Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Was the Pope inflammatory?

NCF Senior Fellow, Mr Nathaniel Hurd in Washington, himself a Roman Catholic, has sent us these comments on the Pope's recent remarks:

Was the pope trying to be inflammatory by making these remarks?

If you're asking if being inflammatory was his intent, the answer is he was almost certainly not.

I strongly encourage you to read his full presentation, rather than just excerpts and reports. (3)
I read it and am unsure why he used that quote.

For the "why" and what it means, I'm waiting for comments from credible, independent theologians with experience in inter-religious dialogue. For example, there's Drew Christiansen SJ, John Borelli and John
Esposito (4)

I do know the essential context to bear in mind when thinking about this.

A. The Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II") - especially "Nostra Aetate" - positively revolutionized Church teaching on Islam and Muslims and Catholic relations with Muslims. It's the basis for the statement the Holy See's Secretary of State recently issued on behalf of the Pope and the press release from the Vatican. (5)

The key Nostra Aetate excerpt is

"The Church regards with esteem also the M[u]slems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.
Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.
They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and M[u]slems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom." (6)

B. After Vatican II, the Church has taken the lead on inter-religious dialogue, including with Muslims. (7)

C. There's ample evidence Pope Benedict has continued and will continue the Papacy's pro-active Catholic-Muslim dialogues. There's no evidence Pope Benedict has reversed or rejected Pope John Paul II's commitment to inter-religious dialogue with Muslims. The one difference may be explicit and known emphasis. Nostra Aetate and later teachings stressed Christians
should stand on the common ground between Christians and Muslims AND simultaneously keep core Christian truths.

What some observers missed about John Paul II was how much he believed in the truth of Catholic teaching. He also talked about differences between Christianity and other religions. But because his inter-religious work was so revolutionary, sometimes these facts about him were overlooked.

Pope Benedict also seems to believe in common ground as the starting and most important point for inter-religious work. He has also flagged differences between Christianity and other faiths. He may talk about those differences more often and differently than John Paul.
Also, because of his previous role as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his comments as Pope have been viewed through a different lens.

Muslims have brought to inter-religious dialogue, collaboration and relationships deeply held beliefs. There are many that form strong common ground with Christians (especially on social justice and responsibilities to people who are most in need). There are also some that are fundamentally different (for example, Quran, Muhammad, Jesus as only human, no Trinity,
etc). Popes John Paul and Benedict - along with other Catholics - have done the same.

D. At all levels, the Church has repeatedly fought for and highlighted the suffering of Muslims all over the world, including the Palestinians (including by calling for an end to the Occupation), Iraqis (both under economic sanctions and the current conflict), Lebanese and Darfurians.

E. Catholic charities are among the biggest non-governmental providers of goods and services to Muslims in need (I'm unsure if the UN provides more).

F. When Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he was the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "[T]he duty proper to the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: for this reason everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence." (8)

In that capacity, he often expressed concern that European Catholics were abandoning their faith, a theme he has repeated as Pope. I suspect that partially motivated him when he was a Cardinal to say that Turkey shouldn't be admitted to the EU because Europe has Christian roots, Turkey has Islamic roots and Turkey in the EU would be "anti-historical". (9) Although I
understand the reasoning behind the statement, I strongly disagree with the conclusion.

The EU is supposed to be an economic, political and geographic union, rooted in common values. These values are not exclusively Christian. Important issues have been flagged about Turkey's human rights record - especially regarding the Kurds, criminal justice system, political and religious and press freedom - (10) and current economic performance (the EU has economic
criteria for membership). Turkey should be held to the same standards and criteria as past and current applicants to the EU. Religion is not an official criterion and so it is irrelevant that most Turks are Muslim.

I'm unsure to what extent concerns about European Christianity factored into the Pope's choice of words about Islam at Regensburg. If it did, he has to make sure his strong feelings on that issue don't color his comments on other ones. Agree or disagree with him, he's usually a careful thinker and writer. He could have used another example or analogy to make the same
theological point.

He may have been thinking more like a theologian and less like a theologian who now leads over one billion Catholics and is one of the world's most high profile communicators. He might have thought he was trying to make a theological point whose textual context and theological subtlety were obvious.

It may have been obvious to him and very informed observers. But given the sensitivities and context for the subject, the likely perceptions and responses - especially with instant communication and people likely to hear about it third and fourth hand - should have been obvious. The quotes seemed to fail the basic standards for effective communications that
consider likely audiences.

John Paul II was a great communicator. Pope Benedict is improving and still has a long way to go. Hopefully this episode will remind him that no matter how much good work he and the rest of Church have done and will do on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, no matter how much the Church has done and does to meet the needs of and advocate for Muslims, poorly chosen words can
undermine good work.

Pope Benedict's first encyclical (major Papal letter on doctrine), entitled "God is Love", was wonderful. (11) Hopefully its messages about love and justice will continue to be seen despite the current clouds.

1. For one formal example, see Nathaniel Hurd, "London Calling", Busted Halo, 9 July 2005,

2. See for example William J Byron, SJ, "Ten Building Blocks Of Catholic Social Teaching", America Magazine, 31 October 1998,

3. Pope Benedict XVI, address at the University of Regensburg (Germany), "Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization", and


5. Stephen Brown, "Pope sorry for remarks", Reuters, 16 September 2006,
and Federico Holy See Press Office Director Federico Lombardi SJ, press release, 15 September 2006,

6. Pope Paul VI, "Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions", 28 October 1965

7. See here for example and and

8. Click here for link

9. CNN, "Turkey invites pope to visit", 15 September 2006,

10. Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch

11. Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical letter, "Deus Caritas Est: One Christian
Love”, 25 December 2005

For an analysis, click here for link


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