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    Wednesday, April 19, 2006

    How the Pope looks Catholic to the rest of the world

    A year ago today, white smoke wafted from the Sistine Chapel's chimney... commentators internationally indulged in an inordinate amount of speculation on the damage Ratzinger's appointment might do to Catholic-Muslim relations.

    ... that had been a central theme in John Paul's pontificate. No other pope in history has done so much to build harmonious bridges to the Muslim world. This was a man who apologised officially for the Crusades and the transgressions of colonialism.

    But Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, was widely fancied to bring much of this work undone. Partly this was because, as a cardinal, he had not demonstrated the same passion for outreach to Muslims as other mooted candidates such as Venice's Angelo Scola, Milan's Dionigi Tettamanzi or Nigeria's Francis Arinze.

    Partly, too, it stemmed from Ratzinger's opposition to Turkey's inclusion in what he called the "Christian-rooted EU".

    Precisely why anyone thought this should pose a fatal problem is unclear. It is emphatically unremarkable that a cardinal would make an exclusive claim to truth on behalf of Christianity, which by definition implies deficiencies in other theologies. Indeed, as much is claimed by proponents of most great religious traditions.

    Yet for the predominantly secular international commentariat, this made conflict inevitable. Such conventional pessimism simply served to demonstrate a comprehensive misunderstanding of the basis for interfaith dialogue. It assumes that fruitful and harmonious interfaith relationships can exist only in a world of postmodern relativism. This presents a false dichotomy: that people either agree or live in hostility.

    But even John Paul was never a relativist. His acknowledgement of theological similarities never led him to deny differences or surrender his conviction of the exclusive truth of Christianity. If anything, this only made his interfaith engagement more meaningful.

    If any of this needed demonstration, Benedict's first year has provided it. The very day after his installation Mass, in one of his first official acts as Pope, he made history by inviting Muslim leaders to the Vatican, pledging to build "bridges of friendship" between Catholics and Muslims. He even condemned the publication of now infamous cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers.

    Few would expect Pope Benedict to match his predecessor's phenomenal efforts in interfaith relations. Even so, with no sign of relativism on the horizon, he has made an impressive start. Perhaps now we can feel comfortable with the fact that the Pope is Catholic.

    It's nice to see a non-religious based article like the fact that Catholic
    is Catholic, or it's not.


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