At a Crossroads: The Vatican’s Next Step with Muslims

By John Borelli

The pace moved rapidly after the pope’s Regensburg address on Tuesday, September 12. That evening, Fr. Federico Lombardi (ITA), head of Vatican communications, clarified that Benedict XVI did not intend to interpret Islam as violent. Vatican Radio’s website, where Lombardi once worked, posted a text that evening, and everincreasing numbers read the quotation from the 14th century dialogue of Emperor Manuel II and the paragraphs around it. By Friday, Lombardi issued a formal statement urging careful reading of the entire speech and repeating that the pope did not intend to offend Muslim sensibilities.

On Saturday, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, new that week as papal Secretary of State, issued a similar message calling for thoughtful reading and expressing regrets that certain passages sounded offensive to Muslims. Bertone cited Nostra Aetate of Vatican II and Benedict’s own words to Muslims in Cologne in August 2005 and in the supporting message to those gathered in Assisi earlier that month. The Cardinal told the press that he would encourage papal representatives to emphasize the speech’s finer points. On Sunday, during the regularly scheduled brief remarks before the Angelus prayer, Benedict XVI expressed deep sorrow for reactions to words that were not his personal view. This was as close to a personal apology as any papal response in living memory. Equally unprecedented was its publication prominently in Arabic on the front page of L’Osservatore Romanothe next morning. A week after that, on September 25, Pope Benedict received 22 ambassadors from Morocco to Indonesia and others for a 39-minute audience that was even televised live by Al-Jazeerah.

At first, Muslims experienced in dialogue and most Catholic experts on Islam and Christian- Muslim dialogue, the ones expected to say something, generally limited their comments to a few well-chosen words for the press. They more comfortably met publication deadlines after Benedict’s unprecedented steps. Their message became twofold: the mistakes, especially the implication of a lack of reason in service to faith in Islam, were dismaying, but now it was time for a step forward. Muslims additionally expressed their embarrassment and criticism of hotheads and politicians cynically using this occasion for selfish reasons and for stirring enmity between Christians and Muslims. Tariq Ramadan told fellow Muslims that this was a time for clear answers and not for manipulations, outpourings of emotion, verbal aggression and violence.

Those with a message had a choice: avoid negative, accelerant remarks and urge conversation or serve selfish purposes and emphasize conflict, failed dialogue and the unavoidable clash of civilizations. John Allen of National Catholic Reporter was quoted in The New York Times calling Benedict “a hawk on Islam” who is tougher than (presumably) John Paul II was on terrorism and on reciprocity, “the demand that Islamic states grant the same rights and freedoms to Christians and other religious minorities that Muslims receive in the West.” Allen predicted a more critical posture from Benedict that could push Muslims “towards reform, or set off a ‘clash of civilizations’—or, perhaps, both.” Verbal aggression distorts and demeans the achievements in Catholic-Muslim relations in the decades since Vatican II, but worse distortion falls to interreligious dialogue.

Fr. Daniel Madigan (ASL), the Jesuit scholar of Islam at the Gregorian University, told Commonweal that the demand for reciprocity by critics of contemporary Islam, of Muslim government and religious leaders, and of interreligious dialogue, is not a gospel message. Reciprocity as a condition for dialogue was not the intention of Paul VI, who championed dialogue in the church’s renewal and adjustment to modern times. Interreligious conversation begins in hope that trust and goodwill will lead to real sharing, growth in understanding, cooperation and an increase in the spiritual life. This time-consuming work, like scholarly investigation as Benedict intended in Regensburg, does not adjust to the battle of sound bytes.

Much remains to sort out. The response of the Vatican has not been through interreligious channels but through diplomacy. The Secretariat of State rather than the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has managed the situation. Cardinal Paul Poupard, now heading interreligious dialogue, was the only other person to speak at the September 25 papal meeting with Muslim representatives, but the guests were mostly ambassadors who relate to the Secretariat of State. It was a diplomatic event and not a conversation. Muslim officials may ask for reciprocity during the papal trip to Turkey, scheduled for the end of November. Diplomacy depends on give and take. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has said that the “maneuvers” taken thus far by the pope amount to a step back.

Only frank and sincere conversation on major aspects of the pope’s reference to Islam involving Vatican officials will clarify intentions and concerns on that level. This could also be an occasion for Benedict XVI and other public leaders to develop what they mean by the dialogue of civilization they seek to promote. If pursued in the public arena, where negotiation and compromise for the common good and common interest are expected, what will become of the interreligious character of Christian-Muslim dialogue?

Last February, when the pope re-assigned Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the most skilled Vatican official for dialogue with Muslims, to a diplomatic position in Cairo, Benedict could not have foreseen that the conversation would develop in the way it has this fall. Now, he has his most valuable resource in, perhaps, the most critically important diplomatic post for dialogue with Muslims. If this is the way the pope wishes to proceed, combining interreligious and intercultural dialogue and using diplomatic channels, then we can expect more to happen for the Vatican in Cairo, Teheran, and other capitals in the Muslim world.

Religion and politics are still a volatile mix, even for the most skilled in dialogue. Reciprocity is not a condition for dialogue as a means for living the Gospel, but reciprocity must be an aspect of a complete message of social justice derived from the Gospel. Outsiders may think interreligious dialogue leads to compromise while avoiding difficult issues, but that is a confusion of dialogue with negotiation. The message of John Paul II after September 11 of no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness is closer to the truth of interreligious dialogue than even the call of Vatican II, in the words of Nostra Aetate, “to forget the past, to make sincere efforts for mutual understanding.” Dialogue on a local level, as Jesuits have committed themselves to promoting, will continue wherever believers seek reconciliation, understanding and spiritual sharing.

On a public level, reciprocity is a demand one can choose to make in negotiations and in diplomacy for better conditions, greater justice and a common good available to all. Short of revolution, public life improves through compromise and other political and diplomatic moves serving both special interest groups and the whole of society. Using diplomacy is more practical than polarization, hate and armed conflict; but a more lasting justice might ensue if genuine dialogue accompanies public efforts.

Borelli, special assistant to the president of Georgetown University for interreligious initiatives, is national coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the Jesuit Conference.

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