One of the signature buzzwords of John Paul II's papacy was "dialogue." So committed was he to seeking common ground with leaders of different faiths that he all but institutionalized the process in 1986 by hosting the first of a series of interreligious gatherings in the medieval Italian town of Assisi. It was well known in Vatican circles that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, among the Pope's most loyal lieutenants, was lukewarm to the Assisi enthusiasm. The German Cardinal was, after all, among the world's most rigorous (and traditionalist) Catholic theologians, skeptical of any attempt to water down differences among faiths. Still, when that same theologian became Pope Benedict XVI, he understood that the hard-won lines of communication with the world's other faiths must stay open.
But rather than dialogue, the Pope now faces the need to perform major interfaith damage control. The outcry in the Muslim world that followed his provocative lecture last week on faith and reason--and the origins of holy war--is evidence that the 79-year-old Benedict needs to work on the diplomatic requirements of his new job. In the speech at Regensburg University, he opened a much broader theological exploration by quoting these words of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor: "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."
Perhaps Islamic sensibilities could have been spared if the speech had included a clear indication that the Pope did not agree with the inflammatory words from 600 years ago. Still, the fallout doesn't mean that the speech was a mistake or that a Pope can never mention Muhammad. In fact, the 35-minute discourse could turn out to be the most important step forward for interfaith dialogue since that first meeting in Assisi. It could also set off a new round of anti-Western violence by angry Muslims. Or both. Such is the world that this shy, academic-minded pastor was presented with 17 months ago when he became Pope. The buzzwords today are 9/11, clash of civilizations, jihad--and old formulas must now be replaced by hard, new thinking, even at the risk of offending sensibilities.
This theologian in chief for a billion Catholics should not shy away from serious theology. Benedict's razor-sharp intellect is the best skill he has to offer his church--and potentially the world as well. When he turned that brainpower toward the realm of interreligious relations in last week's speech, Benedict shifted the terms of a debate that has been dominated by either feel-good truisms, victimization complexes or hateful confrontation. He sought instead to delineate what he sees as a fundamental difference between Christianity's view that God is intrinsically linked to reason (the Greek concept of Logos) and Islam's view that "God is absolutely transcendent."
Benedict said Islam teaches that God's "will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." The risk he sees implicit in this concept of the divine is that the irrationality of violence might thereby appear to be justified to someone who believes it is God's will. The essential question, he said, was this: "Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature ... always and intrinsically true?"