The Factors That Divide The Pope From The Muslims

The contrast is not only one of faith. It also concerns the achievements of the Enlightenment : from religious freedom to equality between men and women. The Catholic Church has made these its own, but Islam has not. Will they be able to discuss this, when Benedict XVI and the Muslims of the letter of the 138 meet together ?

ROMA, January 2, 2008 – For the Vatican, the new year brings a meeting that cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, has pre-announced as « historic, » in an interview with « L’Osservatore Romano » on December 30.

The meeting is scheduled for the spring. And it will take place between Benedict XVI and a delegation of the 138 Muslim authors of the open letter « A Common Word between Us and You » addressed to the pope and to other Christian leaders last October.

In addition to the pope, the Muslim representatives will also meet with other Vatican authorities, and will hold working sessions at institutes like the PISAI, the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

What cleared the way for this event was the exchange of letters that took place in November and December, between Benedict XVI – through the cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone – and an authoritative promoter of the letter of the 138, the prince of Jordan Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal.

As anticipated by the two letters, in February or March three representatives of the 138 will travel to Rome to arrange the meetings.

The three will include the only Italian among the 138, Yahya Sergio Yayhe Pallavicini, imam of the al-Wahid mosque in Milan, and the Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed, an author very familiar to the readers of www.chiesa, an instructor at Cambridge and in the past a teacher at the PISAI.

During that same month of February, cardinal Tauran will visit Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important university of Sunni Islam. And he will meet with the World Islamic Call Society of Libya, and with the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman.

In the interview with « L’Osservatore Romano » mentioned above, Tauran said he is « very confident » and appreciated the « considerable openness » being demonstrated by important sectors of the Muslim world.

But there are still great difficulties to be overcome. The exchange of letters between cardinal Bertone and the prince of Jordan emphasizes that the two sides are not at all in agreement on one essential point in particular : on the topics to put at the center of the encounter.

The letter from cardinal Bertone, dated November 19 and made public about ten days later, proposes three main topics of discussion : « effective respect of the dignity of every human person » ; « objective awareness of the other’s religion » ; « ’a common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation. »

In commenting on Bertone’s letter, the Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir – who is one of the scholars of Islam most closely heeded by the pope, together with another Jesuit, Christian W. Troll, of Germany – emphasized that the letter of the 138 is not clear on the first of these topics, and that instead some of its signatories say that they are not at all interested in talking about freedom of conscience, about equality between men and women and between believers and nonbelievers, about the distinction between religious and political power – in short, about the achievements of the Enlightenment that the Catholic Church has made its own, but that Islam is still far from accepting.

For its part, the letter from the prince of Jordan to cardinal Bertone, dated December 12 and likewise made public about ten days later, insists that the Catholic-Muslim dialogue be primarily « theological » and « spiritual, » and that it have as its object – more than aspects defined as « extrinsic, » like the commandments of the natural law, religious liberty, and equality between men and women – the « Common Word between Us and You » which is at the center of the letter of the 138, or the unicity of God and the twofold commandment of love of God and neighbor.

There is no lack, in the letter from the prince of Jordan, of argumentative jabs against the Vatican’s position. The first jab is where the letter cites the communiqué of some Muslim delegates at the interreligious meeting in Naples from October 21-23 2007, organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio : a communiqué written in protest against some declarations made in those days by cardinal Tauran, on the near impossibility of a theological discussion with Islam, and against Benedict XVI’s silence, while visiting Naples, over the letter of the 138.

The second comes at the end of the letter, and is aimed against « some recent pronouncements emerging from the Vatican and from Vatican advisors. » Here the target is again cardinal Tauran, together with the Islamologists Samir and Troll. A critical analysis of the letter of the 138, written by Troll, was published in « La Civiltà Cattolica, » with the authorization of the secretary of state, during the same days when cardinal Bertone had written to the prince of Jordan, in the name of the pope.

Returning to Benedict XVI, the dialogue he wants with Islam is still as he explained it in a passage of his pre-Christmas address to the Roman curia on December 22, 2006 :

« In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church. »It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.

« On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment. »On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.

« As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all –, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard. »The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”

From the exchange of letters between cardinal Bertone and the prince of Jordan, it can be gathered that the distance between the two sides remains very wide and deep, with respect to this path indicated by Benedict XVI.

Here, then, are the complete texts of the two letters, separated by a brief exegesis of Bertone’s letter written by Fr. Samir for the magazine « Mondo e Missione » of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions :

1. To the prince of Jordan Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal

by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone

Your Royal Highness,

On 13 October 2007 an open letter addressed to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and to other Christian leaders was signed by one hundred and thirty-eight Muslim religious leaders, including Your Royal Highness. You, in turn, were kind enough to present it to Bishop Salim Sayegh, Vicar of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in Jordan, with the request that it be forwarded to His Holiness.

The Pope has asked me to convey his gratitude to Your Royal Highness and to all who signed the letter. He also wishes to express his deep appreciation for this gesture, for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.

Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God, the provident Creator and universal Judge who at the end of time will deal with each person according to his or her actions. We are all called to commit ourselves totally to him and to obey his sacred will.

Mindful of the content of his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (« God is Love »), His Holiness was particularly impressed by the attention given in the letter to the twofold commandment to love God and one’s neighbour.

As you may know, at the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI stated : « I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims. There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values » (Address to Representatives of Some Muslim Communities, Cologne, 20 August 2005). Such common ground allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other, on the sharing of religious experience and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation. The Pope is confident that, once this is achieved, it will be possible to cooperate in a productive way in the areas of culture and society, and for the promotion of justice and peace in society and throughout the world.

With a view to encouraging your praiseworthy initiative, I am pleased to communicate that His Holiness would be most willing to receive Your Royal Highness and a restricted group of signatories of the open letter, chosen by you. At the same time, a working meeting could be organized between your delegation and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with the cooperation of some specialized Pontifical Institutes (such as the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University). The precise details of these meetings could be decided later, should this proposal prove acceptable to you in principle.

I avail myself of the occasion to renew to Your Royal Highness the assurance of my highest consideration.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State

From the Vatican, November 19, 2007