Benedict's blunder undermines interfaith dialogue

19th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

Many commentators are saying that Pope Benedict XVI's controversial comments on Islam have undermined relations between Catholics and Muslims. We look at the possible consequences of the Pope's remarks.

The Pope's remarks during his visit to Germany have angered Muslims

Pope Benedict XVI was never a fan of political correctness.

But even Catholic experts concede that his controversial speech on Islam has proved to be a major public relations blunder that risks undermining dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world for years to come.

Moreover, Benedict's words have sparked alarm within the Vatican over the safety of Catholics living in Islamic countries and has raised serious questions about the competence of his closest advisors.

In what was being described Monday as "an unprecedented about- face," Benedict on Sunday said he was "deeply sorry" for the reactions that his public address at the University of Regensburg had caused in the Islamic world.

No retraction

In his speech in Germany last week, the pope quoted a 14th-century Christian emperor as referring to elements of the Muslim faith as "evil and inhuman".

Benedict insisted that the quotation "in no way" reflected his personal thoughts on the matter. But he did not retract and fell short of issuing a formal apology, as some Muslim clerics had demanded.

Though moderate Muslims welcomed his "correction", latest reports indicate that it has failed to stop the violent backlash that his speech has sparked among Islam's extremists.

Protests and violence

Images of the pope were burnt in Pakistan while an Iraqi cell of al Qaeda called for a jihad (Holy War) against the "worshippers of the cross."

In Iran, some 200 clerics and seminary students gathered on Sunday in Qom, 135 kilometres south of the capital Tehran, to protest against what they called anti-Islamic remarks by Pope Benedict.

Meanwhile, the murder of an Italian nun in Sunni Muslim Somalia has sparked major concerns over the security of Italy's 15,000 Catholic missionaries, many of whom live in Muslim countries such as Sudan, Turkey and Indonesia.

A mistake

Many Vatican experts in Rome regard the pope's speech, seen as portraying Islam as a religion that implicitly endorses violence, as a mistake.

"The West's relation with Islam is the most delicate issue facing our time. It is precisely for this reason that a religious leader like the pope should be very careful about what he says," Marco Politi, one of Italy's most respected papal watchers, told Deutsche Presse Agentur dpa.

One Vatican insider who followed the pope's visit to Germany said that though Benedict meant no harm with his speech, "he should have seen it coming".

"The pope's speeches are normally checked beforehand by the Vatican's press office and officials at the Secretary of State. So his address in Regensburg raises questions about what kind of advice he is getting when talking about such sensitive issues, as well as the pope's knowledge of how the media works," the insider, who asked not to be named, told dpa.

Promoting dialogue

Eberhard Gemmingen, a Jesuit who heads the German section of Vatican Radio, defends the pope and says his words were intended to promote a serious dialogue with Islam.

"Until recently, the Muslim world was convinced that the West tends to ridicule God - as the recent controversy over the Mohammed cartoons showed - and that the pope was one of them. But Benedict merely wanted to show that we believe in a rational God, and as such is against all forms of violence," Gemmingen told dpa.

John L. Allen, in his latest column for the National Catholic Reporter, notes that Benedict is not one to "allow his thinking to be channelled by the taboos and fashions of ordinary public discourse".

The pope's well-known stance against "relativism" - a philosophical doctrine whereby all criteria of judgment are relative to the individuals and situations involved - clearly demonstrates this.

Possible implications

But Politi believes Benedict should have been more careful when talking about Islam. Moreover, he argues that his blunder risks having major implications for Catholic-Muslim relations.

"The (pope's) unfortunate anti-Mohammed citation is much more than a communications mistake. It violently brings to the surface the change of tack made by Joseph Ratzinger in comparison to the strategy carried out for decades by his predecessor John Paul II."

Politi notes that while John Paul actively engaged in dialogue with the Muslim elite and always stressed the "common faith" that unites Muslims, Christians and Jews under one God, Ratzinger has ended up unravelling years of laborious diplomatic efforts carried out by the Vatican towards Islam.

Watering down

 One of Ratzinger's first decisions as pope was to water down the powers of the Church's Council for Interreligious Dialogue by giving the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture temporary control over dialogue with Muslims.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's recently-appointed Secretary of State, is now suggesting this will have to change in the future.

"I hope that dialogue between the Church and Islam will resume. In this context, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is being offered a chance to increase its role," Bertone told Corriere della Sera.

In a highly controversial document published six years ago, when he was still head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger wrote that only the Roman Catholic Church provides the means for salvation and that followers of non-Christian religions are "gravely deficient".

As Politi points out, the underlying question now facing the Church is the following: "Does Ratzinger want to deal with the Islamic world as merely a cultural partner, or is he willing to recognise that Islam should enjoy the same status as Christianity?"

19 September 2006

Copyright DPA with Expatica 2006

Subject: German news, Pope Benedict XVI, Islam, Catholic Church, Christian-Muslim relations

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