Pope Benedict and Islam – September 2006

The violent reactions by some in the Muslim world, following the Pope’s academic lecture at the university where he once taught, were ignited not so much by his words but by those who seek to manipulate religious passions in the service of an ideology of hatred. Those who in this way misuse religious faith malign much more grievously the teachings of Islam than the perceived (and unintended) slight of the Bishop of Rome could ever do. What he actually said, if taken in its proper context, could never justify the violence associated with the orchestrated protests that began some three days after the discourse was delivered.  An attentive reading of his talk finds a well reasoned argument against violence in the name of religion and a heartfelt call to a “genuine dialog of cultures and religions so urgently needed today”. That he quoted from historical sources only illustrates the long history and the depth of feeling behind the divisions between Christians and Muslims – and how urgently such dialog is needed.

Last year, the Pope met Muslims leaders in Cologne and there too he described dialog with Islam “a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends”.  That vital necessity long recognized by the Church was restated by Catholic leaders during the Second Vatican Council forty years ago. The bishops, whom the young Father Ratzinger served as a theological advisor, then wrote in Nostra Aetate:

“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” (NA #3)

In the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims.  Admittedly, relations between Christians and Muslims have always been fragile.  So it is still not clear whether this present storm of indignation will threaten any possible future engagement between Muslims and Christians, or whether cooler heads will prevail and thus the frank honesty of the pope’s entire discourse will open new opportunities for a more candid and substantive dialog between members of our  two world religions.  Often, in the past, the voices of moderate Muslims, whether because of fear or a false sense of group solidarity, have not been heard.  But, thankfully, already both here and elsewhere, there are encouraging signs that this is changing – and if so, some good will have come out of this episode.

And while the Islamic world and Muslims are very sensitive to those who speak of Islam, especially when they do not belong to the Muslim faith, when Benedict condemns religious motivation to justify violence, he undoubtedly expresses the sentiment and the desire of millions of Muslims throughout the world who would agree that religion cannot be the foundation of a conflict, a war, or any other kind of violence.

There can be – and is – much common ground among the three great religions of the Book, as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes described.  Adherents of each of these religions claim Abraham as their father in faith.  But that common ground can only be found, as Pope Benedict XVI insists, through an attitude of mutual respect and honest dialog.