GATES — Pope Benedict XVI’s quotation last September of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s comment on holy war and the Quran was academic, nuanced, controversial and ultimately ill-considered, a Catholic priest said during an interfaith dialogue in November.
An Islamic leader who spoke during the dialogue said the pope could have done more to quell the uproar if his apologies had been more inclusive at the outset.
Father Joseph Marcoux, parochial vicar of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Geneseo, and Dr. Mohammed Rumi, a Batavia physician and Islamic leader who helped found the Islamic Center of Rochester, spoke during a Nov. 13 presentation titled “Pope Benedict XVI: Interfaith Initiatives: Muslim/Catholic Perspectives.” The discussion, which had been planned well before the pope’s Sept. 12 speech at Germany’s Regensburg University, drew 75 people to the diocesan Pastoral Center as part of a series of dialogues sponsored by the Muslim Catholic Alliance of Rochester.
While prefacing that he is not an expert on the topic, Father Marcoux said he drew upon his own reading of the speech and the comments of a variety of experts who analyzed it. He said the speech’s central theme was the interplay between faith and reason, with the pope saying that religion has a place in academic circles as an inquiry into the rationality of faith. In referring to the Byzantine emperor’s argument that holy war is unreasonable, the pope quoted the emperor’s disparaging remarks about the prophet Mohammed, Father Marcoux said. He added that the pope’s speech also emphasized that the statements about Mohammed are unacceptable.
The pope’s comments ignited protests and violence among some extremists in the Muslim world and condemnation from religious figures throughout the globe, Father Marcoux said, noting that the international media fueled the controversy by reporting the pope’s remarks outside of their academic context.
“A polemic quotation unfortunately provoked polemic responses,” the priest said.
Ultimately, Pope Benedict offered four apologies clarifying that the quotations he used did not represent his personal views. One of the apologies was even published on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano — which Father Marcoux noted was an unheard of step.
Rumi, on the other hand, said that the pope’s series of apologies prolonged the controversy.
“If he had said all these things in one session, there would have been no need for four apologies,” he said.
Rumi said the Quran is clear in rejecting violence. He said the pope’s remarks were regrettable, in part, because they were scripted, unlike a verbal misstep in an informal setting.
“He had time to think about it and the wording of it, and before he went into the speech, he discussed it at length with graduate students,” Rumi said. “That made it even more regrettable.”
Due to personnel changes at the Vatican, Father Marcoux said, the speech was not reviewed as carefully as other papal addresses have been. Father Marcoux also noted that the Regensburg quote is not in keeping with the pope’s past statements in support of interfaith dialogue.
“Benedict has a great respect for Islam, Judaism and any religions we are in dialogue with,” he said.
Several weeks after the Rochester discussion, Pope Benedict made a very visible trip to the predominantly Islamic country of Turkey, where he visited a mosque and prayed in a goodwill gesture that was well-received in the Muslim world.
Father Marcoux said controversy over the Regensburg quotation should not derail local efforts at dialogue between Muslims and Catholics — efforts that began in earnest on May 5, 2003, when local Muslim and Catholic leaders, including Bishop Matthew H. Clark, signed the Muslim Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation. A fourth-anniversary celebration of the agreement is planned in May.
“We could make (the pope’s comment) a stumbling block for dialogue, or we could say, ‘This is what happened, and he was wrong. It was not the best quotation to use,’” Father Marcoux said.
“On the negative side, it was unnecessary, hurtful and very damaging to the conversation, but on the positive side, as you can see, that unprecedented apology has been made by him,” Rumi said.
Rumi called for more interfaith talks to help heal divisions.
“Locally, this is a time for more dialogue, not less dialogue,” he said.
Several attendees said they supported continued discussion.
“I really enjoyed it, and I think this is what we really have to do,” Sabir Omar of Brighton said.
“How blessed we are that there are such intelligent leaders in Rochester who have studied so much and share their insights to give us a sense of hope for the future,” said Jean Orlicki, a member of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece.Tags: Interfaith Relations, Pope Benedict XVI