Vatican thinks theological dialogue with Islam is impossible, experts charge

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Washington, D.C.

More than a year after Pope Benedict XVI’s explosive comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg, the Vatican has not shown any new leadership in Muslim/Christian dialogue, and apparently has decided that theological exchange with Muslims is simply impossible, according to a leading Muslim scholar and a top Catholic expert in dialogue with Islam.

The charges came from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Iranian Muslim scholar at George Washington University, and John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Both men spoke at a Washington press conference yesterday to present a letter from 138 Muslim clerics and scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders.

Hossein charged that the Vatican has rebuffed attempts to engage Muslims in theological conversation, instead concentrating on the diplomatic level.

“Muslims thought of choosing a small team of 4-5 people, leading Islamic thinkers, to be able to have a dialogue on the deepest theological issues with the Vatican, including the pope himself,” in the wake of controversies over Regensburg, Hossein said. “At least, that’s the condition I put down. Nothing came of that, there was no response from the Vatican.”

Esposito said he too was aware of a high-level attempt to open a new channel of dialogue with the Vatican by Muslim leaders after Regensburg that was rebuffed.

“Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological,” Hossein said. “The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors. These are people appointed as ambassadors, many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What is being evaded all the time are those underlying differences in belief that then cause the political and social differences to manifest themselves on the surface. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.”

Esposito agreed, arguing that despite some helpful words and gestures from Benedict XVI during his trip to Turkey, there have been no new efforts at dialogue with Islam.

“Under John Paul, you had both a dialogue of life as well as a theological dialogue,” Esposito said. “The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue under Archbishop [Michael] Fitzgerald and also his predecessor, Cardinal [Francis] Arinze, was alive. That hasn’t been seen.”

“When you look at Regensburg, what you see is a diplomatic response,” Esposito said. “For that, you could have the Secretary of State or the Minister of Foreign Affairs respond. You do not see a theological response. Some people are beginning to wonder, is the position of the Vatican going to be that one deals with the Muslim world in terms of diplomacy, but does not deal with Islam and with Muslims in terms of theological dialogue?”

“I think that you do have a strong school of thought in the Vatican which does not seem to believe that there can be a theological dialogue with Islam. It’s based on what I regard as an old theological position. In those days, the whole approach was that because Islam says that the Prophet is the final prophet and has the final revelation, therefore there can’t be any theological dialogue. It seems to me we’ve moved beyond that, at least we ought to move beyond that. But this is one of the questions that has arisen, and it has not been answered during this papacy.”

Esposito said that given the hurt caused by Benedict’s Regensburg address, “the ball is in the Vatican’s court” in terms of new efforts at dialogue.

“It would be terrific if the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, or the pope himself, were to bring together a group of these religious leaders to come to the Vatican for a meeting,” he said.

Esposito also proposed that Christian leaders use the message from 138 Muslim scholars to develop a companion statement of their own on Islam.

“Think about what it would say if you had a group of cardinals, patriarchs, the head of the Methodist church, the Evangelicals, coming together and themselves issuing a statement with regard to Islam,” Esposito said. “Think about the way in which people in the Muslim world would look at that statement, and the impact it would have. It’s a challenge now to Christians in terms of how they respond.”

Hossein, a longtime expert in Christian/Muslim relations, argued that things have actually deteriorated in recent years.

“Forty years ago, I led a Muslim delegation of scholars to the Vatican. At that time, Paul VI was the pope. It was five-day, very intense theological discussion involving Cardinal [Sergio] Pignedoli and a number of leading Vatican experts on Islam. Yet four decades later, we have the Regensburg address. What that means is that somehow we still have to get the heart of the religion engaged. It’s very disappointing.”

Hossein rejected the suggestion that the rise of Islamic extremism would make theological exchange impossible.

“Extremists are not more numerous in the Islamic world than in Christianity, by any means,” he said. “Even the most extreme form of Islam has never attacked Christianity as a religion, but Christians. Here, we get attacks against Islam, not only Muslims. It is on both sides.”

“The idea that Islam is violent and that Christianity is non-violent is, of course, theologically and historically an absurdity,” he said. “There are also in the Islamic world many people who identify the very violent ways in which that part of the world which is called ‘Christian’ has acted towards Islam, from the Crusades to the Colonial period to the present day and so forth, and put it in terms of Christianity.”

Hossein said that he would shortly be going to Rome for a meeting with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.


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