Pope Benedict’s provocative 2006 University of Regensburg speech about faith and violence concluded with a warm and heady encouragement for Muslims to partake “in the dialogue of cultures.”
But rather than a grand theologian’s invitation to tea, Muslims around the world took the Pope’s discourse — a probing and sometimes blunt analysis of reason’s role in religion that included a denigrating historical reference to Mohammed — as a monumental slap in the face. The Pope’s defenders argued that some of the more radical reactions to the speech, including church burnings in the West Bank and the murder of a nun in Somalia, were themselves proof that Benedict was right to delve deeply into the question of violence in Islam. All agreed that more than tea would be needed to repair the damage.
Two years and two months after the most highly charged episode of his papacy, Benedict’s invitation to Muslims to a new, more “frank” inter-faith dialogue finally has a time and a place. An unprecedented three-day Catholic-Muslim summit begins Tuesday at the Vatican, with leaders of both religions hoping not only to heal the wounds of Regensburg and its aftermath, but also to bring about a deeper understanding between the world’s two biggest religions.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Pope’s point man on relations with Islam, told the French Catholic daily La Croix this week that the meeting launches a “new chapter” in relations between Muslims and Catholics that must never gloss over the religions’ fundamental differences. “This dialogue is not about finding the lowest common denominator, saying we’re all alike. It reminds us instead the exigency of the truth, which for us is Jesus Christ,” Tauran said. “You need to look, listen and respect the other. But then, affirm your own identity.”
The Vatican’s current approach to relations with other religions marks a subtle but fundamental break from the recent past. The previous pope, John Paul II, emphasized the common traits and shared experiences among Catholics and holders of other beliefs, favoring feel-good summits and symbolic gestures of unity. Benedict is ready to extend his hand, but sees a risk of diluting the essence of one’s belief when straining for the proverbial common ground.
Indeed, when he was John Paul’s doctrinal chief, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger angered many with his 1999 Vatican document Dominus Jesus, which described non-Catholics as being in a “gravely deficient” position regarding salvation.
As far as Islam is concerned, Benedict also felt an urgency, as the first post-Sep. 11 pontiff, to wade into rough theological and historical waters in the face of fundamentalist violence. In the Regensburg speech, which was delivered the day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he wondered aloud whether the Islamic conception of absolute submission to God might preclude reason, and even help explain why today a disproportionate number of Muslims are killing in the name of religion. Most explosive was a reference in the speech to a 15th-century Christian Byzantine emperor who said: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.”
Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish-born Islamic theologian who teaches at Georgetown University, was one of 38 Muslim scholars and imams who sent a “letter of clarification” after the Pope’s speech. Exactly one year after Regensburg, he helped establish “The Common Word” committee of Muslims to improve relations with all Christian denominations. His group has already met in the U.S. and Britain with Protestant leaders. To be now invited to the Vatican, Kalin says, is a major step toward a permanent dialogue to improve relations between Muslims and Christians.
Still, beyond the offensive historical quote about Mohammed (the Pope later clarified that he strongly disagrees with the old emperor’s characterization), Benedict’s idea that Islam operates outside of reason is still a point of contention. “This is a gross oversimplification and misreading of Islamic tradition,” says Kalin. Other religions also require an absolute devotion to their god, he insists, and Islam’s cultural history has been greatly influenced by the pursuit of reason. Despite that difference, he says the fact that Benedict “takes his theology seriously” is a key to finder a deeper understanding.
The meeting, which concludes Thursday when the more than 50 participants meet the Pope, is structured as a mostly closed-door nuts-and-bolts workshop amongst scholars. There are Muslim participants from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Libya, Turkey and elsewhere, representing Sunni and Shi’ite and other major strands of the religion. Catholic experts on Islam are also in attendance. The sessions have been built around the dual commandments in both religions: love of God and love of neighbor.
Kalin says he hopes the summit will produce some specific agreements, including a sort of “crisis hotline” between Muslim and Christian leaders to help avoid or quell religious discord, such as the violent protests in the Islamic world after the Danish papers published cartoons some deemed offensive to the Prophet Mohammed. Kalin also wants to fix a day each year when Muslim leaders teach their faithful about Christianity, and vice-versa. And finally, some Muslims would like a debate that goes beyond the Pope’s call to a “dialogue based on reason.” Kalin wants an acknowledgment of common “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” roots, even if the Vatican sees the story of salvation beginning with the Old Testament and ending with Christ’s resurrection. Stretching Catholicism’s historical lineage forward might be more fruit than this Vatican summit could produce. But at least there will be tea.