Do you think that goes too far?

I do. I don’t think that’s the more immediate danger at all. The greater danger is that there would be white fascist reaction. I think both dangers are remote at the moment, but between the two, the danger of an anti-Muslim reaction is greater. I don’t think Europe is going to go Muslim at all, but I would be frightened of the turmoil if things got out of hand.

What about Europe as a religious smorgasbord, upon which Christianity can lay no special claim?

I think it will continue to lay a significant cultural and historical claim. To what extent it will be a vital religious force for a lot of people, I don’t know. I sometimes compare Europe today to the Roman Empire as the Christians were coming to power. In those days, people were lapsing into Christianity, and now they’re lapsing out of it. For a long time, there was fierce struggle among various brands of Christianity as well as the old paganism, remnants which survived in the mystery religions and all that sort of stuff. It was a religious smorgasbord. ... [The rise of Islam] might in fact be working against all this. It might be regenerating in people a sense that we need something to believe in.

In passing, you warned against exaggerated fears of global warming. What did you have in mind there?

These things have got to be discussed scientifically, and I’m not claiming that it is or isn’t happening. One of the things that struck me years ago were the fears that middle class kids without religion had about nuclear war. It was almost an obsession with a few of them. It’s almost as though people without religion, who don’t belong to any of the great religious traditions, have got to be frightened of something. Perhaps they’re looking for a cause which is almost a substitute for religion. I often point out that one or two of the people who are now warning us against global warming were warning us a couple of decades ago about a new ice age, because according to some criteria an ice age is a bit overdue.

What kind of dialogue do we need with Islam?

First of all, we must dialogue with Islam and Islamic leaders. I’ve been part of the Australian delegation for inter-faith meetings in Yogyakarta and Subu. I participate in these dialogues in Sydney. I’m committed to the dialogues. It’s nearly always better when we talk together. Some people say it would be more productive to talk to them about the role of religious people in society, things of that ilk, rather than attempt to discuss theological differences in the Koran and so on. Tony Abbot is the Minister for Health in Australia, and he attracted a little bit of attention because he said he’d be quite willing to talk with hardline Islamists. In the unlikely event it was ever a possibility, so would I. I’ve listed some of the issues which are close to the bone that I’d like to be able to talk with Islamic leaders about, and there are one or two groups in Australia who have said they’re going to prepare a response and them come talk to me about these things. We also have to discuss things they’d be interested in talking about. We should try to talk to one another. We need some sort of substantial agenda.

Many people have detected an evolution from John Paul II to Benedict XVI with regard to this question of what kind of dialogue we should have with Muslims, with a more challenging tone on terrorism and religious freedom. Do you see that?

I do. I think he’s introduced a key term: reciprocity. I think that makes good sense. It’s definitely more explicit, and that’s to the good.

Do you think the need to mount a response to Islam -- intellectual, cultural, spiritual -- is shifting the church towards a more ad extra posture?

That parallels Philip Jenkins’ book on what preoccupies the churches in the south, as distinct from many of the preoccupations of prosperous liberal Christianity in the North.

But what 9/11 was all about was bringing these tensions home to us. Do you see a similar shift in the affluent churches of the West?

The situation in the church in the United States is radically different from the situation of the church in Western Europe, and it varies tremendously within Western Europe. I really don’t know the situation well enough in different parts of Western Europe to answer as to whether their sensibility to things Catholic has been changed by the Islamic threat. Based on some of the people I read and listen to, there’s not much evidence of that.


Not a spectacular change, no.

Will there be such a change?

It will depend on how many terrorist attacks they bring off successfully.

Do you think people are worried that the future belongs to the Muslims and not to the West?

For varied reasons, some of them good and some of the bad, I’m not sure that many people in Europe, Australia or the States believe that the future belongs to Islam. Some people just because they couldn’t possibly envisage it, others are just so antipathetic to what Islam stands for. I don’t think the rise of Islam has yet moved us beyond internal preoccupations in Australia. I suspect it’s come much closer to doing that in the States. I’m not really not quite sure what’s happening in Europe. I think the more social disintegration there is, the more opportunities there are for serious Christians ... the breakdown of the family, drugs, alcohol, abortion. If you read Rodney Stark’s book about the rise of Christianity, Stark is an agnostic, but he charts the advantages Christianity offered.

So ironically, the worse things get, the better it is for the church?

If we’re up to grasping our opportunities. We might be just go down the gurgler along with everyone else.

Let me ask briefly about Vox Clara. What texts are you working on during this meeting?

The Ordinary of the Seasons.

Where do things stand on the new Order of the Mass?

Basically pretty healthy. It’s been approved in Australia , it’s been approved in England.

There’s a big vote coming up in June in the United States. Do you have any sense of what you think will happen?

I think it’ll get through.

If so, are the big battles over?

Experience has taught me that it’s always dangerous to claim that. Nevertheless, if it gets through, that represents a significant achievement. I think the approval by Australia and England of the Order of the Mass is also significant.

Have the Australian bishops requested the recognitio from Rome?

I’m not quite sure that they’ve done. I suppose they have.

When do you expect it will be in use?

I’m not sure. I think that we’ll probably proceed together. I don’t think it will be approved country-by-country piecemeal, because the ambition is to have one Roman Missal for the English-speaking world, with possibly a few local variants. I think that’s a very worthy ambition.

What if the American bishops vote to request significant changes? Would the Australians and the English go back and take another look?

I’m not exactly sure. I suspect that there would be informal consultations, and very possibly if the changes weren’t too radical the Congregation for Divine Worship would either rule or suggest some compromise. But we’re talking hypothetically, because I don’t know.

You’ve seen the recent letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze to Bishop William Skylstad in the United States. What do you make of it?

It’s just stating what the situation is. It’s sometimes useful to be reminded of the basic verities.

Those would be fidelity to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam?

Yes. As he said, the congregation has no authority to approve anything else.

The Vox Clara Commission believes the new text satisfies those principles?

Yes, very much so.

A cynic might suggest the cardinal’s letter was intended to influence the upcoming vote of the U.S. bishops.

I’m sure he’d write it for some good purpose!

If this text is eventually approved, are the liturgy wars over?

I’m tempted to say that it would enormously change the balance of things, but I have no doubt there would be isolated and sporadic resistance. We have a big challenge to make the English [texts] powerful modern, appropriate and strong. We don’t want to just achieve doctrinal fidelity but have clumsy English. We’ve got the doctrinal fidelity now. The ICEL translations are coming through beautifully on that score. But I think with some of them, a few of them, the quality is quite uneven.

Including the Order of the Mass?

No, I think the Order of the Mass is OK. I’m looking at other texts that are at a much earlier stage.

Any update on World Youth Day?

We’ve traveling well so far.

Anything from Poland in terms of Benedict’s public style that strikes you?

People like him, kids like him. I suspected that from very early days, and I’m happy to see that my initial suspicions are being ratified.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted June 1, 2006

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