When Cardinal Arthur Roche received the red hat on Aug. 27, he became the third living English cardinal.
Many Catholics could name a second one: Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the current Archbishop of Westminster and president of the English and Welsh bishops’ conference.
But they might struggle to name the third. That’s probably because he is living in retirement in a parish in the city of Liverpool. But he is an eminent churchman who is one of the Church’s leading experts on Islam, and he once led a Vatican dicastery.
Days before Pope Francis’ trip to the Muslim-majority country of Bahrain, Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald spoke with The Pillar about the most pressing challenges in Catholic-Muslim relations, the need for “Islamic ecumenism,” and the impact of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture.
In a pithy email interview, the cardinal also discussed why he joined the White Fathers in his youth, his missionary work in Africa, and what it was like to serve at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Vatican body overseeing interfaith relations.
Cardinal Fitzgerald, what is Christianity?
At Antioch, the followers of the Way were called Christians for the first time. So Christianity is the following of Jesus Christ according to his teaching and the way of life that he indicated. Of course, we know the teaching of Jesus through Tradition (which includes the Gospels). According to Matthew 25, we shall be judged more on our lives than our beliefs.
What should every Catholic know about Islam?
That Muslims believe in one God, and since there is only one God, they believe in the same God as us. They have a high idea of this God which excludes incarnation, so they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the main difference between us.
What does the Catholic Church teach about Islam?
That with us, Muslims believe in One God who is Almighty and Merciful (Lumen gentium 16). That they are to be respected, although they do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ; that many have a veneration for the Virgin Mary; that we have Abraham as “our father in faith”; that we should prudently engage in dialogue with them and work together for moral values and justice and peace.
You are known as one of the leading Catholic experts on Islam. Do you continue to discover new things about the Muslim faith as an 85-year-old?
Yes, there are always new things to discover, especially through an attentive reading of the Quran.
What are the biggest challenges in Catholic-Muslim relations today?
A lack of mutual trust.
What impact did Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture have on Catholic-Muslim relations?
It had both a negative and a positive result. Negative, in that it provoked reactions against what was said among Muslims all over the world; positive, in that some Muslims asked for theological dialogue through the “Common Word” initiative.
Has Pope Francis strengthened Catholic-Muslim relations?
Certainly, through cultivating friendship with Muslims.
Was the Document on Human Fraternity, signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb in 2019, a breakthrough in Catholic-Muslim relations?
I would not use the term “breakthrough,” but the document is certainly useful and important in providing an agenda for Christians and Muslims in dialogue and action together.
The Document on Human Fraternity provoked debate, focused on its statement that “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” What did you make of that debate?
The plurality of religions is a fact. What is debated is whether it is according to the will of God. I think that at least it could be said that this plurality of religions is according to the permissive will of God. But more, Lumen gentium states that Muslims are part of God’s “plan of salvation” (LG 16) which would seem to suggest more.
How significant was the pope’s meeting with the Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq in March 2021?
It has been recognized as important by Shiite Muslims, as a recognition that they are different from Sunni Muslims.
How does the Sunni-Shiite divide affect Catholic-Muslim relations?
The division among Muslims means that sometimes it is difficult to meet with all different groups together. There is a need for “Islamic ecumenism,” just as Christians need to get together.
What impact did ISIS have on Catholic-Muslim relations?
Opposition to ISIS has brought Christians and Muslims together.
Could focusing on similarities in prayer and contemplation help to bring Catholics and Muslims together? For example, many Muslims use prayer beads that look similar to a rosary.
Yes, but care has to be taken here, because words can divide; they are often understood differently. Silence before God is often the best way of being united.
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Why did you join the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa)?
I joined as a boy and did most of my schooling with the Missionaries of Africa, but the motivations developed all through the many years of formation.
How have the White Fathers changed in the time that you have belonged to the community?
The Society of Missionaries of Africa has become much more African. Most of the new members of the Society are from Africa. We have an African superior general for the second time and he has this year been re-elected for a further six years. The apostolate has been widened from the continent of Africa to the African world, so to Africans living in different parts of the world.
What was your first encounter with Islam?
During my basic studies in theology before ordination to the priesthood. This formation took place in Carthage, Tunisia.
What was it like to minister in parishes in Sudan in the late 1970s?
There was an experience of tension between Christians who wanted the missionaries to be completely at their service, and Muslims who wondered why we were “wasting our time” with these Black people from Southern Sudan.
You led the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) from 2002 to 2006. What were your goals in that post? Do you think you achieved them?
More important than the years when I was president of the PCID were the 15 years that I served as secretary with Cardinal Arinze as president. We continued our work of showing that the Church needs to be in dialogue with everyone (cf. Ecclesiam Suam of Pope St. Paul VI), engaging in dialogue with groups of Muslims and Buddhists, and also in multilateral dialogues, but also and above all encouraging local Churches to engage in such dialogue.
What do you make of the pontifical council’s new incarnation as the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue?
The continued existence of the office as a Dicastery in its own right shows its importance as part of the mission of the Church (cf. Dialogue and Mission n.13)
How does it feel to have been recognized in Queen Elizabeth II’s last New Year’s list?
It is truly gratifying that this work of interreligious dialogue has been recognized.
What do you like most about Liverpool?
The warmth of the people.
Where do you find hope?
In the goodness of people, a proof of the work of the Holy Spirit.
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