(This story could be called "Theologian Gets Crash Course in Reality.")
After a number of failed attempts to calm outrage created by his unwise remarks about Islam, Pope Benedict XVI has now invited ambassadors from Muslim countries to the Vatican for discussions. Such a meeting is needed, since it has become painfully clear that the thrice tried "I'm sorry you were offended" approach was not putting the controversy to rest.
Thankfully, despite some outbreaks of violence and demonstrations, most have been limited in scope. But damage, nevertheless, has been done, dangers remain, and real repair work must begin.
One can speculate as to why Benedict chose Emperor Manuel's diatribe to being his treatise, but what is clear is that it was a grave error, a fact the Vatican now recognizes. Though inadequate, the Pope's repeated half-apologies and now the invitation to dialogue stand as acknowledgment of this error.
While some apologists attempted to argue that the pontiff's speech was intended to create dialogue, insulting the very foundations of the "other's" faith is not a useful approach. As one leading liberal US Catholic theologian argued, a more appropriate message might have been a genuine mea culpa for Manuel's words, or an apology for Christianity's own history of violence.
As it was, the pope's speech instead of moving Catholics and Muslims toward dialogue only served to deepen the divide. Despite some liberal theologians who have taken issue with Benedict's handling of this matter, it has been disturbing to see not only some Catholic traditionalists but also leaders among the growing numbers of Christian fundamentalists who embraced Manuel's depiction of Islam as "evil and inhuman." In articles and commentaries, they cited the pope's quote of Manuel as validation of their own deep-seated and extremist anti-Muslim attitudes. Some of their number have even expressed offense at Benedict's "apologies," arguing instead that his initial statements should be defended.
If this trend is not checked by the Vatican, there will be a serious erosion in the international respect that many non-Catholics have developed toward for the papacy. This has largely been the product of the work of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. It was Benedict's inheritance, which he may be in danger of squandering.
Another obvious impact of the pope's speech has been the opportunity it provided for some extremists in the Muslim world. While reactions have, so far, been somewhat muted, and there have been calls for calm, there is the continuing danger of combustion. Just recall how long it took for the outbreaks of violence in reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy. Extremists preying off of feelings of powerlessness and anger may yet be able to exploit this inflammatory quote and fuel violent rage in an effort to strengthen their political hold.
The victims in all of this may be the much beleaguered Eastern Christian communities. Israel's occupation policies, their assault on Lebanon, and the US's ill-conceived invasion of Iraq have left Arab Christians in a crossfire. They, like their Muslim brethren, are victims of these atrocities, but as extremism grows in reaction to this trauma, oftentimes the Christians become targets of rage. A recent article in the Jesuit's leading US magazine, America, noted that since 2003, Iraq's Christian population dropped from 1.2 million to 600,000. Similarly, over the past several decades Christians in Palestine who were once 15% of the population have declined to a mere 1.5%.
The author of this same article, Drew Christensen, outlined a sensible six point plan to establish peace, protection, and stability for all the peoples of the Middle East. Clearly the pope's remarks have not contributed to the effort.
It seems obvious that Benedict did not consider the impact of his words. Some suggest that unlike his predecessor who lived in the real world, this pope has largely been a cloistered academic and theologian. He is also quite Eurocentric. Since his focus is on reestablishing church discipline and restoring faith in an increasingly lax and secular Europe, he did not measure the depth of Muslim grievances against the West, or the need of Eastern Christians to have the bonds of understanding and mutual deepened between them and their Muslim countrymen.
It can be hoped that this episode served as a wake-up--and that change can occur before disaster strikes.
Dialogue is desperately needed. Rarely does one get a second chance to start over and set things straight. It can be hoped that at this upcoming Vatican meeting, a respectful dialogue can begin.