With his visits to a synagogue and a mosque, his acknowledgment of the sins of Christians against Muslims and Jews, and his decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, Pope John Paul II won the appreciation and trust of believers of other faiths the world over.
His successor, meeting Thursday with leaders of other faiths during his first American visit, is developing a very different kind of reputation.
In his three years as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI has alienated other Christians with his repeated assertion that his is the one true church. A 2006 address in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence set off riots in Muslim countries. And Jews continue to protest his endorsement of a prayer for their conversion.
To some Catholics, those are the forthright moves of a stalwart defender of the faith. But critics, inside the church and out, say his words and actions may be complicating already delicate relations with other religions.
“He has a very, very high Christology, which is to say there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. And the only path to Jesus Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, ” said Catholic scholar Rosann Catalano, associate director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. “If that’s your starting point, it seems to me, there is not an openness to the possibility that the other — the one who is not you — can be a blessing.”
Pope Benedict’s meeting with other religious leaders Thursday at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center will be largely ceremonial: Adherents of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other faiths will give him gifts symbolizing their beliefs; the pontiff will speak about religions working together to promote peace.
“One of the things that he admires about America is the vibrancy of the church in a multicultural and multi-religious environment,” said the Rev. James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America.
Interfaith outreach has been a priority of the church since the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Benedict — who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was a close adviser to Pope John Paul II — says he is committed to dialogue.
“He’s also clear inside the Catholic community, he’s pretty clear, that Catholics have it right: We have the truth, we have the proper revelation, we have Jesus and nothing trumps that,” said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. “He’s not going to give any ground, I can tell you that. But is he willing to dialogue and interested in other religions? Yes, but with very strong parameters.”
After Thursday’s meeting, the pontiff will offer Passover greetings to the Jewish leaders. He has also added a brief synagogue visit, his second as pope, to the New York leg of his itinerary.
Jewish and Muslim participants in Thursday’s meeting say their conversations with the church remain productive.
“We’ve seen an utter transformation in this critical relationship in just four decades without parallel in the 2,000 years prior,” said David Michaels, director of intercommunal affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “We’ve seen so much progress in such a relatively short period of time that I think the Catholic-Jewish relationship can and should serve as a model.”
Still, he called Pope Benedict’s approval of the prayer for the conversion of the Jews for the Latin Mass on Good Friday “a cause for real hurt and concern. We will be raising it, moving forward, with our Catholic partners at various levels.”
Not all Jews are as concerned. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who will be representing the Orthodox Union at the meeting, sees the prayer as an internal matter.
“We would not be so brazen as to tamper with another religion’s liturgy, and we would expect that other religions would not tamper with our liturgy,” the former leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore said.
Much of the world knows Pope Benedict for the stir caused by his comments on Islam. In a 2006 address at the University of Regensburg, Germany, on the relationship between faith and reason — a focus of his scholarship as a theologian — he quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Muhammad 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 reference provoked demonstrations in several Muslim countries. A nun was shot to death in Somalia, churches in the West Bank were firebombed, and the pope was burned in effigy in Iraq.
Pope Benedict subsequently apologized for the reaction to a quotation that he said did not reflect his own beliefs and held an audience with Muslim leaders to elaborate. A group of 138 Muslim scholars signed an open letter to the pontiff calling for continued dialogue, and there are plans for a meeting this fall.
More recently, Pope Benedict drew protests last month when he personally baptized a Muslim convert to Catholicism.
“That was uncalled for,” said Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America. “Conversions take place from Islam to Christianity, Christianity to Islam. They are fine. But highlighting that, that also created for us tremendous discomfort.”
Still, Syeed said, Muslims and Catholics enjoy “wonderful” relations in America.
“We don’t want those incidents to distract us from what we feel is our destiny, our obligation to build bridges,” he said. “One particular incident, however bitter it may be, does not determine the entire relationship of two major communities in the world.”
Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien described the Regensburg address as, “in a way, very fortunate.”
“I’m not sure it was an accident or misjudgment,” he said. “He was calling for dialogue, and dialogue is taking place.”