Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims
(Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)
“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.
“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.
“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”
My analysis for the Reuters wire (read the whole article here) will sound familiar to readers of the blog because I already flagged the ideas here in the posts At Dome of Rock, Benedict uses Muslims’ argument to Muslims and Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque. But turning these reporters’ observations into an analysis for Reuters requires more than just my observations. So I spent a few hours yesterday calling interfaith dialogue experts to hear their reactions to Benedict’s speeches.
There were a few interesting observations I couldn’t squeeze into the wire story because of the strict length limitations we have there. For example, Fr. Roucou felt that Benedict’s speech at the Dome of the Rock was “a bit too philosophical” because it didn’t have anything specifically Christian in it. “It’s too bad in the speeches to the Muslims that there were no references to Jesus and the Gospels,” he said. “It’s all about the Creator God. That’s fine — I don’t want to get the Gospels in there at any price. But in his speeches to Jews, Benedict quoted the Psalms.”
Noting the way Benedict seemed to be connecting with Muslims but having a harder time with Jews, especially Israeli public opinion, Imam Hendi said: “The fact that the Holy See can talk to Muslims doesn’t mean it can’t talk to Jews. I want Jews and Muslims and Christians around the table for dialogue. It can never be complete if Jews aren’t part of the dialogue.” The way that Benedict built upon the Common Word appeal for dialogue “creates a wonderful momentum. I believe he’s doing the right thing and I believe we can move forward”.
Given the seven-hour time difference between Jerusalem and New York, I first emailed Rabbi Visotzky to ask when was the best time to call. In addition to setting a time for our talk, he also sent along an interesting observation about how important it is in interfaith dialogue to use terms the others know or define terms so they can understand them: “One must learn the language of “the Other” in order to enter dialogue. It helps in a variety of ways, not the least of which is to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. To wit, when I was meeting with a group of Saudi Imams, the U.S. State Dept. translator gently explained to me that although I knew what I meant when I used the term Zionist (and it was a positive thing), they heard it as a very negative term. Once I defined it to them, we were able to move on…”