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The Demands of Dialogue With Muslims

Interview With Catholic Theologian Ilaria Morali

ROME, NOV. 30, 2006 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI has helped to open a new kind of dialogue with Islam, says theologian Ilaria Morali.

Morali, a professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, takes part annually in meetings of interreligious dialogue in Turkey.

In this interview with us, Morali comments on the points of exchange on the faith and interreligious dialogue with Muslim intellectuals.

Q: You have just returned from Turkey. In the intellectual world in which you moved, what was the atmosphere in regard to the Pope's visit?

Morali: The news these days certainly shows that there are objective difficulties, especially among ordinary people and the most alienated movements.

Without a doubt, this climate contributed to the wave of media propaganda following the Regensburg address. The latter in turn triggered an emotional outburst, before the meaning of the Holy Father's words was clarified and before there was time to reread the content.

And this emotional outburst has also touched intellectual environments, which perhaps are not totally used to the new style of the papacy inaugurated by Benedict XVI.

In my talks, however, I have been able to verify that, beyond an apparent mistrust, there is great interest in this Pope. He has sparked a positive leap of quality in the Muslim-Christian dialogue, showing that confrontation, if it is to be true, must not fear to also touch upon controversial or uncomfortable points for both sides.

Q: Has Benedict XVI instituted a new way of dialoguing with Islam?

Morali: From what I have been able to gather in Istanbul, talking with some Muslim colleagues, I realize that they never imagined that there could be another way of dialoguing other than that of John Paul II.

They thought it was the only possible way for communication, while [instead] it was necessary to take a step for a further maturing of the exchange.

And this step, as is the case of every novelty, has entailed a re-establishment of the balances and the creation of new premises to move the dialogue from gestures to intellectual confrontation, lively and difficult, addressing the problems and involving the world of moderate intellectuals more directly, giving them an extraordinary opportunity to come out and participate with greater courage in the exchange.

During our meeting, a Muslim colleague said that "dialogue" has become an expression that has suffered an inflation, as it is used without coming to the point.

In fact, there has been a total loss of meaning of what the Catholic Church wished to say and do when Paul VI spoke about it for the first time in "Ecclesiam Suam."

And I think my colleague's affirmation is true. Many Catholics have lost the exact meaning that the magisterium attributes to dialogue and have reduced its value, thinking -- and also making Muslims think -- that dialogue should be expressed essentially with gestures of friendship and solidarity, avoiding a serene but difficult confrontation including on painful points.

Q: But dialogue cannot be reduced to theological topics and "painful" points, as you say.

Morali: Dialogue cannot be improvised; moreover, it is a mistake to conceive it in the abstract, as is often thought, as "dialogue between religions."

Therefore, I am convinced that, and I have said it to some Muslim friends of Istanbul, thanks to this papal visit not only will they know a new face of the papacy, but Benedict XVI's unheard-of focus will lead them to be far more involved in the exchange and reflection than previously.

Q: What is your perception of the situation of Christians in Turkey?

Morali: I certainly perceived great suffering, in part as a legacy of discriminations and persecutions suffered in the not-too-distant past, and in part due to the situation of dispersion and fragmentation of the Christian communities themselves.

The murder of Father Andrea Santoro [last Feb. 5] is certainly the sign that objective dangers exist to which the most committed people are exposed.

Turkish Islam, as some explained to me, is not only that of the big cities like Istanbul, which looks increasingly like a Western metropolis, but also that of isolated fields, small villages and extremist formations.

Too often we make simplifications thinking that Islam is a unitary event, but as my Turkish friends explain, in that country Islam is made up of many realities.

On the other hand, in fact, dialogue such as those in Istanbul that are held under the sponsorship of the Marmara University of Istanbul, reflect[s] a change of climate.

I will give examples to confirm what I am saying: Last year I went to visit the Islamic Studies Center in Istanbul, especially the library. Well, my Turkish friends showed me with justified pride the sector they have dedicated to Christian books. They have established it by design to give Muslim students the possibility to go directly to the Christian sources to learn about our tradition of faith and our history.

I have examined the shelves and have seen how much care they took in finding these books. They told me, however, how difficult it was to find truly reliable books in Catholic publishing houses that give an objective view of the doctrine and of Christian history.

I told them they were right, seeing the lack of quality of some publications produced by Catholic publishing houses, at times more inclined to publish books of relativist theology than of healthy Catholic theology.

I know that a Muslim colleague has translated into Turkish the encyclical "Fides et Ratio" and will see to its publication. This initiative will not only benefit students of comparative theology but also Christians themselves who certainly do not have the means and strength to undertake such initiatives.

Q: How do you live the rapprochement with Turkish Muslims?

Morali: As dogmatic theologian I have to say to Christians, who might wish to venture in interreligious dialogue, that an imperative for an exchange is to avoid any improvisation.

I am not a professor specialized in Islam and my interlocutors know it, so that in my expositions I present Catholic dogma simply, leaving to Father Maurice Bormanns the implications for Islam.

My communications are appreciated because I speak with extreme frankness of my faith without expecting my interlocutors to be in agreement with me.

The meetings in Istanbul demand from each person a long preparation. For my part, I work dialoguing much with Father Bormanns to be able to elaborate my interventions from a perspective that might turn out to be of greater interest to my interlocutors. Often my conferences are the basis for a dialogue that Father Bormanns, with his great competence, carries out establishing comparisons and parallelisms or, for example, quoting authors.

In this way, the Catholic dogmatic and the Catholic expert in Islam become actors in a very profound dialogue.

So I have been able to verify, among other things, the superficiality of some focuses seen in the Catholic world, when there is talk of dialogue between religions, as if one religion was the same as another, or when "initiatives of dialogue" are organized without adequate preparation, either on the subject of the Catholic faith or of the tradition of our interlocutor.

Q: Why are you so critical of some forms of interreligious dialogue?

Morali: I recall that last year, at the moment of exchange with the assembly, a person in the audience asked me if I could at least accept that Mohammed was the last and greatest of the prophets.

Addressing an audience made up of Muslims, and before answering, I asked him in turn: "If I posed a similar question on Jesus Christ, for example, asking a Muslim professor to admit at least that Jesus Christ is as great as Mohammed, would you think he is a good Muslim if, to please me, he said I was right? You would prefer, I believe, that he be consistent with his faith even at the cost of displeasing me with his answer. I think that you want an answer from me as a Catholic woman and would not appreciate an answer of compromise to please you. You would not consider me a good Catholic Christian. That is why I answer you as any Catholic should answer: with sincerity and serenity."

I remember that his reasoning touched deep chords in my Muslim colleagues who expressed great appreciation for the sincerity and transparency I showed, and also for my courage in giving them an answer which was certainly not totally acceptable for a Muslim.

A professor said to me: "Dr. Morali, we want to dialogue with true Catholics, not with mediocre Catholics, though this is certainly rather more difficult. Continue like this, please."


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Benedict, Orthodox, Catholic, Turkey, Muslims, Islam

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