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Panel ponders papal remarks about Islam

Eileen Duffy | Friday, September 29, 2006

While Pope Benedict XVI’s recent address on faith and reason at Germany’s Regensburg University was not without flaw, five faculty members agreed Thursday at the Hesburgh Center, the media has presented an incomplete version of the speech.

In his Sept. 12 remarks calling for “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions,” the pope quoted an obscure 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying the Prophet Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman” to the world, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture W. David Solomon, theology professor Paul Kollman, history professor Brad Gregory, Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies R. Scott Appleby and Kroc Institute scholar Rashied Omar debated just what the remarks meant – and correct or not, now that they’re out there, just what should be taken from them.

The pope’s words have incited a wave of backlash in the Muslim world, most notably the bombing of two West Bank churches and the gunning down of an Italian nun and her bodyguard in Somalia.

While Omar, who is himself a Muslim, issued an apology for the actions of his coreligionists, he still took issue with the pope’s “overly simplistic” presentation of Muslim views, which vary from one Islamic sect to another.

“The pope selectively retrieved from a vast Muslim tradition one viewpoint, thereby reducing Islam to one voice,” Omar said. “Contemporary Muslim theories are a hybrid of classical Muslim schools. All are a very far cry from the monochromatic picture presented by Pope Benedict.”

The decentralized nature of Islam can make dialogue with that religion “daunting,” Gregory said.

“The reality seems to be that while the overwhelming majority of Muslims denounce violence, the fact is, not all do,” he said. “The sociological realities of the religion prevent the former from exercising any categorical power over the latter.”

The pope, who has since issued an apology for his reference to the quotation from Manuel Paleologos II, deserves an “extraordinary amount of respect,” Appleby said. But listeners often overestimate the authority of his words.

“A pope can and does make mistakes when he is not speaking infallibly,” Appleby said. “If the pope was intending to open dialogue with Islam, one must acknowledge with humility that this was a less than artful way to do so.”

While the pope mentioned opening the door to religious dialogue, his remarks were not designed solely as a catalyst for that effort. Rather, Kollman said, the lecture was intended to lament the dehellenization of Christianity – that is, a separation of the biblical inquiry from Greek philosophical thinking.

The pope’s words were meant for those listening – the students of Regensburg University, Solomon said, and the broader community of institutions of higher education.

“I want to suggest that maybe the target of the talk was us, meaning the modern university,” Solomon said, explaining the pope was calling for more unity between various departments and colleges in a university.

Nonetheless, Solomon called the pope’s attempt to analyze faith and reason throughout the history of the Western world in just eight pages “utterly irresponsible.”

“He is, no doubt, at fault for trying to do too much, too quickly, in too short a compass,” he said.

And no matter to whom the Pope is speaking, Appleby said, everyone is listening.

“The pope only has one context, which is the globe,” Appleby said. “… He does not, unfortunately for him, have the luxury of delivering a fine, nuanced, professorial talk at Regensburg. If he didn’t know that, he knows it now.”

The media certainly was listening, and what the faculty feels journalists gleaned from the pope’s speech were the most extreme of his quotations. As Omar pointed out, it’s likely no Muslims were present at Regensburg University, and their understanding of the lecture came from the press.

“The media is not playing a responsible game,” Omar said.

” …They took it out of context.”

Making the media more responsible is a demand “incumbent upon us,” Kollman said, and Solomon hoped that effort would start at the university level.

“The shameful role played by the press … to ignore the content of this document is unforgivable,” Solomon said. “I hope we’re training a generation of students who will take journalism seriously enough to respond to documents like this appropriately.”

Not only should the media report to the Muslim world accurately, it should also factually report from that world.

“Muslims must not become weary of saying over and over again, loudly and unequivocally, that violence and hatred are contrary to the teachings of Islam,” Omar said. “And the news media must be responsible enough to make sure our voices are heard.”