REVIEW: Article

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: Reflections on the Future

A few weeks have passed since Pope Benedict XVI’s address to scholars and students at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, 2006. Now that the furor in some quarters of the world’s Islamic community has faded, we should look at what was said, the intention and other circumstances surrounding the decision of Pope Benedict to say those words in Germany which, within a few hours, were communicated to the world.

The Pope opened his address with a reference to a dialogue in the 14th century between the “erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” The quote that caused the furor was, “He [the emperor] turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”

The Pope was clear in his words after the quote, insisting that religion and reason need one another with a strong appeal against religious violence. Pope Benedict was a key member of his predecessor’s team. During the Pontificate of John Paul II, Vatican opposition to international communism was well-known. Equally well-known was the Church’s insistence that all religious violence be avoided.

Why the uproar, the demonstrations, a possible killing in Somalia and a threat of violence against the Pope himself? In an era when the emphasis is on dialogue between leaders of various faiths, why did some of the response to these comments seem so violent? Was it merited? What are the short- and long-term implications?

Recent History

The opening of Vatican Council II in 1959 initiated within a short time an emphasis on faith and religious freedom.

The concepts of religious freedom and respect for all believers were energized by Pope John XXIII in the early days of the Council in the 1960s and culminated on December 7, 1965, when Pope Paul VI, accompanied by Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray issued the document on religious freedom.

During the reign of Pope John Paul II, there was a very strong desire on the part of the Holy See—the leadership of the Catholic Church—to have a dialogue with Islam that respected its values. Pope John Paul met with Muslim leaders more than 60 times, and, while visiting Syria in 2001, he became the first Pope to ever enter a Mosque.His address at that time was historic. He spoke of Muslims and Jews as well as Christians as the three “Sons of Abraham.” The Pope’s strong commitment to dialogue also led him, a few years previously, to be the first Pope to enter a synagogue. He had the same commitment to dialogue and respect toward the Jewish and Muslim communities.[1]During the reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) of which the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) was a significant member, the push for dialogue was followed by a growing call for reciprocity.I was present when one such attempt by the Pope to obtain a degree of reciprocity occurred. On November 8, 1991, President George H.W. Bush met with Pope John Paul II. As the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, I was responsible for arranging this meeting.
While the President and the Pope, following tradition, met alone in the Papal Library, Secretary of State James Baker, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, General Scowcroft and I were with the then Papal Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano and Archbishop Tauren, then head of foreign affairs for the Holy See.The same basic agenda was followed in both meetings. Both Pope John Paul and Cardinal Sodano each raised the question of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.[2]Over a half million Catholics working in Saudi Arabia are deprived of the right to practice their religion. There are no Catholic priests who can administer to their spiritual needs. In fact, there are no Christian Churches of any denomination in Saudi Arabia. At the same time the Saudi government contributed millions to the construction of a mosque in Rome.It has been 15 years since the then Pope raised the issue of no Christian churches in Saudi Arabia. He expressed his hope that the United States would use its good offices to influence its ally and friend, Saudi Arabia, to make some concessions on behalf of religious freedom. There are still no Christian churches in Saudi Arabia.


More violence has occurred against Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. An Italian priest was killed in Turkey, the clear victim of anti-Catholic bias. Churches have been firebombed.

For the past several decades, while the teachings of dialogue and respect were being encouraged at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, many observers have not seen any real return on this attempt for dialogue in areas of the world where the values of Islam form the core of the local culture.

Various actions in the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict VXI indicate concerns for the lack of real progress in parts of the world’s Islamic community to correct the imperfections in implementing religious freedom and respect for all believers.

Immediate Reaction to Benedict’s Lecture

Less than two days after the Papal remarks on September 12, there was an expression of outrage in the Muslim world. I have already indicated the few sentences in the 40-minute papal address that caused the negative reaction. The rest of the lecture pointed out, as the Pope has in the past, that religion and reason need one another. Like his predecessors have done, he made a plea against violence.

For 15 days from mid-September to October 1, protests against the Pope occurred in the United Kingdom, India and Indonesia. In London, the anger reached a high level with a radical British Muslim saying that the Pope should be “executed for insulting Mohammad, the founder of Islam.”

            It is not known if the shooting death of an Italian nun in Mogadishu, Somalia was related to the papal speech.

Where are the Moderates?

The first 15 days after the Regeneburg address by the Pope brought many comments by Catholic and Protestant leaders in the West calling for a rational analysis of what Pope Benedict was trying to say to the world. Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, did not hesitate to criticize Catholic clergy who advocated liberation theology—violence to achieve certain goals of social justice. In a similar way, Pope Benedict has expressed concerns about some groups in Islam and their political extremism, for fomenting a radical theology that permits—even encourages—violence.

It is clear that Pope Benedict has concerns about Islam. But they are all within his commitment to all faiths that goals should be expressed effectively and peacefully in a pluralistic world.

False Allegations

A few critics are stating that Pope Benedict has aligned himself with President Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the war in Iraq. This is completely ridiculous in the case of the war in Iraq. Both Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have made crystal clear their opposition to the war in Iraq. High officials in the Vatican have expressed serious reservations about the doctrine of the right of one nation to launch a pre-emptive strike.

But there are political leaders who wish to identify their policies with those of the Pope. This has occurred many times in history. In the issue of the West, Christianity and Islam, the stakes are very high. There may be a clash of civilizations and the Pope must maintain his independence from all political systems.

The Pope has a unique role to play. Catholic Church leaders in the United States, both clerical and lay, should assure that there is no confusion about the Vatican and war.

Pope John Paul II was a leader in bringing an end to the Communist empire. His opposition to the Communist empire was based on the premise that the fall of this empire could be accomplished without war.

When I, as the US Ambassador to Pope John Paul II, discussed the Gulf War with him, he was clear in his refusal to recognize it as a “Just War.” He was crystal clear that, in his opinion, “War is the road of no return.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s Address

The address by Pope Benedict at Regensburg was by the reigning pontiff—not Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When he was Father Joseph Ratzinger, he taught theology at the same University from 1969-1977. It is believed that Pope Benedict, in his 2006 visit to his homeland, Germany, authored the speech himself. Some observers have consequently criticized the fact that the address evidently was not examined by his Secretary of State or his Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The address was given at the same time that a transition was taking place in the Holy See government. But I do not believe that his remarks were unplanned. Pope Benedict is carrying out the same commitment to dialogue with and respect for all faith communities. His belief is that these dialogues should be carried out with honesty in an atmosphere that is calm and dignified. The ultimate goal of religious freedom must be respected by all.

The emotional outrage that lasted for approximately two weeks in some parts of the Muslim world seems to be ending. Several Muslim leaders who were among the ambassadors from 22 Muslim states accredited to the Holy See plus leaders from Italy’s small Muslim community, declared, after their meeting with Pope Benedict on September 25, 2006, that the dialogue is “back on track.” Abdellah Redouane, Secretary-General of the Islamic Culture Center of Rome, stated shortly after the meeting, “Today begins a new phase.”

There were lessons learned from the reaction to the Regensburg address of Pope Benedict XVI. The commitment of the Holy See—the government of the Catholic Church—to interfaith dialogue is rooted in decades of multi-faith encounters. It is, as many observers are saying, “Time to move on.”

The serious work of honest dialogue and interfaith efforts can and must be resumed. Too much needs to be done to accomplish a just and peaceful pluralistic world community to allow this episode to hold up progress on dialogue.

Ambassador Melady wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Michael Cohn, Executive Assistant, at the Institute of World Politics in preparing this article.

[1] See Thomas Patrick Melady. The Ambassador’s Story: The United States and the Vatican in World Affairs. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994.

[2] Ibid.