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Could the controversy improve Catholic-Muslim dialogue?
BY EDWARD PENTINRegister Correspondent
VATICAN CITY — As Muslim anger starts to
subside following the initial outrage over Pope Benedict XVI’s
speech in Regensburg, Germany, some observers suggest the
controversy might actually improve Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
Many Muslims reacted violently and
irrationally when parts of the Pope’s speech to an audience of academics at the
University of Regensburg Sept. 12 were reported out of
Although unconfirmed, some suspect
that the Sept. 17 murder of Consolata Sister Leonella Sgorbati by Muslim
extremists may have been, in part, a reaction to the Pope’s speech.
The trigger for the outbursts came
when the Holy Father introduced the theme of his Regensburg address — the
negative consequences of separating faith and reason — by quoting from a
conversation between the medieval Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian scholar.
“Show me just what Mohammed brought
that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his
command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” the emperor said.
During the speech, Benedict
distanced himself from the emperor’s “evil and inhuman” characterization,
calling his words “startlingly brusque” and “incomprehensible.”
In the days that followed, the
Pope expressed his “deep regret” over any offense caused by the emperor’s words
being read in isolation. During his general audience Sept. 20, he stressed that
he had cited the quote to introduce a timely debate on “the problem of the
relationship between religion and violence.”
Said the Holy Father, “Based on
what Manuel II affirms afterward in a very positive way, with very beautiful
words, about rationality in the transmission of the faith, I wished to explain
that religion is not united to violence, but to reason.”
Benedict also stressed that his
speech was an invitation to the Christian faith “to dialogue with the modern
world and to dialogue with all cultures and religions.”
The bulk of his speech was a
strong criticism not of Islam but of the West’s mentality to overemphasize the
importance of reason and to deny that God is the source of that reason.
Many of those involved in
Catholic-Muslim dialogue predict that the controversy could actually prove
founder of the Sant’Egidio community — the lay
movement that helped organize the first summit of religious leaders in Assisi in 1986 — told the
Register Sept. 17 that the furor was “not a setback but a part of dialogue.”
was also saddened that so many journalists and Muslims had taken the Pope’s
words out of context.
The Holy Father, Riccardi said, is a firm supporter of dialogue in the
“spirit of Assisi.”
Riccardi said this was concretely affirmed to him the
week before the Regensburg speech, when Benedict
received him in a private papal audience to mark the 20th anniversary of the Assisi interreligious summit.
Others saw the Pope’s speech as an
important “correction” to interreligious dialogue.
After years of “diplomatic dialogue,” it is now time to “confront our
disagreements,” said Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a professor of
oriental theology at St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon (see Inperson, page 1).
Said Father Samir,
“It’s a step forward, but it is also a difficult step, because it is a step
forward in truth.”
But there will be serious
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.,
cannot foresee dialogue advancing at all in light of recent events, at least
“Intimidation by terror is very
effective,” said Father Fessio, a former student of
Benedict’s. “Who wants to be responsible for a nun being shot in the back if he
says something that will be misunderstood or be considered offensive?”
Added Father Fessio,
“And if non-Muslims are intimidated, ‘moderate’ Muslims will be all the more
so. Maybe that’s why we’re still waiting to hear from this inaudible group
whose existence is becoming a matter of faith.”
Another difficulty is in
communicating the Pope’s actual words to the masses of angry Muslims, many of
whom are uneducated or without access to a free press.
Daniel Pipes, director of the
Pennsylvania-based Middle East Forum, is particularly skeptical.
“It is a very sophisticated and,
if I might say, very Catholic speech that will be quite impenetrable to most
Muslims,” Pipes said. He also predicts that, as in similar controversies in the
past, the majority of Muslims won’t read the full text.
However, Pipes does believe Islam
is capable of reasoned dialogue and reform, although it will be difficult to
“Muslim thinkers and leaders have
a huge challenge ahead of them to reclaim their religion from the Islamist
extreme that now dominates,” he said.
Some papal watchers say the
incident highlighted Benedict’s firm intention to put evangelization ahead of
diplomacy. Although several Islamic governments withdrew their ambassadors in
reaction to his speech, the Pope declined to retract his comments and limited
himself to expressing sorrow over the negative reaction.
A number of Vatican officials
suggested that the Holy Father was likely aware that his Regensburg speech would have a powerful
impact, as its content was made available to reporters early in the morning on
the day he delivered it.
Everyone noticed the potentially
inflammatory quote, one Vatican official
noted, so the risk of including it in the actual speech would almost certainly
have been pointed out to Benedict.
“The Pope cannot be forced to
change his speeches in his own Bavarian homeland out of fear of violent
retribution from Islamic fanatics,” the official said, “or else the Vicar of
Christ will have accepted being a dhimmi (non-Muslims who are forced to submit to Islamic law
and relegated to second-class status in some Muslim societies).”
Said the Vatican official, “The Pope is drawing a line in the
writes from Rome.