National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: May 14, 2004

Interview with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
May 7, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.

To mark its 40th anniversary, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (successor to the Secretariat for Non-Christians created by Paul VI) is hosting a May 14-19 Plenary Assembly of its members and consultors. Topic areas will be: 1) "Theological Reflection on Religious Pluralism -- Developments and Tendencies"; 2) "Bilateral Dialogue Experiences -- Developments and Prospects"; and 3) "Multi-religious Initiatives and the Challenges of Alternative Religiosity."

To talk about the anniversary, I sat down with English Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on Friday, May 7.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the decision to create a special organism within the Holy See devoted to dialogue with other religions. What have been the most important fruits over that period of time?
One can look both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, looking at the church, the creation of this office was a sign of a new vision of the church. It signified a church that was not closed in on itself, concerned only with its own affairs, but as Paul VI said in Ecclesiam Suam, a church that is in dialogue, turned towards the world. That's a big change within the church, and the mentality of people within the church. It's something that continues to be important. We need to stress this, to encourage people to have this vision. Outside the church, I would see that particularly in more recent times a growing awareness of interreligious plurality, intercultural plurality, not only on the part of Christians, but people of other religions and of civil society, coming to grips with this multi-religious reality. I think a symbol of this, both for the church and for the world, was the meeting John Paul II convoked in Assisi in 1986. In a way, that falls in a kind of halfway point in the 40 years of our dicastery, 22 years from its foundation. It's a very powerful symbol, a watershed I suppose.

How many bilateral relationships with other religions does the Holy See have?
If you're talking about official relationships, we have a liaison committee with Muslims, with international Islamic organizations. We have a committee with Al-Azhar. We signed an agreement of intention with Turkey, with the religious affairs department of Turkey. We also did make an agreement with the World Islamic Call Society of Libya. But with other religions, with Hindus or with Buddhists, we haven't any formal agreement we have signed. That's not to say, obviously, that we're not doing anything with them.

Is there some reason these formal agreements are all with Muslims?
Islam is the most widespread religion in the world after Christianity. I think it has been a concern of the Muslims to have a relationship with us, informal and to some extent formal also.

The desire to formalize these relationships came from the Muslim side?
In a number of cases, yes. We have responded to that. One of our concerns, of course, is that when we respond as an office of the Holy See, the dialogue should not just be at the top level. The local church in that particular area should be implicated, should be concerned with the dialogue, and should be brought in so far as it is possible.

Roman Catholicism is unique in having a very clearly identifiable central authority structure. When you want to dialogue with Hindus or Buddhists or another religious tradition, how do you go about identifying who the appropriate 'opposite number' should be?
Well, there isn't an appropriate opposite number, obviously. There are Buddhist patriarchs in different places, in Thailand for example. There are Buddhist leaders of movements in Taiwan. There are abbots of monasteries, which have a big network in Japan. But there is this multiplicity of leaders, which makes it difficult in a sense. This is in some ways why we have proceeded a bit differently. With Buddhists, very often we have taken the initiative to invite a certain number of people to the meetings we have organized. But we also respond to some of their invitations.

In terms of these unofficial relationships, how many does the Holy See have?
Not really very many. One of the things we try to do is to facilitate contacts between representatives of other religions and other parties in the Catholic Church, not only with us. So the dialogue is not always with us, but it spreads. For instance, in December I was at a Hindu university in Mumbai. This university has a department for the study of other religions and has already been in dialogue with various people here in Italy. It is keen to strengthen its relations with the Urbania but also the Teresianum, for the study of spirituality. We're very happy to facilitate … we like to back those initiatives. Just the other day an institute of Shariah asked to establish some connection with us. Well, we're not studying law here, but we can put them in contact with a faculty of canon law. Or maybe the Society of Canon Law in the United States. Who knows? We have to see, we have to examine this. We consider ourselves a body that is there to facilitate the dialogue, not to dominate it.

Is there a religious body with whom you'd like to have dialogue that has so far proved impossible?
I wouldn't say a "body." When Cardinal Arinze was called to this office to be the president, the Holy Father asked him to give particular attention to traditional religion. In fact, the dialogue with traditional religion, present not only in Africa but in other parts of the world, is quite difficult. They have no authorities. There's a local priest, or the head of the family who acts as a priest in his family. Therefore there's a difficult way of entry into the dialogue, and in fact it becomes more of an inner dialogue of gospel and culture. It's the absence of leadership that makes it difficult. In answer to your question, there's no particular body with which we have sought to have relations that we haven't succeeded.

The program for your upcoming Plenary Assembly suggests that one of the major topics of conversation will be 'Theological Reflection on Religious Pluralism.' How do you see that conversation taking shape?
We've asked an expert to advise us, Fr. Michel Fédou, a Jesuit from Paris, to give his evaluation of the theological progress. I don't know how he is going to present this, but I would think that he will show how Nostra Aetate has been received, but also some of the difficulties it has encountered, perhaps some of the exaggerations, some of the correctives that have been brought in. I would expect that to be his point of view. Then we are opening it up to our members, who come from all continents and with different experiences. We want them to react, perhaps to see what needs to be done by us in this field of theological reflection. Maybe we will discern certain areas that require further study, and that mayb e they will encourage us to go ahead.

Are there particular issues likely to surface? For example, pneumatology?
I think the present Holy Father has made a great progress in that, especially the role of the Holy Spirit outside the visible church. The document that many people consider as negative, Dominus Iesus, in fact opens up fields of research. I'd be interested to see what the bishops want to tell us about that. How do the different religions contribute to the salvation of people? They're not ways of salvation, but they have elements of salvation in them. Can we study these, can we identify these, can this be a way we can go on? These we would attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. Pneumatology, Christology, a reflection on the role of the church itself … these would be the three fields that I would see. But we tend to confine our reflection to dogmatic theology, and in a sense it's not just dogmatics but moral theology as well. I think there is a great field open today for dialogue at the level of humanity and the ethical problems that are presented by life in the modern world. We can perhaps share these in the form of dialogue with people of other religions.

To what extent does theology actually affect the practice of dialogue? Is the dialogue dependent upon how we understand religious pluralism?
Theology is a work of reflection. It is a reflection upon reality in the light of faith, thus scripture and tradition. In a sense it's a sort of second order activity. You don't get up and theologize. You get up and you wash and you have your breakfast and, okay, you pray as well, one would hope. Then you reflect on what you're doing. The dialogue in a sense can exist without the theology, but the theology can also orient the dialogue. When you are more reflective on what you're doing, you do it with greater intensity. If you don't have that theological reflection, you can neglect this dialogue, because you haven't forseen or understood the implications of your faith, which should lead you to this dialogue.

Some would say the theological questions are the most divisive, and we should just set them aside.
Here there is a great difference between our work in the interreligious dialogue and ecumenism. We are not looking for a theological consensus, at all, because we will not achieve a theological consensus. The theology that I'm talking about is a Catholic reflection, which falls upon us as Catholics. I don't think we should be aiming at a universal theology in any way.

But do we even need that intra-Catholic reflection to make progress in dialogue?
Well, they go together, they go hand-in-hand. Do we need it? Of course we need it, because we have to make sense of our faith. We need it from that point of view. Do we need it for the action? Not necessarily, but they go together. Moreover, people have different gifts. We're not telling people who have a gift for contact and networking with people, "stop, stop, do your theology." You have to do this together, you have to reflect at the same time. There will be people who are reflective theologically, and some who are more directed at action.

The second topic is 'developments and prospects in bilateral dialogue.' Anything particular you're looking for there?
We will report on what we have been trying to do. Maybe I could respond here to an earlier question, because you asked if there were some bodies with whom we are wanting to relate. Well, in December I was in India with the under-secretary as I mentioned, and we went to see the Sikhs in Hamritsar. That is something that we have been wanting to develop, a greater dialogue with Sikhs. Perhaps that is one thing. What may come out of this is suggestions from our members as to the way in which bilateral dialogue and also multilateral dialogue, though that comes afterward, can be conducted, and what they feel our role should be. We have some ideas, but we want to listen to them. It is the plenary assembly so it is the bishop members have to have the chance to give us suggestions.

Coming back to Sikhs, are there concrete plans to augment your relationship?
We spoke with the secretary of the community there. We had only a brief meeting, but we said we are willing to take up and pursue relations with Sikhs. That was last December, and we really haven't done anything since then. I think it something we will take up. We have relations with some Sikhs in other parts of the world, apart from India. Can we do something bilaterally on an international scale? This is something on which we're still reflecting.

There is no meeting or event presently scheduled?

The third topic is 'Multi-religious initiatives: The challenges of alternative religiosity.' I confess I'm not sure what either of those terms means.
Multi-religious … well, we've been speaking about bilateral Buddhist-Christian relations, or Hindu-Christian relations. But we've had some multilateral [events], where we've had people from a number of traditions coming together. We had this assembly in 1999 for the Jubilee, when we looked towards the third millennium. We followed that up with a smaller meeting in January for last year, on the resources of religions for peace. We want to continue with that, kind of reflecting on the peace goal with the different resources of religions. In fact what we're going to follow up with is a meeting, a kind of theological reflection with people from the church on the contribution that traditional religion can make to the world. As I said, it's difficult to have representatives of traditional religions, but we're going to have a theological reflection.

Will there be representatives of traditional religions?
No, not necessarily. There will be Catholics who are knowledgeable about traditional religions, perhaps are working in this field themselves, and can reflect together.

These are the 'challenges' the topic has in mind?
Well, no. The challenges are that there are many, many, many initiatives around the world, interreligious initiatives, that take place. Some of these, I would say, lack a degree of discernment. Any type of religious movement is put together, even someone who has decided to create his own religion, he's there. These bodies are in fact quite numerous, so how do we relate to them, what advice do we give, what is the experience of our people around the world? Have they been approached by these movements? Have they not? What is their reaction? We may have something to say to them. It's also the connection between our work in interreligious dialogue and the work on new religious movements. We have the coordinator for this work in the Roman Curia in this office, and so this comes into the purview of our dicastery.

These would be the so-called 'New Age' phenomena?
New Age, yes.

Is your conversation on the theology of pluralism going to be coordinated with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Actually, we have Archbishop Angelo Amato, who was a consultor for us before he was made the secretary, and he hasn't finished his mandate so he is still officially a consultor. But as we're not at the moment aiming at producing a document from this plenary, we would not have anything to submit. But that's not to say we don't consult if there are doctrinal issues that come out. This is the plenary of this office. There are provisions made for joint plenary assemblies, but this was not thought appropriate at this time, particularly because this is not the full aspect of the plenary, it's only one aspect of it. Evaluating the 40 years is the main point.

How often do you hold plenaries?
We have done them every three years. The last one was at the end of 2001. Previous to that was 1998, so we let the Jubilee go by. So it's normally every two or three years.

How was the idea of holding a public event in conjunction with this plenary born?
We felt that 40 years was worth celebrating, so that's why we decided to give it this form. It's a sort of academic event, really. Since Cardinal Arinze is no longer, we thought he was the obvious person to ask. He was the president of this office for half of those 40 years. He has a wonderful experience. He accepted. It's also a kind of tribute. We had last year a tribute to Cardinal Arinze for his 70th birthday, and when we arranged that in conjunction with the volume we published, we didn't think he would be moving. It turned out to be a farewell gift. I think this is also a very good occasion in which we can express our gratitude to him, and have him help us in this reflection.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

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