September 22, 2006


The pope and the latest Muslim controversy

What are we to make of the controversy sparked by Pope Benedict XVI’s use of a quote from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who was critical of the teaching of Mohammed?

What do the condemnations by Muslim leaders, the burning-in-effigy by crowds of demonstrators and the violence against individual westerners signify? Is there any correlation between what the Holy Father intended (or actually said) in his address at the University of Regensberg, and the outrageous response it has provoked?

The Vatican Press Office responded to the initial wave of protest with an attempt to clarify (and put in context) what the pope sought to accomplish in his address.

Pope Benedict was using historical sources to illustrate the long history and depth of feeling of the divisions between Christians and Muslims. His intent was to argue against violence in the name of religion—and to promote “a genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

Muslims leaders (and members of the news media) said it was not enough to “clarify”what the pope meant. They demanded an apology.

When the Holy Father later said he was “deeply sorry” for the pain caused by his use of this quotation—and when he made it clear that “these were quotations from a medieval text that in no way express my personal opinions”—his critics were still not satisfied. The pope’s expression of sorrow “does not represent a clear and explicit apology,” they said. Evidently, “deep sorrow” is not enough. The pope is being challenged to admit that he deliberately (or at least callously) maligned the prophet and his followers and then to beg their forgiveness.

What’s going on here? Is there any reality here—any real connection between what the pope said and what members of the Muslim community heard? Is there any proportionality between the offense committed (if indeed the pope was insensitive or injudicious in his remarks)?

What does all this tell us about the prospects for dialogue between cultures and religions? About violence committed in the name of religion? About the role of the news media in reporting (or should we say “encouraging”) controversies such as these?

Pope Benedict is no stranger to controversy. His years of service as Pope John Paul II’s Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith often placed him in the midst of angry debate—most often, but not exclusively, among members of the Roman Catholic Church. Often, his motives were questioned as well as his theology. Sadly, and for those who knew him, inexplicably, this gentle and deeply sensitive man was portrayed in the media as an uncaring, authoritarian Churchman (“God’s Rotweiller”) who relished his role as the pope’s enforcer.

The Holy Father is right to call for dialogue. He correctly admonishes us (Jews, Christians and Muslims—sisters and brothers in faith who worship the God of Abraham) to forsake all claims to violence based on religious principles.

But, as the latest controversy clearly shows, dialogue will not be easily accomplished and violence will remain a fact of life, a deeply rooted consequence of our human sinfulness.

Perhaps the questions raised in this editorial about the pope’s lecture and the reaction to it would be a good subject of Catholic-Muslim dialogue—at the personal, local, national and international levels.        

This controversy, like the uproar created by a series of Danish cartoons that satirized the prophet Mohammed, shows that the wounds of division are very deep. Healing is needed, as well as dialogue, and both require mutual respect, tolerance and the willingness to forgive and forget past offenses and injuries on all sides.

May the God of Abraham look with mercy on his children. May he grant us mutual understanding, patience, persistence and profound peace. May his kingdom come—his will be done—here on earth as it is heaven. Now and forever. Amen.

— Daniel Conway


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