VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam are a blow to the dialogue between the Muslim world and the Roman Catholic Church that his predecessor John Paul II did much to encourage, theologians and scholars have agreed as experts appeared divided on whether the statements were politically motivated or just a call for reflection.
“It was very tactless, given the delicate situation we are in” just months after caricatures of prophet Muhammad in the European press enraged many Muslims, German theologian and Islam specialist Hans Zirker told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Speaking at a German University on Tuesday, Benedict quoted criticism of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who wrote that everything Muhammad brought was evil and inhuman, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The pontiff fell short Saturday, September 16, of explicitly apologizing for the quotes he mentioned with a Vatican official saying that the pontiff was “very sorry” if he offended the sensibilities of Muslims worldwide.
Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy said in a statement released Saturday that Benedict has thrown a spanner in the works of the late pope.
“Late Pope Paul II was instrumental to inter-faith dialogue,” it said. “The late pope’s visit to Al-Azhar Al-Sharif (the highest Sunni body in the Muslim world) came to demonstrate the Vatican’s keenness on enhancing dialogue between the three divine religions.”
The Ramadan Foundation, a British Muslim organization, said it was “disappointed that the current pope didn’t follow his predecessor’s example”, after “John Paul II spent 25 years building bridges and establishing links with the Muslim community.”
John Paul II, the German pope’s predecessor, made considerable achievements in improving relations between Islam and Catholicism.
In 1986 he took the unprecedented step of hosting a grand inter-religious gathering that saw Jewish, Christian and Muslim dignitaries gather in Assisi, central Italy, alongside Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, representatives of the Shinto faith and African and Amerindian religions for a day of prayer for peace.
Years later in November 2004 the Polish pope was still promoting the same ideals: “No one has the right to use religion as an instrument of intolerance, as a means of aggression, violence and death,” he told a mixed-faith delegation from Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country.
John Paul II also sought direct dialogue with Islam. Already the first pope to enter a synagogue, in May 2001 in Damascus he became the first pope to enter a mosque.
Experts were divided Sunday on the aim of Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, with some believing the pontiff wanted to make a political point about Islam and violence and others maintaining it was a simple lesson in theology meant to inspire reflection.
“There is no doubt that there is a political dimension in the pope’s declaration even if it is more or less disguised by prominent theological reasoning,” French religious historian Odon Vallet told AFP.
“Benedict XVI says that the Christian revelation is not contrary to reason… while for Islam, God’s revelation is superior to reason and so can do without it, which would explain the part of passions and violence in Islam,” Vallet said.
“I do think that is done on purpose: this is someone who has always voiced his thoughts, sometimes brutally. He is no diplomat,” Vallet said.
The historian added that Benedict is much closer to the United States than his predecessor John Paul II, who opposed both Iraq wars, never condemning a single element of US foreign policy.
Rene Remond, another historian, said that while the pope’s address was “lucid and intellectually sound, one could wonder whether it was politically opportune.”
However, the pope sees it as his role to teach and wanted to “invite the whole world to reflect,” Remond argues.
“For him, the problem is not just religious but about culture and civilization. He fears the rise of irrationality in today’s world,” Remond explains.
“There can be no opposition between the exercise of reason and faith,” the pope believes, which comes back to John Paul II’s 1998 “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”) encyclical on the relationship between the two, the historian said.
“His main motivation is to avoid the reduction of religious fact to fundamentalism, and the drift which is affecting a part of Islam seems to him worrying from this point of view,” Remond believes.
Jean-Dominique Durand, professor of contemporary history at Lyon University, thinks that the Regensburg address is “absolutely not a political text but a real lesson on the theme of faith and reason, a subject close to Benedict’s heart.”
“And like a good professor, he gives arguments, examples to nourish reflection: he most certainly did not want to attack Islam,” Durand said.
Benedict XVI’s remarks have sparked a wave of indignation across the Muslim world that the pope’s “sorry” on Saturday does not appear to have calmed down with pressures mounting on him to issue a personal apology.
Vatican insiders and diplomats say the Pope may have mixed up his new role with his former posts as a theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was known as a disciplinarian.
The Pope, leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, was due to give his regular Sunday blessing — known as the Angelus — in St. Peter’s Square, an occasion often used by pontiffs to express the church’s views on current affairs.