As the furor over Benedict XVI and Islam died down, people started to realize that the Pope was a victim of phrases taken out of context and reactions deliberately inflamed. In fact, this was what many Church officials and prelates were saying from the start.
Rather than being an attack on Islam, "What emerges clearly from the Holy Father's discourses is a warning, addressed to Western culture, to avoid 'the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom,'" noted Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi on Sept. 14. The Jesuit explained that the Pope was criticizing modern culture for trying to exclude religion.
"A reason which is deaf to the divine," concluded the Pontiff in his Sept. 12 address at the University of Regensburg, "and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."
Given this, the followers of an irreligious modern mentality had far more reason to be irritated with the Pope than anyone else, a fact that probably explains the extreme hostility of a New York Times editorial against the Holy Father published Sept. 16.
In a statement issued that same day, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone pointed out that Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address was speaking to a group of academics and was simply using a text by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which the Pope made clear was not his own opinion. The quotation was a way to introduce a series of reflections. This approach was not understood by many in a media culture that relies on 5-second sound bites to convey messages.
For that reason, Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recommended that people "read well" the Pope's text. Interviewed by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Sept. 15, the cardinal explained that if Muslims were to read and meditate on the text they would understand that, far from being an attack, it is rather "an outstretched hand." This is so because the Holy Father defended the value of religion for humanity, and Islam is one of the world's great religions.
Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, also insisted on the value of the Pope's discourse. His words came in the opening address Monday to a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Italian bishops' conference. A central point made by Pope during his trip to Bavaria, explained Cardinal Ruini, was that through faith in that God, man's reason and freedom find their higher and authentic fulfillment. In this context the Pope in his speech at Regensburg proposed a dialogue between cultures and religions -- a dialogue that is increasingly urgent.
Support for this dialogue also came from Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops' conference. "Given the circumstances of the last week," he said in a statement published Wednesday, "it is clear that dialogue is essential between Christians and Muslims, a dialogue in which we respect, in the words of the Holy Father, 'what is sacred for others.'"'
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