FaithWorld

UPDATE: SSPX to ordain new priests despite Vatican warning

econe-1The Vatican warning to the ultra-traditionalist SSPX not to ordain new priests this month without Roman approval had no discernible effect on the rebel Catholic group. Soon after the Vatican declared the ordinations would be illegitimate, Father Yves Le Roux, rector of the SSPX’s St Thomas Aquinas seminary in Winona, Minnesota, said the ordination of 13 new priests there would go ahead on Friday.

“Absolutely. We are doing it,” he told our Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella by telephone. “This is something the Vatican feels it has to say. It’s a political statement but the reality is totally different.” (Photo: SSPX ordains deacons in Écône, Switzerland, 3 April 2009/Valentin Flauraud)

The SSPX seminary at Zaitzkofen, in the German state of Bavaria, declared its intention to go ahead with its June 27 ordinations in a statement posted on its website on Monday (here in German original and in English). It argued that Pope Benedict’s decision in January to lift the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops was a “confidence-building measure for the coming theological discussions with representatives of the Holy See” meant to thrash out an official position in the Church for the SSPX.” Further ordinations are due at the SSPX headquarters in Écône, Switzerland on June 29.

Defying a papal warning against ordaining new priests before its official status was clarified seems to be the opposite of a confidence-building measure on the SSPX’s part. As the BBC’s David Willey put it in his report from Rome tonight, Pope Benedict “gave them an inch and they took a mile.”

So the SSPX has thrown the ball back into the Vatican’s court. The Vatican statement said “the ordinations should still be considered illegitimate” and “doctrinal and, consequently, also disciplinary questions still remain open.” That leaves open the option of a further reaction from Rome, or possibly from Regensburg Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Or there might be no reaction, just that curious Vatican silence that caused it such trouble after the Regensburg speech and the readmission of the Holocaust-denying SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson. That would leave the narrow issue unresolved and pose wider questions about Pope Benedict’s leadership.

Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims

pope-in-dome (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…”

Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque

pope-speech
(Photo: Benedict speaks at King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

If Pope Benedict had delivered today’s speech on Christian-Muslim cooperation back in Regensburg two years ago, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” The name of the tranquil Bavarian university town where Benedict once taught theology has become shorthand for how a man as intelligent as the pope can commit an enormous interfaith gaffe. His long-awaited address today in the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, Jordan’s magestic state mosque on a hilltop in western Amman, was an eloquent call for Christians and Muslims to work together to defend the role of faith in modern life. Rather than hinting that Islam was irrational, as Muslims understood him to say in Regensburg, he called human reason “God’s gift” to all. Christians and Muslims should work together using their faith and reason to promote the common good in their societies, he said, and oppose political manipulation of any faith.The speech clearly sought common ground with its Muslim audience. It started off linking the massive pale limestone mosque to other places of worship that “stand out like jewels across the earth’s surface” and “through the centuries … have drawn men and women into their sacred space to pause, to pray, to acknowledge the presence of the Almighty, and to recognize that we are all his creatures.”Benedict described the increasingly frequent argument that religion caused tensions and division in the world as worrying both to Christian and to Muslim believers. “The need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly,” he said in the speech in English. “Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshipers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”After praising Jordan’s work promoting interfaith dialogue, he said the greater reciprocal knowledge both sides had gained through dialogue “should prompt Christians and Muslims to probe even more deeply the essential relationship between God and his world so that together we may strive to ensure that society resonates in harmony with the divine order.”pope-minaretToday I wish to refer to a task which … I firmly believe Christians and Muslims can embrace… That task is the challenge to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason… As believers in the one God, we know that human reason is itself God’s gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations. In this way, human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending, rather than manipulating or confining, public debate.”
(Photo: Benedict with Prince Ghazi (in robes) outside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

So has Benedict “made up for Regensburg” or managed to trump it with this speech? His critics here naturally didn’t think so. Sheikh Hamza Mansour, a leading Islamist scholar and politician, told my colleague Suleiman al-Khalidi that the pope had “not sent any message to Muslims that expresses his respect for Islam or its religious symbols starting with the Prophet.” Benedict had spoken on Friday about his deep respect for Muslims, but not specifically for Islam.“I wouldn’t want to read too much into selecting a particular word or not,” Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish Islamic scholar and spokesman for the Common Word group of Muslim intellectuals promoting dialogue with Christians, told me by phone from Ankara. The speech was “very positive,” he said. “He said many other things in this speech. He said Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. That’s an expression of enormous commonality. I would go by the context of what hes saying. It’s a long way from Regensburg speech.”Kalin, who also teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, said this speech couldn’t “make up for Regensburg” but it did represent an evolution in the pope’s thinking about Islam. “He’s made substantial changes (in his thinking) but he’s not coming out and saying ‘I atone for my sin at Regensburg.’ Kalin said. He’s not saying that and he’s not going to say that. But reading between the lines, it’s happened gradually.”pope-insidePrince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, a leading Common Word signatory who was the pope’s host at the mosque today, brought up the Regensburg speech in his address. But he did this in the context of thanking Benedict for expressing his regrets “for the hurt caused by this lecture to Muslims.”
(Photo: Benedict inside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

Benedict’s Amman speech has gone a long way to putting Regensburg into context, and dialogue proponents like the Common Word group are helping him do it. But it’s a wild card that can still be drawn against him, especially by Islamists opposed to cooperation with Christians. “My guess is that he’ll give three, four or five more speeches like this to try to make people forget the Regensburg speech,” Kalin commented.

When in a minefield, a pope first turns to prayer

pope-bannerWhen a pope enters a minefield, the most natural reaction for him is to pray. Pope Benedict stressed prayer when he began his tip-toe over the explosive terrain of the Middle East starting his May 8-15 tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories today. From the start, in his remarks during the flight to Amman, he stressed that people should pray for peace. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process,” he said on the plane. “As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history.” This is theologically sound, of course. It’s also politically clever. It’s the lowest common denominator in the Holy Land, maybe the only option all sides might agree on. (Photo: Workers hang banner welcoming Benedict in Amman, 7 May 2009/Muhammad Hamed)

Another theme evident in comments by the pope and King Abdullah is their joint effort to boost Benedict’s image in the Muslim world. His 2006 Regensburg speech hinting that Islam was violent and irrational has not been forgotten in this region. But Jordan, a Muslim country that strongly supports interfaith dialogue initiatives such as the Common Word declaration, wants to redirect attention towards cooperation between the world’s two largest faiths. King Abdullah took the first step in that direction. Speaking at the airport after the pope’s arrival today, he said:

We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims. You have warmly received the visits pope-abdullahof Muslim scholars and others. In turn, your historic visit this week to the King Hussein Mosque … your meeting with Muslim religious scholars … is welcomed by all Jordanians. It is my hope that together, we can expand the dialogue we have opened – a dialogue that accepts our unique religious identities; a dialogue that is unafraid of the light of truth; a dialogue that, rightly, celebrates our deep, common values and ties.”

Vatican edits pope on condoms and AIDS solutions

pope-in-planePope Benedict’s comments about condoms on his flight to Cameroon have made headlines worldwide. They have been quoted extensively on many websites run by news organisations and also by the Vatican. But that hasn’t stopped the same Vatican from editing them after the fact to try to make them sound more acceptable. (Photo: Pope Benedict answers questions in the plane to Africa, with Rev. Georg Gänswein (L) and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (C), 17 March 2009//Alessandro Bianchi)

The main change on the Vatican website comes in the most controversial part, where he says: “It (AIDS) cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem.” This was criticised in Europe and the United States as going beyond a doctrinal question and spreading untruths about public health policies. Now the Vatican’s Bollettino (daily bulletin — here in the original Italian) has watered this down to have him say:   “On the contrary, the risk is that they increase the problem.” The Milan daily Corriere della Sera has the original transcript in Italian.

The Vatican editors also softened the pope’s talk about solutions. In the original, he said: “The problem of AIDS cannot be solved only with money …” In the new version, this comes out as: “The problem of AIDS cannot be solved only by advertising slogans …”

Is Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech now history for Muslims?

Pope Benedict’s famous Regensburg speech has haunted Catholic-Muslim relations since it was delivered in September 2006. Muslims were insulted by his quoting of a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent and irrational and have complained about the speech ever since. The “Common Word” group of Islamic scholars that met Benedict and Catholic officials at the Vatican this week grew out of an initial response by Muslims to that speech. So what role did the Regensburg speech play at those unprecedented talks?

None, according to the Catholic delegation head, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (left). It was not mentioned a single time in the talks, he told our colleagues at I.Media, a French agency reporting on the Vatican. “Nobody ever spoke about Regensburg,” he said. “It’s a closed affair and the pope has already explained that issue very well.” The pope has expressed regret at any misunderstanding of his speech but not apologised for it as some Muslims urged him to do at the time.

Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric (right), head of the Muslim delegation, was also asked whether Regensburg was now a closed chapter. “There are certain things you should remember but also put into historical context,” he told journalists after the delegations attended an audience with the pope. “Some people say from conflict and misunderstanding comes understanding.”

Vatican-Iranian dialogue agrees on faith, reason, non-violence

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanPope Benedict was “particularly satisfied” with the topic of a meeting this week held between Vatican and Iranian specialists on inter-faith dialogue, according to a statement just put out by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. That shouldn’t be any surprise. The statement copied below shows his trademark topic — the compatibility of faith and reason — was prominent at the three-day session. He has been stressing this for years, with some success (as during his recent U.S. visit) and some misunderstanding (as in his Regensburg speech). With another Catholic-Muslim meeting due later this year, with delegates of the Common Word group, we can expect this issue to stay front and centre in inter-faith dialogue.

That the Iranian delegation agreed with the statements on faith and reason shows they did not see the contradiction between them in Islam that some observers read into Benedict’s comments in Regensburg. They also agreed that “faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent,” a message Benedict said he meant to get across there. Another point agreed on here — that both Catholics and Muslims should promote respect for religious beliefs and symbols — seems to have the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as its background. One can’t read too much into one meeting but it seems that dialogue is moving ahead despite some occasional setbacks.

I can’t help but notice the different emphasis here from what the popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled said this week about the protests against the Danish cartoons.

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on Asianews.it of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

Osama, Benedict and the Mohammad cartoons

Osama bin Laden in a video grab from undated footage obtained in 2007/Reuters TelevisionIn his latest video, Osama bin Laden charges that the reprinting of a Danish caricature of the Prophet Mohammad amounts to a new crusade against Islam led by Pope Benedict. Complaints about the reprinting of the cartoon, sparked by death threats against the artist who depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, have been spreading in the Muslim world. This seems to be the first time, however, that the pope has been linked like this to the cartoons. We have the news story and a security analysis. This post is simply to point out this curious twist, given the fact that the Vatican’s top official for relations with Islam was recently in Egypt and issued a joint declaration with al-Azhar University denouncing media attacks on religion.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, visited the centre of Sunni learning in late February and signed a joint communique with Sheikh Abd al-Fattah Alaam, head of al-Azhar’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions. In it they said they

appeal to those responsible for the mass media, whether written or broadcast, in all countries, to be vigilant that freedom of expression not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred, but rather to oppose extremism, to encourage mutual acceptance, love and respect for all, regardless of their religion.