Most papal commentators would heartily agree that with the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, the Cardinal electors elevated to the See of Peter one of the most brilliant and incisive theologians ever to preside as Bishop of Rome. Trained as a systematic theologian in his native Germany, he was in his 30’s, as one of the theological ‘experts’ or ‘periti’ at the Second Vatican Council. Returning to Germany as ordinary professor in theology at Regensburg, he taught and wrote with a passion, sharing the richness of our Catholic theological heritage with countless students until he was called by Pope John Paul II to take on the episcopal responsibilities of leading the local Church of Munich in 1977 as its Archbishop. Pope John Paul II eventually called him to Rome and appointed him Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, to oversee and maintain the orthodoxy and integrity of our Catholic faith. It was always his fondest hope to retire from this position and continue his theological writing, but that was not to be God’s will.
His passion for theology was evidenced in a lecture he gave at his beloved University of Regensburg, one year after his election as Pope. By now more than enough ink has been spilled and commentaries given in the media regarding that talk given to the faculty at Regensburg University in Germany. In his speech, the Holy Father quoted a 13thcentury Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus in learned dialogue with a Persian Islamic scholar. I can’t help but think that Benedict must be identifying with the words that we have heard today from our First reading taken from the Book of Wisdom:
The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training…..
Indeed, prophets in whatever age they may live have never been popular since the role of the prophet is often to tell people what they “need to hear” rather than what “they want to hear.” In the mindless world of the fanatic fundamentalist there is never room for dialogue. For implied in the very word – dialogue – there is a desire to arrive at common meaning and common understanding that can lead to mutual respect that is rooted in wisdom. Radical fundamentalists be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, have no need of dialogue with others since from their perspective they are right and everyone else is wrong.
The great wisdom of Catholicism down through the centuries has been to reverence the presence of God that can indeed break into our world in whatever way God wills. Richly nourished by our Jewish heritage and its profound reverence for the living Word of God in the Scriptures, we also acknowledge, as Catholics, the living presence of God that is reflected, though imperfectly, in the great religious and spiritual traditions of our world including the way of Islam. This was one of the profound insights of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Saint John Paul II was keenly aware that faith and its expressions in the three great monotheistic religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have often in history been agents of division and conflict in our world rather than avenues for peace, unity and understanding. It was for this reason that one of the driving passions of his pontificate was to do whatever he could to nurture dialogue and greater understanding among those who profess these three great religious traditions.
This dialogue, however, cannot be naïve in simplistically ignoring the genuine differences that divide us. In our second reading today, from the Letter of James, we read the practical consequence of people who practice wisdom:
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.
Eager to be a servant of genuine and sincere dialogue yet also one who was not blind to the obstacles that still exist, Benedict sought the common ground of “reason” as a fruitful path for all people of faith to be at the service of greater unity and understanding in our fractured world of today. His primary goal in his carefully crafted and eloquent speech was to underscore the critically important interplay between faith and reason that is now more than ever desperately needed both in the cultures of the East as well as the West. Lost in all the histrionics by the radical Isalmists that ensued following the lecture, was Benedict’s sharp critique of the West in its exaggerated tendency to exalt a science and technology that is devoid of faith and its strong spiritual heritage.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus strongly challenges those followers of his who have confused the way of the Good News with grasping for power and prestige. In some respects, we in the West have exalted the power and prestige of science and technology as the only verifiable means whereby the truths of human existence can be found. As followers of the Lord Jesus in this critically important moment in history, we are called to shape our lives and our world not by a mindless religious fanaticism that rejects modernity or a jihad against reason, but rather by nurturing anew a profound respect for a fruitful dialogue between a living faith and modern scientific inquiry. This kind of dialogue, however, has never been easy. It demands mutual respect, patient listening, civility and a common desire to nurture more unity and understanding within the human family rather than division and hate.
It is truly regrettable that the more fanatical segments of Islam could not have heard this invitation from Benedict, to an honest and candid dialogue but rather were more interested in seizing on an isolated quote that he carefully used to illustrate a critically important historical point that faith must flourish in the environment of freedom and not by violent coercion; that the God whom we supposedly worship in common could not possibly condone the slaughter of innocent people in the name of Religion.
Let us pray that out of these moments of tension, mindless passion may give way to reasoned understanding as we work together to build bridges among all of God’s beloved children.