Monday, February 20, 2006

Archbishop Fitzgerald Reassigned: What does it mean?

I arrived at work this morning to the news that Archbishop Fitzgerald (President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) has been reassigned as Nuncio to Egypt. There has been a good deal of speculation about this, but the reports that I find most interesting are in Catholic World News and John Allen’s Word from Rome.

Even before I read Allen’s comments, I asked myself “Is this to be read as a vote of no confidence in Mons. Fitzgerald?”, and answered “No, not possible” for two reasons: 1) as Allen reports, Fitzgerald is very moderate in his approach, and I would say that he has always represented the Church in interfaith affairs with the greatest fidelity; 2) he would have to be the Vatican’s most expert theologian in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. When I put the last consideration together with the fact that the Al-Azhar University is in Egypt, and the Vatican relates to Al-Azhar as the major partner in the dialogue with Islam, the whole thing “clicked”, and (if you will excuse my lack of humility) I felt confident that I could see what Benedict is thinking on this.

CWN reports that “his departure may be a signal that the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue will be eliminated”. That may be the hope of a certain element “right-of-centre” Catholicism that has never accepted the fact that the Church is committed to interreligious dialogue, but I don’t believe a word of it. It would certainly be a very counter-intuitive move in a “post-Sept-11” world. The work of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission in Melbourne has more than doubled in the last five years and all because of the importance that interfaith dialogue has on the Melbourne scene. I believe this is mirrored in other dioceses, and can’t for the life of me see how it does not apply to the Vatican. I also can’t square this forecast with the Pope’s own stated commitment to interreligious relations.

I had the pleasure of being a part of a conference in which the Archbishop was the key facilitator back in 2002. I credit him with “converting” me (a very conservative convert to Catholicism) to the value of interfaith dialogue. I have been hoping ever since that he would be recognised with a cardinal’s hat, and acknowledge that his redeployment to Egypt will at least put this development on hold. I hope, however, that John Allen is right in suggesting that this may simply be a “detour” rather than a “roadblock” along that road.

It could well be that Pope Benedict is less concerned with his prelates’ career paths, and more concerned with getting the right man for the job (ie. putting people where their Spirit-given gifts can shine for all the world to see). For which we would all be thankful.

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