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from issue no. 08 - 2007

NOMINATIONS. The new President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue speaks

To know one another so as not to fear


The importance of having cordial relationshipswith Islam and the other religions and spiritual traditions of the world. An interview with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, nominated by Benedict XVI as Head of a Department that seemed destined to disappear


Interview with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran by Gianni Cardinale


In recent months media leaks had repeatedly suggested that in view of a wider restructuring of the Roman Curia the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue would cease to exist as an independent agency and be incorporated with another department. And in effect, when on 15 February 2006 the then President, the English Archbishop Michael Louis Fitzgerald, nominated nuncio to Egypt and, above all, when later on 11 March the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard was nominated in his place as interim President, it seemed that indeed the destiny of this Department specializing in dialogue with the non-Christian religions was indeed sealed. But it was not so. On 25 June in fact the nomination was announced of the new President in the person of French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, for 13 years Vatican “Minister of Foreign Affairs” and from 2003 archivist and librarian of Holy Roman Church.
While waiting to take over from Cardinal Poupard, scheduled for 1 September, Cardinal Tauran gladly agreed to answer some questions from 30Days.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran

Your Eminence, how have you taken your nomination as President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue?
JEAN-LOUIS TAURAN: As a new chapter in my service to the Holy See. To serve is my only aspiration. When I was created cardinal, I decided to put on the souvenir card for the event the phrase of Saint Paul from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We are servants because of Jesus”. And then naturally I consider this nomination as a gesture of particular good will towards me on the part of the Holy Father. At the same time, however, I’m aware that it’s a great responsibility, I’ve realized from the great number of messages of congratulation I’ve received. Evidently it’s a task to which many people attach great importance. I hope, with the help of God, to be up to it.
From where have the congratulations come?
TAURAN: Very many from the Arab world. Another thing that has given much pleasure is that an important Saudi Arabian daily dedicated an article to my nomination. A positive sign that has particularly pleased me.
You come from a diplomatic background. How will you shape your job when you take up the post?
TAURAN: As has been announced, I take up my new assignment on 1 September. In that moment I’ll go through the files and talk to my new colleagues and then I’ll go ahead with the job using as compass the Council declaration Nostra aetate: examining everything that mankind has in common, that impels them to live with their common destiny together; then discovering that mysterious thing present in the heart of things and the happenings in human life; appreciating how much there is that is true and holy in the other religions; discovering this ray of truth that enlightens all men. All obviously without fearing to proclaim Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. In this sense our road map is obviously the declaration Dominus Iesus.
You worked for a long time in the nunciature in Lebanon. What memories do you have of that experience? And what do you think of the current dramatic situation there?
TAURAN: Lebanon has been very important in my life. Firstly because my earliest time there was as cultural cooperator during military service, which in France is obligatory even for seminarians and priests. Hence I got to know Lebanon in 1965, when it was still a paradise. Then I went back there as nunciature counselor from 1979 to1983, in the midst of war. One could say I’ve learned to know the Middle East from the window of Lebanon. Now it’s very difficult, for me at least, to understand what’s happening. One sees an impasse in political life. The communities are internally divided. There’s a very serious social crisis. It seems to me that Lebanon has still not achieved national reconciliation. Next September there’s going to be a very important political moment: the election of the President of the Republic. I believe that Lebanon is having to rely very much on its neighbors and the international community in order to survive. And that is always a sign of fragility.
Undoubtedly one of the more important and delicate spheres in your new assignment is relations with Islam. How do you think to deal with the task?
TAURAN: In the West we often speak about Islam as if it were a single bloc. In fact that’s not so. There is no single Islam, but many Islams. With the Islam that kills – that according to me isn’t genuine Islam but a perversion of Islam – obviously no dialogue is possible. With genuine Islam – such as what I knew in Lebanon, but also in Syria or the countries of the Gulf – even if a theological dialogue does not exist at present, one can discuss culture, charity, peace. The important thing is to get to know each other, get to know, get to know. Each of us always has something to learn from the other. For example we can value in Muslims the aspect of the transcendence of God, the value of prayer and fasting, the courage to witness to one’s faith in public life. From us instead the Muslims can learn the value of a healthy secularity.
What has changed in relations between Islam and the Catholic Church since 11 September?
TAURAN: In the West now Islam causes fear. Not only that. In the West now it is religion, any religion that causes fear. For many young people, who don’t have any particular spiritual training, religion is equivalent to terror. So true is it that a few months ago a book was published in London with the symptomatic title: God is not great. How religion poisons everything by Christopher Hitchens. With 11 September then we have understood what can inspire hatred. Because it was hatred that armed those suicide bombers. A hatred of Judeo-Christian civilization. With that logic everything is possible. What can one do against a suicide bomber? While the martyr gives his life in order to save other lives, the terrorist kills for the sake of killing. The Pope however has condemned terrorism and I know of no condemnation of terrorism as strong and decided as that pronounced by Benedict XVI before the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on 9 January 2006: «No circumstance is valid to justify such criminal activity, that covers in infamy those who perpetrate it, and that is the more deprecable when religion is used as shield, so debasing the pure truth of God to the level of one’s own blindness and moral perversion». We must do everything so that the religions spread brotherhood and not hatred.
Benedict XVI during the audience granted to ambassadors from countries with Muslim majority accredited to the Holy See and to some representatives of the Muslim communities present in Italy, 
25 September 2006 at Castel Gandolfo

Benedict XVI during the audience granted to ambassadors from countries with Muslim majority accredited to the Holy See and to some representatives of the Muslim communities present in Italy, 25 September 2006 at Castel Gandolfo

Do you think that the famous speech of the Pope in Regensburg has really compromised dialogue with Islam?
TAURAN: At first, yes. Then, however, above all during the following visit to Turkey, the Pope explained himself very well. The meeting in Castel Gandolfo on 25 September with the diplomats from the countries with Muslim majority, in which the Pope renewed his words of esteem and respect for Islam was very important. Esteem and respect that he had already manifested on 20 August 2005 during the World Youth Day in Cologne when, meeting the representatives of some Muslim communities, he said: «The inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to a seasonal option. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which our future much depends». And that explains why he decided to maintain the autonomy of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue.
In fact it seemed that the Pontifical Council might be incorporated with some other Department. Whereas the notion has turned out not to be true. The fault or the merit of the speech in Regensburg mentioned?
TAURAN: I think the problems that arose with the Regensburg speech and the visit to Turkey made it necessary to consider the importance of having an appropriate ministry for dialogue with Islam and the other religions.
Do you think that the Church must discuss only with the more moderate Muslims elements or is it necessary to speak with the fundamentalist or integralist groups?
TAURAN: In principle the Holy See speaks with everyone because it has and wants no enemies. Of course it’s difficult to talk to people who kill before opening their mouths. It would certainly be a fine thing if one could bring the terrorists to their senses with words. But I doubt that it’s possible. We must privilege dialogue with moderate Islam and also with the Muslim elements that though they may have a somewhat rigid vision of their faith still refuse the use of the violence.
What value do you put on the recent setting up of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United Arab Emirates. I ask you also as a former diplomat.
TAURAN: It is a resounding demonstration that there are Muslim communities that are not closed to dialogue. And that the slanted interpretations of the Regensburg speech have not, thanks be to God, blocked development even of diplomatic relations with Muslim countries.
As Vatican “Minister of Foreign Affairs” you visited many Muslim countries. What encounters do you remember in a particular way?
TAURAN: I remember a visit to Morocco where I spoke with King Hassan, father of the present sovereign, who has a great spiritual vision of reality. Then I’ve met President Mubarak of Egypt, the late King Hussein of Jordan and the late Syrian president Afez Hassad. All people out of the common run.
Have you also been to Iran?
TAURAN: Yes, and I shall always remember a splendid conversation with the then president Khatami in which we discussed, among other things, Saint Thomas Aquinas, of whom he is a close reader.
In the past, always as Vatican “Minister of Foreign Affairs”, you expressed strong criticism of the Anglo-American attack on the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Do you feel you were prophetic?
TAURAN: The facts speak for themselves. It was a mistake to marginalize the international community. Unjust methods were used. What do we see today? The power is in the grip of the strongest, the Shiites, and the country is plummeting into a sectarian civil war that does not spare even the Christians, who paradoxically were better protected under the dictatorship. Not to mention the negative repercussions for the regional equilibrium. It doesn’t seem to me that there is any positive outcome to the Anglo-American initiative. I would have preferred to be a poor prophet. But unfortunately that’s not how it’s been.
Benedict XVI with professor Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey, Ankara, 28 November 2006

Benedict XVI with professor Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey, Ankara, 28 November 2006

The Pontifical Council does not only deal with Islam, but also with the spiritual traditions of great emergent countries such as China and India. What is your assessment of the prospects for dialogue with those worlds?
TAURAN: It is well to remember this. We must in fact have dialogue with Islam, but we must be aware of the ever greater importance – in the West also – of these great religions and the spiritual experiences that are Hinduism, Buddhism, the Confucian tradition, Shintoism. I’ve read that the third religion in Europe – after Christianity and Islam – is precisely Buddhism. Again in this case it’s important to get to know each other and each of us can learn something from the other. The Christians, who have perhaps given the impression of devoting themselves too much to the social aspects of their faith, can gain from them a deeper spiritual impulse. Whereas on the other hand these Eastern religious traditions, that often appear indifferent to the material fate of individuals and peoples, can rediscover the taste and passion of the social and political engagement in favor of one’s neighbor. Recently I happened to visit a great Buddhist monastery in the south of Taiwan and I was favorably impressed by the great sense of welcome and the great spirit of prayer. Dialogue, however, must not make us think that all religions are equal, but that all those who are in search of God must be respected because they have the same dignity. It’s always well to remember that.
Speaking of the countries of the Far East. What impression did you get of the Pope’s recent letter to the Catholics of the People’s Republic of China?
TAURAN: To me it seemed almost a small encyclical. It is a profound text, meditated, substantial. It presents a detailed picture of the status quaestionis, and also offers authoritative and precious indications for healing the divisions in the Catholic community and also for respectful dialogue with the government authorities.
How do you see the future of relations between Rome and Beijing?
TAURAN: Personally I believe that normalization of relationships between the People’s Republic and the Holy See is not a priority for the government authorities at the moment. But I would be very happy to be wrong.
As a French cardinal what do you think of the motu proprio Summorum pontificum liberalizing the use of what is known as the missal of Saint Pius V?
TAURAN: I was much struck by the covering letter from the Holy Father, it’s very enlightening. It explains the reasons for his decision very well. I regret the fact that in the past few months more than a few people busied themselves with predicting a judgment, mostly negative, from a text they hadn’t read. This motu proprio testifies to the desire for communion animating this stage of the pontificate. The Pope did it not least to resolve the separation of the so-called Lefebvrians, to readmit them into full communion with Rome. A bit like he has done with the letter to the Chinese faithful, so that they may fully live the communion between themselves and with the Holy See.


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