HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – While visiting with a delegation of Iraqi Muslims in 1999, Pope John Paul II surprised his guests and the world when he reverently placed his lips on the Islamic holy book of the Quran. It was a gesture typical of the pope – demonstrative, dramatic and eminently photographable. It was also one of the most controversial gestures of his papacy. And it is a gesture few Vatican watchers think his successor is likely to repeat.
"Anyone who knows Rome will tell you that today a more hawkish position is in ascendancy," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent and author of The Rise of Benedict XVI (Doubleday, $19.95).
"Not that Pope Benedict doesn't want good relations with Muslims or that he wants to launch some kind of cultural crusade. Quite the contrary. He wants dialogue, but dialogue that has the self-confidence to be honest," Allen told Our Sunday Visitor.
And indeed, beginning with his address to Muslims in Cologne, Germany, last August during World Youth Day, in which he said no culture that denies its people freedom of conscience is worthy of the name "civilization," the pope has been much less ambiguous than his predecessor about the differences that divide Muslims and Christians and much more vocal about the dangers of militant Islam.
According to Allen, those differences exist, at least in part, because of Pope Benedict's background as a theologian. That background leads him to think more deeply about the theological and scriptural challenges of Islam and enables him to bring a greater degree of theological precision to the dialogue.
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor of Islamic Studies at the Université St. Joseph in Beirut and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, seconded Allen's assessment. He also noted that while Pope John Paul was given to making gestures intended to show respect for Muslims – such as kissing the Quran or visiting a mosque – he was not always sensitive to the way people perceived those gestures.
"The pope kissing the Quran was a shock for many Christians in the Middle East. They thought it meant that the Quran is divine, which is of course not what he meant at all," said Father Samir.
But Pope Benedict, he continued, "tries to be a clear theologian in everything he does and to avoid any confusion in the minds of Christians or non-Christians."
Beyond theology, however, much of the difference in Pope Benedict's approach stems from his actual conception of interreligious dialogue.
Rather than seeing dialogue with other religions as a way to iron out doctrinal differences, an oftentimes impossible task, Pope Benedict sees interreligious dialogue as a means of establishing common values and finding common cause in the fight against secularization and injustice.
Accordingly, Pope Benedict's dialogue with Muslims has thus far centered on questions of culture and human rights, rather than theology.
Father Samir noted it also reflects the pope's recognition of a traditional stumbling block in Muslim-Christian dialogue: Islam's inability to conceive of the separation of church and state according to traditional Western formulas.
"Whenever we try and dialogue with Muslims, always the discussion will move from religion to cultural, social, even political questions," said Father Samir. "The Muslims will ask the Christians about Israel, or colonialism, or even the Crusades. That makes a real discussion very difficult. But having both councils together now makes it more possible to have a full dialogue."
Peace and freedom
Given the ascendancy of radical Islam in recent years, the need for dialogue has perhaps never been greater. And according to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Pope Benedict recognizes that.
Bishop DiMarzio, whose Diocese of Brooklyn is home to 100,000 Muslims, recently traveled to Rome for the annual plenary session of the Vatican's Council for Migrants and Itinerant People, which dealt heavily with the topic of Islam. There, he said, Pope Benedict's two main goals for Muslim-Christian dialogue were clear – "secure lasting peace" and guarantee for Christians living in the Middle East "the basic human right to practice their faith as they see fit."
While the pope hasn't shied away from the subject of terrorism – telling the Muslims gathered in Cologne that it is "a perverse and cruel choice, which… undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence" – the latter issue, religious freedom, is increasingly taking center stage in Rome.
Again and again, the pope and other Vatican officials have reiterated the need for Muslims to grant the same rights of religious freedom to Christians living in the Middle East that they demand for themselves in the West – the right to build places of worship, to pray openly and freely and to pass on their faith to their children. And Pope Benedict's refusal to remain silent on the subject, both in public and in private, marks a distinct departure from the days of Pope John Paul II.
Allen thinks this tougher Vatican line reflects Pope Benedict's desire to encourage Islamic leaders to seriously engage the question of how they can express their faith in a world of many cultures, religions and ideas.
It also crystallizes the differences in the church's dialogue with Islam since Pope Benedict's election, he said.
"Pope John Paul met with Muslims more than 60 times over the course of his pontificate, and his hope was to build bridges," Allen said. "Pope Benedict, on the other hand, seems to believe those bridges have been built, and now it's time to walk across them."
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Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio for Our Sunday Visitor.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.