VATICAN CITY — For Italian-born writer Oriana Fallaci, the idea of moderation in Islam is a fraud and an illusion; tolerance of Muslims is a comedy; integration by them is a lie; and multiculturalism is a farce.

And, she warned recently, Muslim immigration at a time when Europe is suffering declining birth rates is turning the continent into “Eurabia.”

It's not surprising that a person with such strident views against Islam is highly controversial. So many wondered why, just three weeks after expressing these sentiments in an Italian newspaper, Fallaci was received Aug. 27 by Pope Benedict XVI in a confidential private audience at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

The audience, which was requested by the 76-year-old author, was supposed to be kept confidential in accordance with Fallaci's wishes, but one of Fallaci's associates is believed to have leaked news of the meeting to the press.

Fallaci, a New York resident, has become notorious for her outspoken attacks on Islam since the Sept. 11 attacks. In the three books she has written on Islam — all bestsellers — her comments have been so strong that an Italian judge recently ordered she stand trial for offending Muslims in her most recent book, The Force of Reason.

Fallaci's previous diatribes have also made her subject to legal proceedings in France and Switzerland.

Why They Met

So why did the Pope agree to meet Fallaci? Vatican officials say it is in line with the ministry of every pope to grant, or at least carefully consider, audiences to all those who request to meet him, in keeping with the universal nature of the Church.

Furthermore, they say the meeting with Fallaci reflects the wisdom of a Pope who is willing to listen carefully to secular opinion — Fallaci describes herself as a “devout atheist”— and express his concerns about the effect her works might have on others.

“That the Pope should receive Oriana Fallaci and talk with her should not surprise anyone,” Bishop Rino Fisichella, auxiliary bishop of Rome, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Sept. 4. “It is set in a cultural context. It's a part of the meetings with learned men and women that Cardinal Ratzinger always had and that Benedict XVI will continue to have.”

The bishop, who is also rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, said the meeting was not “political.” Rather, Benedict sees Fallaci “as an interpreter of our times” who “raises an alarm signal on a danger, and asked to speak with the Pope in a discreet way,” he said.

Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, said a meeting with someone like Fallaci was “extremely important” as she “raises polemics and makes people debate the issues.” And just because the Pope is aware of the need to talk with those holding her perspectives, he added, “doesn't mean that he necessarily agrees with her views.”

Indeed, if he did, the Holy Father's address last month in Cologne, Germany, to Muslim communities during World Youth Day — during which he highlighted the commonalities that exist between Muslims and Christians and the need to work together on these shared values — would have seemed disingenuous at best.

“Anyone who is claiming that Pope Benedict agrees with the views of Fallaci — or even 10% of them — must be presuming that he was being dishonest when he spoke to Muslims in Cologne and several times called them ‘dear and esteemed Muslim friends,’” said Jesuit Father Daniel Madigan, president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. “I prefer to believe that the Holy Father says what he means, and means what he says.”

Fallaci is believed to have wanted to explore with Benedict possible parallels in their attitudes to Islam. If so, she was probably being unrealistic, particularly as some of her harsh criticisms of Islam are historically inaccurate, critics said following the Aug. 27 meeting.

Pietro Citati, of the Italian daily La Repubblica, dismissed Fallaci as an exhibitionist and intellectual lightweight, saying that she “ignores that Jews and Christians inherited Greek culture not from St. Augustine [as she writes] but from traditional and ancient Arab texts.”

Added Citati, “She ignores the fact that the caliphate of Cordoba was a period of splendor, the most civilized place on earth.”

Shared Ideas

Aside from their differing judgments on Islam itself, there are other areas of greater convergence in the ideas of the Pope and Fallaci. Both see freedom of thought as being threatened in Europe, although for Pope Benedict, secularism and relativism are largely the cause; for Fallaci it is an “Islamic invasion.”

Both also see a rejection and self-hatred of Europe's past — manifested in a failure to recognize Christian roots for Benedict, and in ignorance of history for Fallaci — as leading to a collapse of civilization. And both see this problem arising in declines in morality and spirituality that, according to Fallaci, is fueled by decadence.

“The moment you give up your principles and your values … the moment you laugh at those principles and those values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilization is dead,” Fallaci said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in June. Fallaci later spoke of her admiration for the Holy Father. “I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger,”she said.

Whatever the underlying reasons for the Aug. 27 papal audience, it was entirely fitting for Benedict to grant it, Father Lacunza-Balda stressed.

“The important thing in a pope's ministry is that people meet,” said Fr. Lacunza-Balda. “This meeting will have helped [the Pope] to understand her works, see things more clearly and avoid approaching them in a confused mind.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.