The fury over Pope Benedict's scholarly lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany on Sept. 12 illustrates just how thin the veneer of civility can be in the border zones of the world where Christians and Muslims rub shoulders.
Speaking at the university where he was a professor from 1969-1971, Benedict's address dealt with reason and faith in the West. But he began his speech by recounting a conversation on Christianity and Islam that took place between a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar.
The Pope described an exchange where the emperor addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The emperor, after having expressed himself forcefully, goes on to explain in detail why spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable.
The address was meant to refute religious motivation for violence, no matter where it comes from. It's hard to know what the Pope was thinking when he used this quotation in his speech.
The last thing the Pope, the Catholic Church and Islam needed at this critical moment in history was the explosive reaction we saw over the past two weeks. I am among those who wonder why the Pope's advisers did not flag this quote and suggest another way of addressing the same reality. Nevertheless, it happened.
The Vatican said the speech was intended to open a dialogue and to reject the use of violence in the name of any religion. Instead, the pontiff's comments set off days of protest, some violent. He was condemned by the leaders of Muslim countries; he has been likened to Hitler; several Christian churches have been set on fire; and his remarks may have some link to the murder of an Italian nun in Somalia.
Muslim leaders demanded apologies and threatened to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican, warning that the Pope's words dangerously reinforce a false view of Islam. For many Muslims, holy war - jihad - is a spiritual struggle, not a call to violence. Indeed, they denounce its perversion by extremists, who use jihad to justify terrorism.
Soon after the Pope returned to Rome from Germany on Sept. 14, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that while the papal speech contained a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence," it was not meant to be a critical assessment of Islam. On the contrary, Father Lombardi said, the Pope's talk focused primarily on the religious shortcomings of the West.
The Vatican's new secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, issued another statement Sept. 16 saying the Pope respected Islam and its followers, and was in favor of interfaith dialogue. The cardinal said that the Pope had been arguing in favour of religious values in modern cultures - a point that should be welcomed by Muslims.
During his Angelus address at Castel Gandolfo last Sunday, Benedict XVI himself made this apology:
"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought.
Later, the cardinal secretary of state published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words. I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."
Again, last Wednesday, during his weekly general audience, Pope Benedict continued his apology and clarification:
"At the University (of Regensburg), I spoke on the relationship between faith and reason. I included a quotation on the relationship between religion and violence. This quotation, unfortunately, lent itself to possible misunderstanding. In no way did I wish to make my own, the words of the medieval emperor. I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together. I hope that my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who "worship the one God" and with whom we "promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity" is clear. Let us continue the dialogue both between religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith!"
Now that the Pope has expressed his regrets, I sincerely hope that Catholics and Muslims will learn from the pontiff's ill-advised comments and move ahead in a conciliatory way.
The lessons of this fury and reaction may have little to do with the Regensburg address but a great deal to say about the future of Christianity in majority Muslim nations.
They also reveal how much we Christians and Catholics have to learn about Islam.
Professor Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church, must now understand that as Pope Benedict XVI, he is speaking to a very different audience than the academic group before him in the Regensburg lecture hall.
And the media must understand that they can't "sound bite" this Pope!
Muslim leaders need to condemn the acts of violence that followed the Pope's speech. Even more important, they must work against the nurturing of grievance that magnifies and politicizes insults, giving them a destructive dynamic.
One spirit of love
In today's world where God is tragically forgotten, Christians and Muslims are called in one spirit of love to defend and promote human dignity, moral values and freedom. Our common pilgrimage to eternity must be expressed in prayer, fasting and charity, but also in joint efforts for peace and justice, for human advancement and the protection of the environment.
Speaking to Muslim leaders in Cologne, Germany, last August during World Youth Day 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said: "Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."
By walking together on the path of reconciliation and renouncing any form of violence as a means of resolving differences, the two religions will be able to offer hope, radiating in the world the wisdom and mercy of the one God who created and governs the human family.