The Vatican and Inter-faith Dialogue

Thrown Back by Centuries?

The scandal over the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson and the Society of Saint Pius X has prompted a tidal wave of indignant Catholics to leave the church. Representatives of other religions – like the Muslims – are also beginning to question the pope's willingness for dialogue. By Peter Philipp

Pope Benedict XVI (photo: AP)
Prompting criticism: as a result of the scandal over the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, the Jerusalem Rabbinate has threatened to break off relations with the Vatican

​​"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"

Pope Benedict XVI quoted this text from psalm 133 on his first visit to the Patriarchs of Constantinople in Istanbul in November 2006, invoking the joint efforts of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to overcome the rift between them that has endured over centuries.

2006 in Turkey, before that in Bulgaria and since then with the Egyptian Copts and the Russian Orthodox Church: the Vatican has been making attempts towards reconciliation. To date, Benedict has not revealed any further details on the objective of these efforts – a unified church.

Were he to do so, it is highly likely he would spark a new dispute, judging by this pope's dealings with other Christian churches and other religions.

True to conservative line

Benedict stands strictly by his conservative line, which regards the Catholic Church as the only true church. And when he talks of "unity of the Church", he means just that: his own, Roman Catholic Church.

This was revealed most clearly in July 2007 when he expressly approved a Vatican document defining the Protestants and other religious communities as "defective" and judging them merely "communities" rather than "churches in the proper sense".

The Orthodox Church was described as "defective" as it does not recognise the pope, and Communion ceremonies with Protestants were forbidden. The declaration incited due indignation on the part of the Protestants in particular, but the Vatican claimed that the paper merely repeated older and familiar standpoints.

Yet Benedict's predecessors had no longer asserted these standpoints and no longer viewed them as guidelines for their relations to other churches.

Doubtful profession of dialogue

There is an Oriental saying about politicians, which says they are incapable of taking care of a whole nation if they don't care for their own family. Looked at from this point of view, the pope's repeated avowals of willingness for dialogue between the religions should be taken with a decent pinch of salt.

Ali Bardakoglu (photo: AP)
Angered by the pope's Regensburg speech: Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, called for Benedict XVI to take back his statements at the time

​​Both Muslims and Jews are affected – and that although the pope has held demonstrative meetings with representatives of the Jewish community, for example at the Cologne synagogue during 2005's World Youth Day. And although he has invited high-ranking representatives from all parts of the Muslim world to engage in dialogue in the Vatican.

Muslim hopes for an improvement of relations with the Catholic Church were dashed by the pope himself in his "Regensburg lecture", when he quoted from the text of a Byzantine emperor in front of his former university:

"He says – I quote: 'Show me just what Mohammed 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.'"

A storm of indignation broke out, with angry demonstrations in various Muslim countries. The Vatican had great difficulties correcting the impression made by the speech. But the pope refused to withdraw his statement. A pope, to whom Catholic dogma grants infallibility now as throughout the church's history, does not take anything back.

Affront for Muslims and Jews

Two years on, the pope prompted new unrest among Muslims by demonstratively baptising a prominent former Muslim journalist who had converted to Christianity. Performed by Benedict himself in Rome, this baptism was a provocation for many Muslims, underlining the Catholic Church's missionary objectives.

And the Jews got a taste of this standpoint in 2007 when the pope reintroduced the Latin Good Friday liturgy, which says: "Let us pray also for the Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord." Following worldwide protests, not only by Jews, the prayer was toned down slightly a year later but not removed from the liturgy.

It wasn't the first time that Benedict had offended the Jews. During his visit to Auschwitz in 2006 he spoke not of the guilt of the Germans but of a people "used and abused". The most recent discussion over the rehabilitation of the Society of Saint Pius X and the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson is an added burden on mutual relations.

As in other past cases, the Vatican initially attempted to get back to business as usual at maximum speed, then issued a surprising call to the fraternity to distance itself from the Holocaust denial. But it has refused to admit its own mistake.

Indignant Catholics, however, have begun leaving the church in droves, and members of other world religions will soon start seriously questioning the pope's willingness for dialogue. They could refer to Benedict himself, who wrote in the foreword to a book that inter-religious dialogue is not possible without narrowing down one's own faith.

What is needed, the pope writes in the text, is instead intercultural dialogue. In other contexts, he has also expressed his disapproval of multiculturalism. Critics are accusing the pope of throwing the church back by decades, if not centuries during his less than four years in office.

Peter Philipp

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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