Benedict’s Mixed Messages To Islam

Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. will be watched closely by people in America and across the world. Many will flock to see him; seats at Yankee Stadium have already been sold out. However, the Pope is relatively new to the job and remains enigmatic and unpredictable on many issues. Most Americans and most around the globe still know little about this Pontiff. A skilled and experienced theologian, who was gatekeeper for Pope John Paul II on Catholic doctrine, he lacks his predecessor’s skills in connecting with populations, in particular, with those who are not Catholics.”

Zealous conservative Catholics believe he has not been tough enough. Liberal Catholics fear a Pope who is concerned about the future of Catholicism imposing a theological conservatism that will further alienate or drive others out of the church. A recent Pew Forum report revealed that one-third of so-called “cradle Catholics” no longer identify themselves as Catholics.

The Pope may be expected to reaffirm positions on abortion, stem cell research, and an overall “culture of life” against the culture of death. Conservative Catholics educators want him to deliver a strongly worded statement upholding orthodox Catholic teachings when he meets with leaders of Catholic universities and colleges. More liberal Catholics and educators, who are equally committed Catholics, fear such a statement would be a blunt instrument against a Catholic liberal arts education that includes freedom to engage, explore, and discuss controversial issues.

Given the multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature of America, not only Catholics but also Jews, Protestants, Muslims, and members of other faiths and faith will be monitoring his comments on inter-religious relations. They generally perceive Benedict taking a more conservative approach to relations than John Paul II. To them, Benedict gives mixed messages. On the one hand the Pope reiterates positive Catholic teachings on inter-religious relations, delivered at warm personal meetings with religious leaders. On the other, he affirms conservative theological interpretations in statements and official documents that Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and others find offensive.

The most prominent example of this vacillation involves Catholic-Muslim relations. Historically, the Vatican, especially through its Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has been a pioneer in Catholic-Muslim relations. From Pope Paul VI to John Paul II, Catholics and Muslims have engaged in international dialogue and made common cause on issues of mutual concern at major international conferences in Cairo and China.

However, Benedict’s more conservative retreat became clear in an international uproar after his Regensberg lecture whose primary topic, the relationship between faith and reason, was completely overshadowed by reactions to four paragraphs about Islam. Two incorrect assertions regarding the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran’s relationship to violence and “holy war” resulted in an international protest across the Muslim world. The Pope’s subsequent visit to Turkey helped to calm matters.

Unfortunately, the Pope has continued to send mixed signals on relations with Islam. In March, the Vatican agreed to a meeting between the Pope and representatives of 138 Muslim religious leaders and scholars across the world who had issued an historic Open Letter, A Common Word Between Us and You. Some of them had already sent a respectful but substantive correction to Benedict a month after his Regensburg speech. The Open Letter, addressed to leaders of all the world’s churches and to Christians everywhere, called for greater dialogue and cooperation based upon Islam and Christianity’s common ground, the two great commandments – love of God and love of the neighbor. However, soon after at this year’s Easter Vigil mass at St. Peter’s, the Pope’s baptized a controversial journalist with an Italian-Egyptian Muslim background, noted not only for his warnings about the threat of Muslim extremism but also for his unsubstantiated criticisms of Islam and Muslims.

The Gallup World Poll, the largest and most comprehensive poll of the world’s Muslims, representing the voices of one billion Muslims in 35 Muslim countries from Morocco to Indonesia, indicates widespread Muslim concern and resentment over what respondents see as the denigration of Islam and Muslims in the West. At the same time, these same Muslims indicate a desire for better relations based upon respect for Islam and Muslims. In a world in which majorities of Muslims globally feel under siege and in which Islamophobia is on the rise in America and Europe, many Muslims will be looking to see what Pope Benedict says in his meeting with inter-religious leaders.

From a media and public relations point of view, any visit by a Pope can be dubbed historic. However, many will be listening to Benedict XVI to learn more about this new pope and the future direction of Catholicism affecting issues of doctrine and morality as well as inter-religious relations.

John L. Esposito is University Professor, Georgetown University. His publications include What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam and with Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.