Viene qui riproposta un’intervista al cardinal Scola pubblicata dal mensile cattolico “Inside the Vatican” sul numero di giugno-luglio.

A scholar and pastor, Cardinal Angelo Scola, has been a close friend of Pope Benedict XVI for over four decades, and is considered by many in Rome as the Italian frontrunner to succeed the German Pope, were a conclave to be held in the future. 

This intellectual son of a Socialist truck driver and a Catholic mother, he was for many years an active member of the Communion and Liberation Movement which he credits with fostering his vocation to the priesthood. 

A brilliant student, he gained doctorates in philosophy from the Catholic University of Milan and in theology from Fribourg University, Switzerland, where he also taught. Appointed by John Paul II as Rector of the Lateran University in 1995, he is credited with raising its academic standing during his six years’ tenure there. 

In the early 1970s, he collaborated with Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou and Joseph Ratzinger in the prestigious international Catholic journal “Communio”, of which he was editor for many years.  A polyglot and author of many books and countless articles, he is  considered the foremost intellectual in the Italian hierarchy. 

With 14 years of pastoral experience in governing two dioceses, this original, creative pastor and thinker is also a man of dialogue. As Patriarch of Venice he has worked hard to build bridges to the Orthodox Churches and the Muslim world, in the latter case by launching the Oasis project in 2004.  This highly articulate religious leader has often spoken out fearlessly in defense of fundamental human rights, the Church, the family and moral values. 

The following is part of a longer interview he granted to Gerard O’Connell at the Patriarchate in Venice, earlier this year.


Q. What do you see as some of the main challenges facing the Church today? 

A. I think the principal challenge, which the Church shares with every other social subject in the field, is the interpretation of the post-modern. To me the question is: have we, or have we not entered the post-modern world?  

Certainly the collapse of the Berlin Wall has marked a rather radical mutation that can be seen in certain macroscopic phenomena. 

Indeed what is happening today in the Maghreb, in the Middle East, is like a second phase of what happened in 1989. There is obviously a strong desire for freedom on the part of peoples on the world stage, and that comes with an urgent demand for real participation.  

This has complicated even more that which I call the process of the mixing (mestizaje) of civilizations and cultures; that is, a process of movement and displacement of peoples which will become even more radical in the coming decades. All this has made it more urgent for us in Europe to gain a deeper knowledge of Islam. 

Then there is the question of the powerful, rapid progress of techno-sciences, especially in bio-engineering, cloning, bio-convergence, informatics, biology, molecular physics, neuroscience, the civilization of the social networks and so on.  

All these phenomena are producing a different kind of man and so the challenge for the Church is the same as for all humanity: what kind of man does the man of the 3rd millennium wish to be?


Q What is your own view on this? 

A.  Some ten years ago when I was in Munich, I bought a copy of Die Welt and there was an entire page written by a young German philosopher of science named De Jong under the banner headline: “Man is only his own experiment!”  

It is clear that we are faced here with a framework that is radically different from that which prevailed up to the 1980s, and it seems to me that the Church, in this context, has to insist on the fact that the ‘I’ does not exist without relations. This is the point. Because it is from the ‘I’-in-relation that the dynamism of the truth, the good and the beautiful is documented within the human family and, in my view, this fact is irrepressible. 

We must question ourselves a lot about the meaning of birth. In the history of mankind birth has meant, and will continue to represent a fact which is for me overarching: ‘it is impossible to self-procreate and it will be so always’.  Even if in 100 years I can clone myself automatically, the clone that I produce will be other than me, and it will not be generated from itself.  

Therefore, the challenges are at the anthropological, social, cosmological and ecological levels, and they are the challenges of humanity. Since the Church of Christ is the presence of a God who became incarnate, who has engaged, and continues to be involved with humankind, it has to respond to these challenges of humanity.

In this sense, I think that we must value with much realism all the positive things that emerge from these major shifts and discoveries, while accepting the elements of contradiction that are found in every passage of civilization. 


Q. Is the Church facing this problem in an adequate way? 

A. The problem in itself is a common one: who is this man of the Third Millennium? Certainly today there is the risk of the domination of an individualistic identity. In the example where ‘Man is only his own experiment’ this identity is sensational. 

The risk is that man thinks of himself as freed from every bond, and so as ‘a self-made man’.  This nullifies the exchange between the generations, it nullifies education in the proper sense of the term, and leads to many phenomena that we see in the anthropological transformations and ways of understanding sexuality, love, parenthood, work, and so on. 

It seems to me that in this context the mission of the Church is more relevant than ever.  Indeed, I believe that the Christian proposal is particularly relevant now, because if we read the Gospel we see it revolves around the theme of happiness and freedom:  Jesus said, if you wish to be happy, come and follow me, and he who follows me will be truly free. It inserts the dynamic of truth, good and beauty within the horizon of happiness and freedom.

So when the Christian proposal is freed – above all in Europe and in the northern hemisphere – from the many things that weigh it down, because of the contradictions and sins of the men and women of the Church, and is re-proposed in its youthful simplicity as an encounter with a humanity made whole by Christ, then it is more relevant than ever.


Q. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Church as it faces these challenges? 

A.  They are those which Benedict XVI has formulated at the beginning of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (‘God is Love’), namely, that the nature of Christianity is a personal encounter with Christ in the Christian community. We see this clearly in those people who have encountered Christ and witness to the beauty of a humanity that has succeeded. 

The weakness is the continuing existence of that which Paul VI denounced: the dualism between faith and life.  This is evident when one does not experience how the relation with Christ impacts on one’s daily life, including one’s affective and work life, or how Church life is relevant to all this, and so one tends to conclude that the practice of the Christian life is useless, and one tends to put it aside. 

The paramount task of the Church – which the Pope has understood well by deciding to create a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization – is to announce Christ in all the settings of human existence and to simplify the life of the Christian community in the parishes and dioceses so that they may be better suited to people today, especially to the young, to the people who have a family and work. 

It’s a substantial problem to regain the link between faith and life, to understand how the faith is relevant to my life. This requires the way of relations; it cannot be done by oneself alone, it requires a living community of people who can communicate their experience. 


Q You have visited many Churches in the southern hemisphere and you have described them as “beacons of hope”.  Why? 

A. These are Churches of the first evangelization, and they maintain a vitality and freshness in which the primacy of life renewed by Christ is palpable. 

Then, too, one sees a spirit of joyfulness in all the African churches, where the liturgy is often positively incarnated, and where the depth of fraternal relations in Christ is tangible, notwithstanding the problems and contradictions that all people have. It is particularly striking to see how the experience of the mystery is an experience of joy.

I have seen this many times in Africa, I have seen it in Asia, in the Philippines, in Brazil and other parts of Latin America, although these situations are quite different. 

So I consider these Churches as signs of hope because I think they can rejuvenate the entire fabric of the Catholic Church. But it remains to be seen how the themes we have spoken about earlier will impact on them.


Q.  Many of these Churches face the problem of how to relate to other religions, often being minority Churches.  You have given much attention to this matter. Do you think the Church today has grasped this problem well? 

A.   The Catholic Church, in my view, particularly since the Second Vatican Council and also because it has given a very high importance to the practice of ecumenism, is facing the question of inter-religious dialogue with great realism. But it takes time to find a proper balance. 

I recall an affirmation of the then Cardinal Ratzinger which was more or less this: inter-religious dialogue is an intrinsic experience of the Christian Church, it is not something contingent, imposed from outside. It is not imposed by the fact that today we have 15 million Muslims in Europe, though this makes it more urgent for us to engage in inter-religious dialogue.  

The need for dialogue is intrinsic to the Christian experience. This is so because the Christian experience is an encounter with the Risen Christ that arouses faith, but faith in a human being who tends by his very nature to religion. Man expresses himself in rites, in worship, in tradition. So already within the Christian faith one has this continuous relationship between faith and religion, by which faith is taken by religion and religion must be taken and purified by faith. 

In this sense I do not agree with Karl Barth’s thesis that Christianity is only faith and not religion, because every faith tends to be a faith of the people and so tends to become a religion.  Therefore my faith as a Christian has to come to terms with religion.  

A crucial dimension of Religion is Tradition (with a capital ‘T’), which for me is expressed especially in the Eucharist illuminated by the Word of God, authentically interpreted by the Church’s teaching authority (Magisterium), on which contingent traditions have been, and still are, inserted, but which can be modified.


Q.  You are referring to popular religion? 

A.  Yes. Popular religion takes many forms. So this attitude, by which my Christian faith encounters the religious expressions of Christianity, helps me also relate to religious expressions of a different kind – Muslim, Hindu and so on. 

An effective dialogue requires that I engage my faith in a dynamic way. It implies an identity, but a dynamic identity, and so we return to what we spoke about earlier: what is Christianity?  

The event of Christ, by which he gives himself as a gift to mankind to be the way, the truth and the life, is open to dialogue at 360 degrees. But if I reduce Christianity to a question of doctrine only, then I reduce it to a dialogue of a purely speculative kind. 

Certainly, Christianity implies a doctrine and moral teaching, but they are incarnated in the life of a person and in the life of a community.  Therefore, if I practice the Christian life for what it is – ‘the good life’ which the Gospel documents and witnesses to – then I can go and dialogue with everyone. 

It’s sufficient to go to India where there are many mixed marriages between Hindus and Christians and there one sees how people practice inter-religious dialogue in daily life, for example, in the way husband and wife love each other, or in the way they educate their children. 

On the other hand, it is also necessary to have reflection of a theological and cultural kind such as is happening, indeed flourishing, in many places today. One example of this is the small Oasis experience that we started here in Venice which is dedicated above all to the reciprocal knowledge.  

The first step in dialogue is knowledge, getting to know the other.  This is fundamental because, as it is evident today, if one asks an Italian or European Catholic “what is Islam?”, more than 90% would not know how to answer. I’m sure the same would be true vice versa for Muslims, if we question them about Christianity. 

It seems to me that, generally speaking, as Christians we are well on the way in terms of inter-religious dialogue, but it is an epochal question and requires a lot of time.


Q. From your experience with the Oasis project, could you describe one inter-religious experience that really encouraged you and one which depressed you? 

A. The things that give encouragement are small things, but they offer the chance to value, to appreciate ‘the Islam of the people’.  

We at Oasis do not like the expression ‘moderate Islam’, because often ‘moderate Islam’ is identified with one or other isolated Muslim intellectual who has his own ideas which, generally speaking, do not have much influence on the people. Nevertheless, this relationship with ‘moderate’ Muslim philosophers or thinkers is important, and should not be neglected.  

At Oasis, on the other hand, we have begun to encounter here and there some experiences of what I call ‘the Islam of the people’, which are very beautiful. 

One such experience of “Islam of the people” is in Jordan. It’s known that a very high percentage of the Jordanian people are disabled in various ways, some 10% of the population, because of problems related to tribal intermarriages.  So an association was founded here to assist these people. It is composed of Muslims and Christians and involves hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country, with a series of truly impressive houses and activities to respond to this great need for assistance. They work stupendously well together.  There are very beautiful places for reflection too.  That is a sign of the ‘Islam of the people’ which we at Oasis greatly appreciate; it is a real sign of hope. 

Another very beautiful experience was in Kosovo, where the Christian minority – in Pristina and Pec – set up places of encounter, ‘upper rooms’, for the overcoming of hate. Families whose sons were killed came together with other families in a similar situation. The Christians started this experience and involved the Muslims too in a very fine way. 

In this same region of Pec, I myself met the city’s Muslim leaders who had just decided to rebuild a Catholic church that had been destroyed in a village during the war.  

These positive signs of dialogue are silently multiplying, and are taking up again the great tradition of the Christian missionaries in that context. They have always worked and respected everyone, especially through the schools and hospitals they established, where they’ve accepted everybody without discrimination. 

I consider these experiences as some of the most positive elements on which we must insist in inter-religious dialogue.


Q. Small is beautiful! 

A. I hope that this spreads ever more because I see that when people are not manipulated they want this kind of thing. 

But the most delicate element perhaps, which one sees in the crisis that has exploded in the Maghreb and throughout the Middle East, is that it is necessary to foster an evolution in Islam so as to arrive at a distinction between the religious dimension and the civil dimension. 

We know the regimes in the Middle East were modeled on a certain juridical and institutional structure of a Western brand, but this was then used by monarchies or oligarchies for their own interests. Now we have to wait and see whether the spaces that are being freed up can allow this evolution. 

From this point of view, we in Europe have a great responsibility today. When we started the Oasis Project six or seven years ago, I was somewhat skeptical of talking about an Italian Islam, a French Islam, an European Islam. But then, in some of the scientific committees of our project, we have seen that in France something of this kind is actually emerging, and we now understand that Europe can become a laboratory through which the dialogue with Islam can foster a reciprocal evolution. 

Certainly the Church has much to say here, as all civil society has. The Church can make itself felt especially by welcoming Muslims and opening spaces for dialogue. 

In the north of Italy, for example, Church structures linked to parishes are regularly frequented by many Muslims, and, in the same way, Catholic and Muslim children get to know each other in the Church schools.  

In my view, the evolution and overcoming of an imprecise conception of multiculturalism, both in the English and French versions, appears to be a significant fact today. Europe is therefore a laboratory for the future in which this difficulty of Islam – which degenerates into fundamentalism and terrorism when it is not well interpreted – is overcome. This gives hope.


Q. Speaking of Islam, do you think the negative effect of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture has been overcome? 

A. As you know, that was followed by the famous manifesto of 138 Muslims, who signed a common letter to the Pope and other Christian leaders. Then there was the visit of the King of Saudi Arabia, which has been greatly underestimated, but was, in fact, quite significant.


Q. This is true, but when I visited Jordan, Palestine and Turkey, I discovered that whereas the leaders and intellectuals in these countries have accepted or adjusted to what the Pope said, the same is not true of ordinary people, of the man on the Muslim street.  There one finds a lack of trust in the Pope. I know the same is true in many majority Muslim states in Asia. Is that your experience too? 

A.  I think that, certainly, the misunderstandings at the level of the people are still very strong, because the fundamentalist element has extraordinary means of propaganda today. 

Here the remedy is patient education, an educational enterprise which should be lived also as an enterprise in which all the subjects in the field are involved. In this sense, the great Christian tradition of schools and hospitals remain for me the high road also to overcome this obstacle. 

We have tried to approach this by setting up scientific committees as part of the Oasis project. We did so in Venice, Cairo, Amman and Beirut, and now we’d like to have one in Damascus. There are difficulties, so we have to wait and see. 

One has to have the courage to maintain the wholeness of the Christian vision, because one can see that the problems are never separated. If we do not regenerate the Christian people here in Europe, all these questions will become great objections, because if there is no subject, there is no premise to frame any dialogue. 


Q.  Earlier you spoke about how you were impressed by the vitality of the Churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but what do you say to the fact that in the central government of the Church – in the College of Cardinals, in the Roman Curia – we see few people from these regions?  

A.  Well, there are some. But it seems to me that the process of the internationalization of the truly Catholic nature of the College of Cardinals, of the bishops and of the Roman Curia, is an unstoppable process; it is irreversible. 

It can be somewhat slow, but from Paul VI onwards, it is being accentuated. I believe, however, that this is very much linked to contingent factors, because in the Church one proceeds by a living communion. One does not proceed through the options of automatic democratic representations: so many Catholics in the South of the globe, therefore so many cardinals. 

The logic of numbers alone is not sufficient; one must balance it by the effective experiences of what the government of the Church is. Indeed, the Synod of bishops, with consultative power, has great weight and this should not be underestimated. 

Moreover, as the election of the last two popes clearly showed, there no longer exists the problem of the automatic choice of an Italian pope.  I think for the government of the Church all the doors are open.


Q. You say that the automatic choice of an Italian pope has been overcome, yet in Rome many people –in the Vatican and outside – are saying that after the Polish and German popes, and all the crises of this pontificate, we need an Italian pope once again to put order back in the Church. 

A   Well, we’ll see.  First of all, the Holy Father is very well and is doing his task in a formidable way, giving us a teaching of the highest level that is arousing enormous and impassioned dialogue throughout the whole world. 

In the second place, he is renewing the pastoral work of the Church through rooting it in the liturgy and the sacraments. 

Then, again, he is a pope who is portraying the profound nature of Christianity as an event and he is giving the lead here, he is testifying to this. 

I do not at all agree with those who say that this is a papacy which has generated crises.  There have been moments when he has had to take on his own shoulders great problems of men of the Church, and he did so by taking the lead, without ever pulling back. 


Q.  When one enters the Patriarch’s curial office here in Venice, and one sees these large portraits of your predecessors who became popes in the 20th century – Pius X, John XXIII, John Paul I – one cannot help but think, maybe… 

A.  I believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, makes use of everything, also the poverty of men, intervenes and makes his choice.


Q. Well, in Ireland they even place bets on who will be the next pope! 

(Big laughs all round…)