The great thing about this new book, Light of the World, is that it makes clear to the world that Pope Benedict is not afraid to address difficult issues, even if people will disagree with him. In fact he expects disagreement: “If there had been nothing but approval, I would have had to ask myself seriously whether I was really proclaiming the whole Gospel.”
So who can forget the Regensburg address? As interviewer Peter Seewald notes, this lecture given on September 12, 2006, has been classified by some as “the first mistake of the pontificate.”
“I had conceived and delivered the lecture as a strictly academic address, without realizing that people don’t read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements. The political reading ignored the fine web of the argument, ripping the passage out of its context and turning it into a political statement, which it wasn’t….[T]he nature of present-day political communications prevents understanding of subtleties of context like this.
Nevertheless, after all the awful things that happened, about which I can only feel sadness, these events ultimately turned out to have a positive impact….And so this controversy led to the development of a truly vigorous dialogue.
It became evident that Islam needs to clarify two questions in regard to public dialogue, that is, the questions concerning its relation to violence and its relation to reason. It was an important first step that now there was within Islam itself a realization of the duty and the need to clarify these questions, which has since let to an internal reflection among Muslim scholars, a reflection that has in turn become a theme of dialogue with the Church.”
Seewald follows up:
The Islamic newspaper Zaman spoke of the Pope’s “message of peace”; at long last, the paper went on to say, interreligious dialogue has gotten off the ground. Even German newspapers such as Die Zeit, after an initial round of harsh criticism, were now paying their respects to the “wise man in the East” who “is proving to be the most important authority of the West in the Islamic world”.
“At any rate, things have since developed in a positive direction. As you know, 138 Islamic scholars wrote a letter containing an explicit invitation to dialogue and an interpretation of Islam that immediately placed it in dialogue with Christianity. I have also had a very good conversation about this with the king of Saudi Arabia. Like [others] he wants to make common cause with Christians against the abuse of Islam by terrorists. We know today that we are on the same side of a common battle. There are two things we have in common: we both defend major religious values – faith in God and obedience to God – and we both need to situate ourselves correctly in modernity…. At any rate, we have entered into an extensive and vigorous relation of dialogue that is bringing us closer and teaching us to understand one another better. Which also just may help us to find more positive ways of facing this difficult hour of history together.”
From my perspective this is a lot more substantive that cable rants, protests and editorials surrounding the building of a mosque. Since 9/11, the world has faced an acute sensitivity regarding Islam. There has been a tendency to stereotype Islam and to denigrate it as a faith. In many contexts and public understandings, Islam has become synonymous with terrorism. And unfortunately, the West has not done much to engage Muslims as to what they believe, how they view terrorism, or how they see themselves in the world. In many situations, Muslim communities are arguably separated, by choice perhaps, from the rest of society. None of this brings us any closer to understanding each other and being able to live together peacefully.
Far from religious wars, the Pope is setting the standard for dialogue, something that might actually bring some constructive results. He’s clearly indicating that Islam is a serious faith, one that is worthy of meaningful discussion.
Oh, and on burqa bans?
“[I] see no reason for a general ban. Some say that many women would not wear the burqa voluntarily at all and that it is actually a violation of women. One can, of course, not agree to that. But if they want to wear it voluntarily, I do not know why it must be prohibited.”
If you disagree, don’t worry. You’re just confirming Benedict that he’s doing his job well. There’s certainly room for honest disagreement and constructive dialogue.