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VATICAN LETTER Sep-22-2006 (1,080 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Pope's blunt approach to dialogue strains existing interfaith bridges

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Two of Pope Benedict XVI's three foreign trips this year have generated interreligious incidents that quickly overshadowed the main message of the papal visits.

On both occasions, the pope was forced to explain himself and clarify misunderstandings after returning to Rome, in the hope that permanent relations -- first with Jews, then with Muslims -- would not be damaged.

After 17 months in office, Pope Benedict has discovered that the interfaith bridges built through years of patient dialogue under Pope John Paul II are easily strained.

In part, this reflects the reality of the contemporary world: Religious sensitivities are on edge, reactions are hair-trigger, and any perceived offense is amplified by the global media.

But it is also the result of the pope's long-standing penchant for speaking bluntly and provocatively on interreligious issues, to Catholics and to non-Christians.

"It is important that (interreligious) dialogue take place with much patience, much respect and, most of all, in total honesty," he said several years ago. For the pope, part of "total honesty" is the willingness to confront differences head-on.

In 2000, as head of the doctrinal congregation, the future pope underlined important limits on interreligious dialogue in the document "Dominus Iesus," which said other religions were in a "gravely deficient situation" in comparison with Christians.

Introducing the document to the press, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that while the church teaches that good things can exist in other religions "one cannot close one's eyes to the errors and illusions that are also present" in those religions.

That prompted such sharp criticism from non-Christian leaders that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an article in the Vatican newspaper, saying he was saddened and disappointed that people had misunderstood the true theme of the document. "Dominus Iesus," he said, was an invitation to Christians to strengthen their faith and not a critique of other religions.

Later that same year, Cardinal Ratzinger upset Jewish leaders when he said in an interview that the church was "waiting for the moment when Israel will say yes to Christ." He calmed that storm by writing another Vatican newspaper article, citing the special relationship between the Jewish people and God, and explaining that there must be no pressure on Jews to convert.

After his election, one of Pope Benedict's first acts was to pledge continued dialogue and cooperation with Jews.

But another bump was felt in May, during the pope's trip to Poland. In a speech at the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, the pope focused on the question of where was God during the Holocaust.

While Jewish and Christian scholars acknowledged the theological importance of that question, they wondered why the pope had not explored the role of Christians under Nazism or used the occasion to condemn anti-Semitism.

Three days after his trip, in the face of increasing questions, the pope explicitly condemned anti-Semitism and spoke of the Christian duty to prevent such "horrors" as occurred at Auschwitz. A month later, the Vatican issued a book detailing even more completely the pope's views on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Relations with Muslims have had their own ups and downs under Pope Benedict.

A week after his election, the pope told Muslim representatives that he would continue to build "bridges of friendship" with Islam and other faiths.

When the pope went to Cologne, Germany, four months later, he delivered a relatively tough speech asking Muslims, in effect, to keep better watch on Islamic extremist elements and make sure their young are educated in religious tolerance.

That text was revised at the last minute, however, with the insertion of a line acknowledging and thanking many Muslim leaders for publicly rejecting "any connection between your faith and terrorism." The revision ensured that an accusatory tone was not read into the pope's remarks.

Such a careful preview was apparently not made when the pope spoke at the University of Regensburg in Germany Sept. 12, quoting a medieval Byzantine emperor who said the prophet Mohammed had brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pope later said he was merely citing and not endorsing the criticism of Islam, but he conceded that the speech was open to misinterpretation.

In the past, officials of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue would read advance texts of papal speeches that touched on Islam, to flag potential hazards.

Earlier this year, the pope transferred the council's president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, making him papal nuncio to Egypt. He had been the Vatican's top expert on Islam. His interim replacement, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, would not say whether he had previewed the Regensburg speech.

The widespread Muslim indignation that followed clearly went beyond anything the pope or his aides were expecting. Twice the pope publicly expressed his regret that his words had offended Muslims, emphasizing that he did not share the assessment of Islam he had quoted.

Then he invited Muslim representatives to a meeting in late September, so he could personally explain himself.

But a lingering question remained in the minds of many Muslims and Christians: Why did the pope quote this tract at all, especially when he himself said it was "marginal" to his main theme?

The answer is that the pope, true to form, was trying to confront uncomfortable questions, challenging the Islamic world on the issue of violence and challenging the Christian West on what he called the "exclusion of the divine" from its own culture.

Both questions involve the relationship between reason and faith, and both were touched upon by the medieval text cited by the pope. In the ensuing controversy, however, the point about the West was all but lost.

The speech ignited the first real communications crisis of Pope Benedict's pontificate. What alarmed some Vatican officials was that even the repair operation undertaken by papal diplomats did not seem to soothe the tensions; that's one reason the pope decided to speak personally with Muslim ambassadors.

All this makes the pope's trip to Turkey in late November a bigger test. It's a place where the pope will have much to say -- on Christian-Muslim relations, on ecumenism, on human rights and on the future of Europe.

In Turkey, the pope is unlikely to drop his characteristic style of dialogue, which goes beyond the proclamation of shared values and involves intellectual and theological prodding. But after Regensburg, he may be choosing his words more carefully.


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