I made a conscious choice to include the words of Article 3 of Nostrae Aetate referring to Islam from the Vatican II Documents before writing my reflections on Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year pontificate with regard to the Catholic Church and Christianity in the Arab-Muslim world. Back in 1991 when I was the contact person for making the short documentary film “Mosque” in Egypt, I would carry copies of the section above in both English and Arabic to show to anyone asking why we were making a film on Islam in Egypt. Once I gave Muslims a copy of this to read, their attitude went from “leave now” to “take as much time as you want” since you are trying to depict Islam and Muslims in a positive way for Christians in the West.
Between 1982 and 1983, I studied in Rome at the Pontifical Institute for Arab-Islamic Studies. While the Catholic Church and Islam have had many conflicts and confrontations over the centuries, the spirit of Vatican Council II had changed attitudes and approaches toward Islam more in the direction of respect, appreciation and collaboration. As students, we were encouraged to learn Arabic and study Islam in order to be a respectful presence of Christ and support local Christians while NOT attacking Islam or trying to convert Muslims. During the pontificate of John Paul II, this institute and the Secretariat for Non-Christians, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), would be contacted for advice on words and actions before a papal visit or statement involving Islam and the Muslim world.
Although Pope Benedict is not an expert on Islam, it seems that neither PISAI nor PCID were consulted before his Regensburg lecture in September 2006. In fact, the status of PICD seems to have been downgraded in March 2006 and it was not upgraded until September 2007, about one year after the Regensburg lecture. In this lecture, the Pope, speaking in German, quoted an unfavorable remark about Islam made in the 14th century by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. The English and Arabic translation of the Pope's lecture (possibly taken out of context) was disseminated across the world and many Islamic politicians and religious leaders took offense by what they saw as an insulting mischaracterization of Islam http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regensburg_lecture. For me, if the Pope had first acknowledged the sins and offenses of the Catholic Church’s history in its dealing with heretics, non-Christians and non-Catholics, his words might have been received in a different light. I believe that the Catholic Church has reflected on and learned from these errors and could have offered constructive comments rooted in its own history which also has been, at times, violent and oppressive.
Many Christians and their religious leaders in the Arab-Muslim world were also upset and felt they would experience negative reactions to Benedict’s words. It is entirely possible that the Pope, speaking to students and professors, felt that he could speak freely as a professor himself, but he was seen by the world as Pope Benedict XVI and not as Professor Joseph Ratzinger. Over 20 years ago, I remember reading (both the book title and its author are long forgotten) that since the Ottoman period, Christianity was look upon as a “nation” with the meaning of group, clan or tribe. While distinctions were known to exist among Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, the “Pope of Rome” was viewed as the “big chief” of the Christian nation in the world while other Christian religious leaders might be seen as chiefs of their respective subgroupings. Thus Pope Benedict’s words were taken to represent a Christian, not just Catholic, comment on Islam. Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church, following this lecture, disavowed Benedict’s comments as not representing the sentiments of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former head of the PCID in Rome and Ambassador for the Holy See to Egypt (2006-2012), found himself in the difficult position of not only attempting to sooth feelings in the Egyptian government and at the Arab League, but I attended an ecumenical lunch sponsored by All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Cairo where he was guest speaker to a group of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant clergy and laity. Emotions at this lunch were somewhat high when discussing the Regensburg lecture and the ramifications of it for Christians in the Arab-Muslim world. While I am quite sure that Pope Benedict had no motives to upset/anger Muslims, he succeeded in doing just that. There was a time when showing my Vatican Identification to Egyptian police was better than showing my American passport due to the high respect that Arab nations had for the Vatican and its defense of Palestinian rights. That somewhat eroded after the Regensburg lecture. It’s unfortunate that Pope Benedict will be remembered in the Arab-Muslim world for this incident. Over the six years since then, he has made numerous attempts to mend the Catholic Church’s relationship with Islam in the spirit of Nostrae Aetate quoted above.
Personally, I feel that this man would have preferred to remain a nondescript theologian with a good mind. He found himself rising in church leadership to positions that he may not have been comfortable with. As pope, he always seemed shy and self-conscious which is a liability as a public figure while not a fault as a professor. This pope reflected a man comfortable in the academic world, but uncomfortable in the public eye. I believe he is intensely loyal to the Catholic Church and its teachings which made him a reluctant, but uncompromising defender of the faith. This man will be remembered as a spiritual person of strong faith and kindness. Unfortunately, he will also be recalled as someone who unintentionally offended many in the Arab-Muslim world and then spent much of his remaining papacy trying to reestablish the Catholic Church’s status and place in Muslim-Christian relations.
As a person, as a Catholic and as a priest, I wish Pope Benedict well. I think his decision to resign was a wise one for himself and for the Catholic Church. He did his best and will be remembered by many Catholics for his defense of Catholic faith and dogma. If his health improves some in his final years, without the heavy burden of the papacy, he may still prove to be a positive presence in the world.