Pope Benedict’s resignation and interfaith dialogue
WHEN Pope Benedict XVI formally resigned last Thursday (Feb. 28), it was a dramatic moment. No pope had resigned since 1400, historians said. However, what I would like to address here is how Benedict's papacy tried to reverse advances made in Catholic dialogue with other religions, especially Muslims, and what to expect from the new pope.
Early in his tenure, Pope Benedict XVI set the tone in his relationship with Islam and Muslims. In a speech he gave in Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006, he demonstrated poor understanding of Islam's history and teachings.
The pope cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s offensive remarks about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He then went on to accuse Muslims of spreading their faith by the sword, of intolerance toward those who differed with them, and that those attitudes were deeply rooted in their faith. None of these claims were true, of course, as many historians have since taken the pope to task for being so cavalier about the facts of history.
Muslims were deeply offended. There were uproar and widespread public protests throughout the Muslim world, as well as condemnations by scores of heads of state and religious leaders.
Many took the pope's 2006 remarks not as an academic faux pas, but as an expression of deep hostility toward Muslims and their faith, calculated to reverse decades of Muslim-Christian dialogue that had led to significant achievements in improving their relationship.
It was especially ironic that the head of the Catholic church was critical of what he claimed to be Muslims' intolerance toward non-Muslims, and their hostility to science and reason during their history. He could not have been unaware of the church's bloody wars against non-Catholics, Muslims included, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, burning at the stake of scientists and heretics. All of those events took place during a time when Muslims encouraged scientific innovation and tolerated heretics and non-Muslims, including many Christian churches that have survived until today, while they were made extinct in regions under the papacy's influence.
Although Pope Benedict has since apologized for the Regensburg offensive remarks, the Vatican under his leadership continued to undo the work undertaken by his predecessors to improve dialogue within the Catholic Church and with other faiths.
It turned out that undermining dialogue with Muslims was just a small part of a greater project to unravel reforms undertaken under the Second Vatican Council 1962-1965 (Vatican II, for short), the most significant conclave in the Church's modern history that has in many ways changed its character, direction and relations with the modern world. It adopted a new "dogmatic creed" simplifying and modernizing the Church's theology and shedding some of its medieval old notions. In one symbolic move, it allowed priests to do liturgies in their vernacular languages instead of Latin. Until Vatican II, Latin was still dominant, used to deliver a uniform liturgy that was constant over time and space; Catholics were likely to hear the same sermon anywhere in the world delivered in the same language, Latin.
More relevant to our subject, Vatican II also opened dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other faiths. As part of that reform process, the Vatican issued the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non–Christian Religions," which laid the dogmatic foundation for the dialogue from the Catholic perspective. Muslims were mentioned, specifically, in another document, "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," as first among the non-biblical, monotheistic religions. It goes on to say, “Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham…. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin mother…. In addition they wait the Day of Judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up. Consequently, they praise the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, alms-giving and fasting."
Vatican II acknowledged that "in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems," but urged "all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.”
Following the transformation brought about by Vatican II, the Catholic Church engaged with Muslims in many fruitful dialogues, joining in the larger dialogue between faiths and cultures, which is today carried out by several permanent institutions dedicated to that task.
The reform brought about by Vatican II was not popular with conservatives, who thought that it moved the Church from its true roots. While some of his predecessors tried to roll back some of Vatican II reforms, none had tried such a systematic counter-reformation. While this is a purely Catholic debate, it has spilled over on the Church's relationship with the Muslim World. The pope's 2006 speech was only the most public manifestation of conservative Catholic's' view of Islam.
Reading Catholic commentaries on Pope Benedict before and since his resignation, it is clear that struggle between conservatives and liberals is far from over. Each camp will try to prevail in the election of a new pope. What is more relevant to us would be how the new Church leadership views dialogue with Muslims and other faiths, and how willing it will be to join the larger interfaith and intercultural dialogues.