The Complex Interfaith Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

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Sat, 2023-02-04
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On January 1st, much of the world woke to news that emeritus Pope Benedict XVI had passed away around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City. A rush of media coverage attempted to summarize the legacy of a figure who served the Roman Catholic Church for almost seventy years as a priest, theology professor, cardinal, and, finally, as pope. Many obituaries and articles written about Pope Benedict in recent days seemed intent on contrasting his legacy with that of his successor, Pope Francis. While this is unavoidable to some degree, the impulse to compare and contrast Pope Benedict as “conservative” or “traditional” with Pope Francis as a “progressive” or “liberal” can be as distorting as it is clarifying in our attempt to understand these leaders and their place in the modern world.

The funeral of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square on January 5th, 2023


Born in 1927 in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger seemed drawn to theology from an early age. His seminary education was interrupted by World War II, but he eventually earned a doctorate in theology with a thesis on St. Augustine’s doctrine of the church in 1953. Over the next several decades he taught theology in Freising, Bonn, Munster, Tubingen, and Regensburg. In his early thirties, he served as an expert theological consultant to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In 1977, Pope Paul VI ordained Ratzinger as Archbishop of Munich and elevated him to the rank of cardinal. In 1981, Pope John Paul II named him as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission. He played a key role in preparing the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which was released by Pope John Paul II in 1992. His most significant publications include Introduction to Christianity (1968), Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1977), Principles of Christian Morality (1986), The Ratzinger Report (1986), Principles of Catholic Theology (1987), In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall (1995), and The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). In the 2000s, his attention turned to the question of Christian faith in an increasingly secular Europe (e.g. Europe: Today and Tomorrow [2005], Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures [2007]) and a three volume study on Jesus of Nazareth which brought the church’s faith into dialogue with contemporary biblical scholarship (Jesus of Nazareth [2007], Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week [2011], Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives [2012]).


While interreligious relations and dialogue should probably not be considered a dominant theme of Ratzinger’s early career, the significance of these fields seemed to grow on him. In part, the increased attention to interreligious relations may have been prompted by the strained relationship between the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) led by Cardinal Ratzinger and the Belgian Jesuit, Jacques Dupuis, which surfaced in the late 1990s. Dupuis’ book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (1997), prompted the CDF to investigate the work to discern whether it denied in some fundamental way the traditional Catholic teaching that Jesus Christ is “the sole and universal mediator of salvation for all of humanity.” Dupuis eventually signed a formal statement affirming this teaching and other related doctrines. With Ratzinger presiding, the CDF also published in 2000 an official statement, Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, which was concerned to clarify pressing questions about religious diversity and Christian doctrine. Certain statements in Dominus Iesus struck some Roman Catholic theologians as poorly formulated and defensive, but the document in general attempted to reaffirm core Catholic teaching about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, salvation, and the church.


The most famous interfaith episode in his career undoubtedly began on September 12th, 2006, a little over a year after he had been elevated to the papacy and taken the name of Pope Benedict XVI. In the course of a short lecture entitled, “Faith, Reason, and the University,” delivered at the German University of Regensburg where he once served as a professor, Benedict made controversial remarks about Islam that elicited a powerful response from significant parts of the Islamic world. As explained in the lecture, Benedict referred to the records of a debate between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) and a “learned Persian.” According to the official English translation posted on the Vatican’s website, the controversial section of the lecture is as follows:


In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to some of the experts, this is probablyone of the suras of the early period, when Muḥammad was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Muḥammad 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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."


The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury [ʿĀdil Khūrī], observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khūrī quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Ḥazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.


It is difficult to evade the conclusion that these comments offer a brief, but rather negative portrayal of Islam, and many commentators have struggled to comprehend why Benedict included them. While it is true that the most offensive words were quoted from a medieval Byzantine emperor rather than Benedict himself, the two paragraphs served to overshadow the remainder of the lecture almost completely and had an arguably tenuous relationship with the subject matter to begin with. Some have proposed that these comments were more reflective of his earlier role as a theology professor and that he was still growing into his new public role as Pope Benedict. Within a few days, he issued a public apology (September 17th) explaining that the remarks did not represent his personal views:


At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.


In an address to Muslim diplomats almost two weeks after the Regensburg lecture (September 25th), he further clarified his overall orientation toward Islam and dialogue:


In this particular context, I should like to reiterate today all the esteem and the profound respect that I have for Muslim believers, calling to mind the words of the Second Vatican Council which for the Catholic Church are the Magna Carta of Muslim-Christian dialogue: "The Church looks upon Muslims with respect. They worship the one God living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humanity and to whose decrees, even the hidden ones, they seek to submit themselves whole-heartedly, just as Abraham, to whom the Islamic faith readily relates itself, submitted to God" (Declaration Nostra Aetate, 3). Placing myself firmly within this perspective, I have had occasion, since the very beginning of my pontificate, to express my wish to continue establishing bridges of friendship with the adherents of all religions, showing particular appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians.”


The immediate aftermath of the speech witnessed unrest and some violence in parts of the Muslim-majority world (e.g. Iraq, Palestine, Somalia), as well as expressions of disapproval and condemnation from a variety of religious and political leaders. Of more lasting significance, however, was the Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict signed by 38 senior Muslim scholars and published a month after the speech on October 12th, 2006. The letter attempted to clarify and correct several points that were raised by the Regensburg address in an academic and respectful manner. To the general public, it may have been surprising that a few sentences in a university lecture could elicit such a significant response. Beyond the obvious fact that Pope Benedict represented the largest Christian community in the world, it is also worth bearing in mind the historical context surrounding the lecture. The world was in many respects still navigating the fraught aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the ongoing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led by the United States. It is understandable that Muslim leaders were deeply concerned by comments from such a significant Christian leader which might be interpreted as somehow linking Islam and irrational violence.

Pope Benedict XVI visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on October 30th, 2006


Despite these challenging dynamics, a number of positive developments have followed the Regensburg address and the initial response by Muslim scholars. Most notably, the multifaceted initiative, A Common Word between Us and You, was launched in Jordan in October 2007. This initiative built upon the success of The Amman Message which was also launched in Jordan in 2004. In comments to Dialogue Across Borders, Dr. Martino Diez, academic director at Fondazione Oasis, an interreligious and intercultural dialogue organization based in Milan and associate professor of Arabic language and literature at the Catholic University of Milan, offered the following reflections on Pope Benedict’s legacy:


Pope Benedict was a great gift to the Church and his theological and spiritual legacy will live on, including in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His comments related to Emperor Manuel II Paleologos in the Regensburg speech, however, were unfortunate. The quotation was polemical and belongs to a past epoch. Moreover, it had little to do with the subject of the speech, which was on faith, reason, and the university. As we know, the speech prompted strong reactions in the Muslim world, including violent ones. But, this accident also paved the way for a pivotal document of dialogue written by Muslims, the famous Open Letter by 38 leading scholars. The following year, the Common Word initiative was launched. From that moment on, other important Islamic initiatives have followed, such as The Marrakesh Declaration: The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Lands (2016) and The Document on Human Fraternity (2019) signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib. Together, these initiatives represent a remarkable new chapter in Christian-Muslim dialogue characterized by much greater intellectual depth and mutual respect.


In his comments to Dialogue Across Borders, Daniel Madigan, S.J., emeritus professor at Georgetown University and chair of the Building Bridges Seminar, highlighted a 1999 statement from then Cardinal Ratiznger that provides a much more complex view of his approach to dialogue:


What we need, however, is respect for the beliefs of others and the readiness to look for the truth in what strikes us as strange or foreign; for such truth concerns us and can correct us and lead us farther along the path. What we need is the willingness to look behind the alien appearances and look for the deeper truth hidden there. Furthermore, I need to be willing to allow my narrow understanding of truth to be broken down. I shall learn my own truth better if I understand the other person and allow myself to be moved along the road to the God who is ever greater, certain that I never hold the whole truth about God in my own hands but am always a learner, on pilgrimage toward it, on a path that has no end. (Many Religions - One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World [Ignatius Press, 1999], 110)


At Dialogue Across Borders, we know that authentic interreligious and intercultural encounters are often beautiful, transformative, and nonetheless very challenging. While it is our view that Pope Benedict’s comments about Islam in his Regensburg address were mistaken, we believe his life and career should not be reduced to such a moment. Rather, Pope Benedict lived an inspiring and remarkable life of faith seeking understanding and we join many around the world in mourning his death with respect.


With best wishes,

Matthew Anderson

Executive Editor

Dialogue Across Borders


February 04, 2023


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