Monday, May 28, 2007

The "Dialogue" Unto Itself... Again

It's yet another sign of the times that, these days, there's no better Vatican leaker than the Secretary of State, himself.

In an interview with the Turinese La Stampa published at the weekend, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB announced that Benedict XVI will undo the arrangement of March 2006, when the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue and Culture were both entrusted to a single cardinal-president (Paul Poupard), with an eye to the eventual consolidation of the two.

(As a matter of precis, the councils were never "downgraded," but simply shared a head; both maintained separate officials and staffs. Their status and competencies continued unchanged.)
The department's return to its former status occurred as Catholic-Muslim dialogue is still suffering the negative effects of Benedict's Regensburg speech last September in which he appeared to equate Islam with violence.

Catholic and Muslim officials on Monday hailed the decision as a positive step that could help improve relations.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in Italy's La Stampa newspaper at the weekend that the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue would again become "a separate department."

Benedict downgraded the office in March 2006 by putting it under joint presidency with the Vatican's culture ministry and removing its president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a Briton.

"This would be a very positive thing for Muslims," said a senior Muslim official active in inter-faith dialogue who asked not to be named. He said Muslims had seen the council's downgrading as a sign Benedict was not very interested in Islam.

"I think it's a great idea," said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center and a world-renowned Vatican expert.

In France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, the priest in charge of relations with Islam said the change would help him in discussions and debates with Muslims.

"This is a sign, to Muslims and people of other faiths, that the policies of Pope John Paul will continue," Father Christophe Roucou said, noting Muslims respected the late Polish-born pontiff for his pioneering openness towards other faiths.

Vatican sources said Bertone's comments meant the department would soon get its own head again.
The other shoe, of course, is who gets the job. Though unlikely, a full U-turn would see the return of the dicastery's former president Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, whose exile from Rome to the nunciature in Cairo was met with near-grief in the interreligious community, particularly its Muslim contingent, with which the English-born prelate had a particular closeness and expertise. (Fitzgerald speaks Arabic fluently.)

The restoration of a full-time head at Interreligious Dialogue would likely coincide with a new president of the Pontifical Council for Culture -- Poupard is over a year beyond the mandatory retirement age of 75. Other senior curialists who've passed that mark include Cardinals Ignace Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Jose Saraiva Martins CMF of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Sergio Sebastiani, the Holy See's economic guru.

In the coming months, however, a flood more will join them, including the Major Penitentiary Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who turns 75 in July, Cardinals Renato Martino (Justice and Peace/Migrants and Itinerants) and Francis Arinze (Divine Worship) in November.

In 2008, the over-75 group of curial heads increases even more with the superannuations of Cardinals Javier Lozano Barragan (Health Care Workers) in January and Walter Kasper (Christian Unity) in March.