Crossing the bridge to Islam

In an interesting dispatch from Nairobi, the Zenit news agency describes a speech in which Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran outlined Pope Benedict XVI's new direction in interreligious dialogue. He said that previous popes have built "bridges of understanding" to other religions, and that now is the time to cross those bridges and speak more frankly about differences.The time for dealing with theological differences was postponed, the cardinal said, but "in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, that future is now." The previous method "highlighted the common elements we share," the cardinal said, adding that the pope " wants to emphasize, by use of reason, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith."The speech spells out the pope's approach to interreligious dialogue more fully than I'd seen before (and is similar to what Benedict said in St. Joseph's Church in Manhattan concerning interfaith relations).But I think some bridge inspectors should be called in before too much weight is put on these structures of supposed interreligious friendship. In particular, the bridge to Islam has corroded in the last three years. The chief engineer, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Vatican's top expert on Islam, was moved from his key post and dispatched to Egypt. The pope then famously insulted Islam in his Regensburg lecture. And he upset Muslims again by giving such a high profile to the conversion of a Muslim journalist who criticized Islam, baptizing him in St. Peter's at the Easter Vigil.In short, much of the good will that John Paul II built up is being lost. There is reason to be concerned with this new direction.I agree that religious freedom should be addressed in Christian-Muslim dialogue. But how is that best done? Islam has a long tradition of respect for holy and humble Christian monks, dating to the faith's earliest days and reflected today in the ability of some Franciscans to relate to Muslims. This is the face of the Catholic Church that Muslims are historically receptive to, and Benedict needs to listen to those who've engaged Muslims on that basis.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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