Papal outreach

August 26, 2005

WHO COULD argue with Pope Benedict XVI's admonition to Muslim leaders in Germany last weekend that terrorists are "sowing death and destruction and plunging many of our brothers and sisters into grief and despair"? Who could dispute his assessment that such barbarism seeks to poison our relations with the Muslim world, "to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful, fair and serene life together"? His insistence that improved relations was a "vital necessity" was a fitting conclusion to his private meeting. But as the pope's first address to Muslims, it lacked any mention of the issues that divide Muslims from the non-Muslim world or insights on how to broach them.

Some may attribute Pope Benedict's narrowly focused speech to the newness of his papacy or his decision to deliver a carefully scripted message. But the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had spoken previously on Islam and religious fundamentalism and his comments reflected a harder line than that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. He viewed Turkey's admission into the European Union in the context of the continent's Christian roots and opposed it. His writings acknowledged that the West's increasing secularization and Christianity's declining influence had benefited Islam.

Occupying the seat of St. Peter presents Pope Benedict with a higher pulpit from which to speak, but also a larger audience to address. The influence of Pope John Paul extended beyond the world's 1 billion Catholics because he spoke out on issues confronting the international community. The modern papacy has evolved into a global political forum. It affords Pope Benedict vast opportunities and responsibilities.

So it's understandable that while attending an international Catholic youth conference in Cologne, Germany, last weekend, his first foreign trip, Pope Benedict chose to meet with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Interfaith dialogue is a priority of his papacy. His dialogue with Muslim leaders followed by several weeks the suicide attacks in London by Islamic extremists and the heightened focus on Europe's Muslim immigrants. The pope's focus on terrorism may have seemed appropriate, but his speech did little to advance the interreligious conversations begun by Pope John Paul.

In contrast, the pope's Muslim guests called for a permanent forum to discuss poverty, globalization, racism and other issues that have alienated many Muslims and provoked a hatred of the West. That is the dialogue that needs to take place and that the new pope should lead with vigor. The seeds of terrorism spring from that very fertile ground.

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