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In the penultimate phrase of his lecture, Benedict said: "It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures." Ah yes, the "d" word. "Dialogue" has become a familiar papal term ever since John Paul launched the first of many interfaith gatherings in the medieval Italian city of Assisi two decades ago. Just last month, in fact, was the 20th anniversary of that first encounter. Benedict, as he did last year, skipped the anniversary event in St. Francis' hometownand Vatican insiders say he has always been skeptical of the encounters, which he worries can water down differences between faiths. But he did send a written message for the first time this year, which heralded John Paul's "prophecy" in promoting a peaceful dialogue among different religions, and "its timeliness in light of what has happened in the past 20 years and of humanity's situation today."
Thus taken together with this commitment to dialogue, the Pope's lecture in Regensburg seems to be saying: Yes, we must indeed talk, but now is the time for hard questionsnot hugs and handshakes. The upside to Benedict's approach is that a brilliant theologian-Pope may help sharpen the terms of the debate. The downside is that he risks not connecting with the massesor worse, being misinterpreted and manipulated by both his own followers, and those of other faiths. As a worldwide preacherand no longer just an ivory-tower intellectual or Vatican bureaucratBenedict must still further synthesize his message. He may get no better stage than on his next scheduled foreign voyage. In late November, the leader of the world's one billion Catholics is scheduled to land in Turkey, home to 70 million Muslims.