Benedict’s Blunder:  Time for Muslims to Emphasize the Positive

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

Posted Sep 26, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Benedict’s Blunder:  Time for Muslims to Emphasize the Positive

by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

  The time to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg elocution on September 12, 2006, to the assembled professors at the university where he once taught theology is not before but after the official version of this speech is published, complete with footnotes as promised in a footnote to the initial version released the same day he delivered it.

  Nevertheless even before we have the complete statement, it would be more productive to put a constructive rather than a destructive gloss on the Pope’s crude quote by putting it in the context of the entire elocution.  This Regensburg presentation is one of the most profound restatements of the essential Islamic teachings that one is ever likely to find.  He addresses all the great debates that have wrecked havoc within all the monolithic religions for millennia. including perhaps the philosophical root of modern terrorism, which is the conception that God is a disembodied Will rather than an ultimate Being.  The real tragedy may be that so few Muslims nowadays can even begin to understand what he is saying, because they have lost touch with their own tradition. 

  Recently some Muslim leaders in America have questioned why a delegation of Muslims is bothering to meet with the Pope, because these Muslims say that the Pope believes that all Muslims are going to hell. 

  In the contemporary era, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the salvation of Muslims is clearly stated in Nostra Aetate and in the Baltimore Catechism.  Any Catholic of the past half century would risk excommunication by questioning any of these two official doctrinal sources.  In fact, one of the Church’s most brilliant theologians, Father Leonard Feeney, under whom I studied at Harvard in 1945-46 when he was the Chaplain there, was excommunicated in 1948 (or thereabouts) for teaching precisely what Muslim hate-mongers claim is the Church’s teaching on salvation outside the Church.

  The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, embodied in the revised Baltimore Catechism, which was issued as official doctrine shortly after the Second Vatican Council more than forty years ago, states that every human being of good will can go to heaven but does so only through the merits of Jesus Christ.  Of course, as Muslims we believe that only God can decide such things and that God does so by a simple command in fulfillment of his three major attributes, namely, the trinity of power, mercy, and wisdom, as revealed in the Qur’an, kun fa yakun.  From the time of the first Baltimore Catechism in 1891 to the second one in 1941 the major doctrine of the Church on such matters was that only those with invincible ignorance, such as Tibetans, would qualify as capable of being saved by the sufferings of Christ.  After the fourth revised version, I believe in about 1965 (my library is in storage in Florida), strict interpretations of “invincibility” were played down as contrary to the love and mercy of God. 

  The teaching of Pope Benedict XVI and of every pope since 1965 has been formulated as binding doctrine in Nostra Aetate.  Every Catholic and Jew knows this very well and many have committed the most pertinent provisions to memory.  It is unfortunate that American Muslims seem to know so little of fundamental Christian teachings, and especially of the documents issued by the Vatican that state these teachings so clearly.  There are indeed many extremist Christians, including many of the Evangelicals, who believe that only they are going to heaven, just as their counterparts among Muslims insist the same thing about themselves. 

  Muslims owe Pope Benedict XVI an apology for assuming that he repudiates the doctrine enshrined in Nostra Aetate copied below.  The Muslim media owe a double apology for ignoring the Holy Father’s specific clarification at a general audience a week later that his responsibility as the Vicar of Christ is to affirm this statement of belief as his own and as that of all Christians in communion with Rome.

  Pope Benedict XVI’s clarification was officially transcribed as follows:

“The theme of my conference – in response to the University mission – was the relationship between faith and reason: I wanted to invite the Christian faith to dialogue with the modern world and all religions.  I hope that on several occasions of my visit – for example, in Munich, when I underlined how important it is to respect what is sacred to others – my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who ‘worship the one God’ and with whom we ‘promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity’ (Nostra Aetate, 3), is clear.”

  The problem with the Muslim reaction is that it is based on vincible ignorance of both Church teaching and Pope Benedict’s own personal views, which do not contradict that of the Church.  Muslims are often their own worst enemies when they confront other people as enemies rather than address them as friends in order to turn them into friends if they are not already.  Allah tells us in the Qur’an that only those specially enlightened can do this, but we should at least try to do so in order to set an example for others.  This is the eternal wisdom necessarily taught by every one of the world religions, because each in its own way, as a revelation from God and with its own distinct path of worship, teaches the same truth.

  This wisdom is especially appropriate at this particular time at the rare conjunction of three faiths in the liturgical year when Muslims are celebrating Ramadhan, Jews are celebrating the ten holy days from Rosh Hashanna to Yom Kippur, and Christians are celebrating the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.

  The most universal prayer was first introduced to Muslims by St. Francis when he made a private, secret visit to the Sultan of Egypt as part of his life-long mission to overcome the political dimension of the Christian Crusades.  His greatest undertaking, the only one in which he failed, was to overcome the mutual recriminations among the politicians by reconciling the spiritual leaders.  This universal mission, which today might be called the spirit of hudna, is best expressed in what has always been known as “The Prayer of St. Francis”: 

Lord, make me a channel of thy Peace,
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

ON OCTOBER 28, 1965

1. In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely he relationship to non- Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth.(1) One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men,(2) until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.(3)

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

4. As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.

Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ-Abraham’s sons according to faith (6)-are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.(7) Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself.(8)

The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: “theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ’s Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation,(9) nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.(10) Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.(11) In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Soph. 3:9).(12)

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men,(14) so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.(15)



1. Cf. Acts 17:26

2. Cf. Wis. 8:1; Acts 14:17; Rom. 2:6-7; 1 Tim. 2:4

3. Cf. Apoc. 21:23f.

4. Cf 2 Cor. 5:18-19

5. Cf St. Gregory VII, letter XXI to Anzir (Nacir), King of Mauritania (Pl. 148, col. 450f.)

6. Cf. Gal. 3:7

7. Cf. Rom. 11:17-24

8. Cf. Eph. 2:14-16

9. Cf. Lk. 19:44

10. Cf. Rom. 11:28

11. Cf. Rom. 11:28-29; cf. dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium (Light of nations) AAS, 57 (1965) pag. 20

12. Cf. Is. 66:23; Ps. 65:4; Rom. 11:11-32

13. Cf. John. 19:6

14. Cf. Rom. 12:18

15. Cf. Matt. 5:45