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Inter-religious Dialogue in Rome
Interview with Dan Madigan SJ

The Religion Report, Radio National
Wednesday 2/10/2002

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/relrpt/stories/s691172.htm


At Rome's Gregorian University, an Australian Jesuit priest has established a new Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures.


Stephen Crittenden: In Rome, an Australian Jesuit priest with an expertise in Islam has just launched what may be a milestone in inter-religious dialogue.

Father Daniel Madigan SJ is to be the first President of a new Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, which he’s founded, based at Rome’s famous and prestigious Gregorian University. It will specialise in dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and will offer courses to all students at the University. I spoke to Dan Madigan in New York City, while he was there, and asked him to describe how it will all operate.

Daniel Madigan: It’s aimed to train people to work in the field of inter-religious dialogue. My specialty is Muslim-Christian dialogue of course, but we do cover other religions as well, and one of our main concerns is Jewish-Christian dialogue. We have courses also in Asian religions and a number of courses in Hinduism, Buddhism and things like that. We’re aiming not just to train specialists in this field, although that’s one of our principal aims, but the idea is to get this kind of study on the agenda right throughout the university. So you’ve got 3,000 students there studying theology, philosophy and so on, many of whom are going to be leaders in one way or another in their respective churches. And so it’s important for them to study their theology, already taking account of other people’s beliefs, and other ways of looking at the same evidence about God.

Stephen Crittenden: I think many people would have the idea that inter-religious dialogue is something that takes place between theologians and religious leaders, that it perhaps doesn’t have any real practical influence on improving the kind of relations between Christians and Muslims in the wider world, particularly in the kind of post-September 11 world. Are there actually practical advantages to be drawn out of this kind of dialogue?

Daniel Madigan: I do, I think the most important dialogue is not the kind of dialogue that goes on between theologians and officials and diplomats and one thing and another. That kind of dialogue actually can be quite frustrating because everyone’s got one eye on their catechism or another eye on who’s going to say what about the positions they hold. The most important kind of dialogue is actually the day-to-day dialogue which doesn’t consist in talking about religion, but it consists in talking about what are you going to do in local politics, what are you going to do about the curriculum in your school, what are you going to do about some situation that’s arisen in your neighbourhood? It’s that kind of dialogue, the dialogue of action or the dialogue of living, which is much more important than the official dialogues and the kind of expert dialogues. Although obviously, given it’s my field, I think there is some place for that.

Stephen Crittenden: Indeed. Has September 11 renewed your excitement about your own field?

Daniel Madigan: Excitement? I don’t know. It’s certainly renewed my sense of urgency, there’s no doubt about it, but I’m living in the US at the moment, doing some research, and all the talk here about war and somehow the belief that these things can be solved by increasing security and increasing arms spending and so on, that gives me a much greater sense of urgency because I think we just can’t do it that way. We’re not going to solve these issues by building tighter bastions, we’re only going to solve the problem by actually coming to terms with people.

Stephen Crittenden: Indeed your Institute is, I understand, attracting Islamic students, presumably there to study their own religion ?

Daniel Madigan: No they’re actually there to study Christianity, although they do take my courses in Islam for example, which is very interesting for me, as I hope it is for them. But they’ve come to Rome principally to study Christianity, they study also Judaism, they study Hinduism, Buddhism etc. We insist that every student has a basic grasp of the range of religions but each student specialises in one religion or another, and the Muslims tend to specialise in Christianity, partly because they’re interested in dealing with these issues that arise between us. I find them among the most interesting students actually.

Stephen Crittenden: I understand the Jesuits in Europe have been very involved in working with immigrant Muslim communities, and I want to ask you, as someone interested in dialogue, whether there are problems associated with multiculturalism that need to be overcome in the post-September 11 environment. I’m thinking of the idea that the ghetto promotes isolation, not dialogue.

Daniel Madigan: The ghetto.

Stephen Crittenden: How many of these people would be living in a ghetto, on the edges of large European cities I imagine?

Daniel Madigan: Yes, it varies a lot from place to place. There are some European cities where Muslims actually live right in the centre of the city, there are others where they’re out in the suburbs, and as you say, it does make quite a difference, depending on whether people are marginalised, and it depends again on whether they’re from previously colonised countries, or whether they’re immigrants from a culture that has had no colonial contacts. There are lots of factors that come into play. I think the thing about Europe is that most European countries see themselves as mono-cultures, they see themselves as though there is an identifiable national culture, and that’s certainly true in Italy the way people talk. But what we’re trying to do is address that question and to say to people, Well, in fact if you take the immigrants, if you take the Muslims and the Hindus and so on out of the equation, when you just talk about yourselves, in fact there are an enormous number of differences between Catholics and lay between North Italy and Southern Italy, between the rich and the poor, between the left and the right, and there is an enormous diversity of culture within Italy. But as soon as you mention immigrants, Italian speakers say there is only one culture.

Stephen Crittenden: I understand that there’s been in fact a rapid growth in anti-Muslim feeling among Italians, led indeed by politicians and intellectuals.

Daniel Madigan: Certainly by politicians. Also by some church people. There’s been a Cardinal, Cardinal Biffi and a number of bishops have been quite outspoken about this. And I don’t think they’ve done anyone a favour, because really the talk is rather alarmist. The numbers we’re talking about are relatively small, and in fact if you look at the figures, there are lots more Italians who are converting to Buddhism or to being Jehovah’s Witnesses for example, than ever think about becoming Muslim.

Stephen Crittenden: I have read though that there’s some real concern that Italy may have become one of the European centres for Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

Daniel Madigan: I think that’s quite overstated. There are some rather outspoken people speaking in mosques here and there, but the large majority of people are there in the west because they want to be in the west, they’re not in the west because they hate the west, they’re not in the west because they want to make the west Muslim, they’re in the west because they don’t want to be where they were before.

Stephen Crittenden: We forget that, don’t we? I read a United Nations report on development in the Arabic world that’s just come out a few weeks ago, in which half the young people in the Middle East, half the Arabic young people interviewed said they wanted to come and live in the west.

Daniel Madigan: Of course, and that’s the thing we do indeed forget, that the Arab world and the Muslim world more generally doesn’t hate the west, because so many of them actually want to come and live here. What they hate I think is the sense of exclusiveness, a certain arrogance that we have in the west, and there are certainly things that we’ve failed in many ways, the US sponsors corrupt regimes here and there when it suits them to protect oil. Every country has its political interests, and I think the failure to deal with those issues in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Palestinian situation obviously fuels this sense of anger. But I think above all, there is a sense of desire to live with the freedoms of the west, to enjoy the development of the west.

Stephen Crittenden: Father Daniel Madigan, SJ.

Fr Daniel Madigan SJ
President, Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, Gregorian University, Rome

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