YEARENDER: Pope Promotes Interfaith Dialogue, But Christians Divided

Vatican City – Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 has done much to promote interfaith dialogue, especially with Muslim nations, while the struggle between right-wingers and liberals in the Catholic Church goes on and reformed Christians remain snubbed.

After being elected pope in 2005, Benedict stressed he wanted open dialogue both within his own Church and with other faiths and cultures. He was ‘willing to do everything in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism,’ the pope said in an address after his election.

He also promised to engage in dialogue with the Islamic and Jewish faiths to continue the work of his predecessor, John Paul II.

But instead of promoting an open dialogue with other faiths, the pope managed to publicly offend Muslims in a controversial lecture at Regensburg University in Bavaria, southern Germany in September 2006, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as criticizing the Prophet Mohammed’s ‘call to spread the faith he was teaching by the sword.’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Benedict’s remarks were in line with what he called a ‘crusade’ against Muslims. Although the pope later apologized for his speech, saying he meant no offence to Muslims, it seemed like a step backwards in interfaith relations.

However, since his controversial lecture, Benedict has attempted to make amends.

This September he appointed one of the Vatican’s most experienced diplomats, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, to head the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Vatican department that deals with the Islamic world.

The move was also significant because it marked the full restoration of the body to its previous autonomous position after in a surprise 2006 move the pontiff appeared to downgrade it by placing it under the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Tauran’s first official act in his new job was a message sent to Muslims for the end of the fasting period of Ramadan, in which he promoted ‘solidarity and fraternity with members of other religions and all men of good will … to work together for the common good.’

He also condemned ‘terrorism,’ stressing that ‘violence … is incapable of resolving conflicts,’ while also calling for an ‘intensification of dialogue between Christians and Muslims.’

This intensification of dialogue was put into practice in October when Benedict opened a major interfaith conference in Naples, where some 200 representatives from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu religions gathered to discuss the issue of violence.

And in November Benedict welcomed the Saudi King Abdullah at the Vatican for the historic visit of a ruler whose country still prohibits all non-Islamic public display of religion and routinely refuses clerics from other faiths entry into the country.

The pope also praised Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation – for ‘promoting interreligious cooperation,’ by giving Christians the ‘right to the free exercise of their religion in complete equality with their fellow citizens.’

In November Benedict invited for talks to the Vatican a delegation representing 138 Muslim scholars who a month earlier co-signed a letter to Christian leaders stressing better relations between the two faiths.

On another front, the Vatican gave positive signals to China’s state-approved Catholic church – which recognizes the pope as a spiritual figurehead but rejects papal control – when it ordained a bishop with Benedict’s approval in September.

However, closer to home, many have questioned his commitment to ecumenism, after a Vatican document in July reaffirmed the primacy of the Catholic Church, calling other Christian denominations ‘defective’ and denying them the status of proper ‘churches.’

The document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog, was widely criticized, especially by protestants of the German Lutheran Church, who saw a ‘chance of a rapprochement’ receding ‘into the distance,’ while leaders of the Egyptian Coptic Church called the document ‘a joke.’

A Vatican-Orthodox commission made some small steps towards unity in November, but disagreements over the primacy of the Pope ­ central to the Great Schism of 1054 when the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches split – remained the sticking point, Cardinal Walter Kasper told Vatican radio.

Widely seen as a strict guardian of Catholic orthodoxy in his own Church, Benedict has not always made himself popular.

Dubbed in the Italian press as the ‘panzer cardinal’ and ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ when he was still the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, the pope has managed to upset in particular the more liberal members of the Catholic Church.

His revival of the Latin mass this summer, or his persistent hard line against homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia and embryonic research are only a few examples.

But many, especially in the pope’s birth country of Germany think Benedict is often misunderstood, while nevertheless being a brilliant theologian.

One of those who appears to share this view is the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who under John Paul II was involved in a much-publicized disagreement with the Vatican over German church involvement in a state-run abortion counselling programme.

‘We’ve always had a very negative picture of (Cardinal Joseph) Ratzinger in Germany,’ Lehmann told German public broadcaster BR.

‘But that doesn’t do justice to Ratzinger as a theologian,’ he said, adding that he knew the present pope since 1962. ‘We have a very limited picture of him here in Germany. But that doesn’t mean that one has to agree with him in all individual questions of the Church.’

© 2007 dpa – Deutsche Presse-Agentur