Pope needs to refocus, critics say

He has veered away from interfaith efforts, some say

September 20, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected almost 18 months ago, some people within and outside the Roman Catholic Church predicted that his background would shift the papacy away from the interfaith outreach that was the legacy of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

They say the flap over Pope Benedict's comments regarding Islam and the Prophet Muhammad support their predictions and illustrate the need for him to recognize that he has grown from high-ranking Vatican official to the dominant face of the Catholic Church.

"I think his problem is that he's a German academic who hasn't realized yet he's a pope," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

"There's certain things that an academic can say and have intellectual, unemotional discussions of. ... He's an extremely bright man, but he doesn't have any street smarts."

Before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger focused on protecting Christianity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position in which he became known as a hard-line enforcer of church orthodoxy.

"He's not as political or diplomatic as was John Paul II," said Frank J. Coppa, a professor of history at St. John's University in New York. "He's more theologically oriented than he is diplomatically oriented."

Some Vatican observers speculate that the pope's comments could jeopardize his planned November trip to Turkey, a secular state and close ally of the West that is governed by a party with Islamic roots.

The trip is still on his schedule, a recognition of the necessity of maintaining ties, some say.

"On all sides, both from the point of view of the Vatican and also the point of view from Turkey, it's very important to continue that relationship," said Chester Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University's theology department.

The conflict stemmed from the pope's comments to scholars at Germany's University of Regensberg last week. He included a quote from a 14th-century text that referred to some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

Government and religious leaders from Muslim countries immediately called for the Vatican to apologize. Protests and some violence have broken out in Pakistan and elsewhere. The pope has since expressed regret for the outrage the speech had caused, but there has been neither a specific apology nor a retraction.

Muslim leaders in the United States say they are concerned about the direction of the church's relationship with Muslims.

"When you compare his efforts to reach out to the Muslims to those of the previous pope, there's a lot to be desired," said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. "We hope that the incident is not a signal of things yet to come.

"Unfortunately, these most recent remarks are harming relations that were built up over years."

In the United States, local Catholic leaders have agreed to meet with representatives of the Muslim community, Hooper said. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, agreed to meet with a council representing 70 mosques in Southern California.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, a member of an interreligious committee of the United States Conference of Bishops who is known for his outreach to the Jewish community, wrote yesterday in response to some of the criticism that "it should be clear that rather than being a critical analysis of Islam, [Pope Benedict's] address invites us all to reject violence as a way of solving problems. ... For the discerning reader, Pope Benedict offers his plea for reconciliation and peace in terms both scholarly and persuasive."

Theologians said yesterday that the pontiff is more sophisticated than last week's comments might suggest.

"He's not naive. He knows the stakes are high," Gillis said. "He understands the relationship between so-to-speak the West and the Muslim world globally is very, very important.

Gillis said the pope "has inherited a slightly exacerbated political situation." Although Pope John Paul II made huge strides with the Jewish community, he said, there is additional pressure on the church's relations with Muslims.

Age might also be a factor in efforts to build upon progress in interfaith relations. Pope John Paul II became pope at age 58, two decades younger than Pope Benedict was when he was elected.

"He's not going to be the globetrotter that John Paul was," Gillis said. "John Paul II had the advantage of having traveled to a lot of places, an advantage that Benedict is not going to enjoy."

Another contrast with his predecessor is that much of Pope Benedict's recent work in the church involved a much more narrow focus on Christian doctrine.

"His lenses are very thickly Christian in terms of how he views the world," Gillis said.

Although "Benedict is a very distinguished Christian theologian," Gillis said, "he's not an expert on the history of religions."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.