National Catholic Register


Pope Benedict Patches Things Up

Could the controversy improve Catholic-Muslim dialogue?


Register Correspondent

October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 10:00 AM


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 context.

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 helpful.

Andrea Riccardi, 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.”

But Riccardi 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 challenges ahead.

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 not publicly.

“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 achieve.

“Muslim thinkers and leaders have a huge challenge ahead of them to reclaim their religion from the Islamist extreme that now dominates,” he said.

Evangelization First

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 sand.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.