Did Benedict XVI bury the lede?

ratzingerPaulII webEvery now and then, you get to see a reporter gently suggest that a major religious leader -- take Pope Benedict XVI, example -- has tried to pull a fast one. That may be what's happening in this story earlier this week by New York Times reporter Ian Fisher about the pope's complicated address on faith and reason, which included a highly significant illustration linked to Islam. Actually, I think that Fisher did a good job of getting at the heart of this one.

Let's face it: Popes are not sound-bite-friendly speakers. They have been known to float a policy balloon or two in the midst of a doctrinal tidal wave (how's that for a mixed metaphor). I have seen bishops, in a debate here in America, lapse into Italian or Latin during public remarks so that journalists cannot quote them. It's a nice trick.

In this case, the Times even got both angles into the headline: "Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad." Here is the rather tortured lead, which must have been a bear to write.

REGENSBURG, Germany, Sept. 12 -- Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Tuesday on the delicate issue of rapport between Islam and the West: He said that violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God's plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it.

But the following section of the story gets to the heart of the matter, including the nice factual aside by Fisher that lets the reader know that the news lead was not the main topic of the pope's actual address:

He began his speech, which ran over half an hour, by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a "learned Persian" on Christianity and Islam -- "and the truth of both."

"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached," the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty. He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus "contrary to God's nature."

But the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of the speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith -- leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict's worries.

As Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher notes, the Times take on this is certainly a lot better than the headline on the Agence France Presse account of the speech: "Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam." Rod, by the way, also has a link to the actual text of the pope's remarks.

Here is my question: Does Fisher realize that Benedict XVI may be opening the door into discussion of a controversial issue linked to the church's teachings on salvation? To put it into GetReligion terms, the pope is touching on doctrinal issues linked to one of the "tmatt trio" -- the question of whether salvation is found through Jesus, alone.

pope koranIt does appear, as Fisher notes, that this pope is trying to take a more conservative, traditional stance on issues linked to Islam and, perhaps, other world religions, in general. It is certainly clear that Benedict's views on interfaith worship -- as opposed to ecumenical worship with other Christians -- are different than those of the late Pope John Paul II, who infuriated many conservative Catholics when he kissed a Koran, an act normally reserved for the Gospels.

What journalists have to realize is that, for traditional Christians, taking part in formal worship services involving other religions is a totally different issue than participating in forums and seminars. A service blending prayers from clashing world religions implies, at the very least, that these prayers are addressed to the same God, god or gods. Some would argue that this statement is true and some would say that it is false, but fierce debates would result no matter what.

This leads us to the loaded question of whether Allah and the God of the Christian Trinity can be called "the same" God. Those famous Koranic inscriptions inside Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock are there for a reason, the ones declaring that Allah "begets no son and has no partner," that "he is God, one, eternal" and that "he does not beget, nor is he begotten." See you later, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Forget those speeches by President Bush for a moment. Ask traditional and progressive Muslims if the Christian God is their God. Now ask conservative and liberal Christians the same question, then listen to the debates and the logic. You know, that issue would make a great Times piece.

To me, it seems that this pope is asking if Christians have the right to raise questions about Islam and then, if need be, demand the right to debate them candidly with Muslims. Benedict also seems to be more open to stating claims of Catholic authority in ecumenical talks with other Christians, a fact that may soon make a major impact on life in the Church of England.

GetReligion readers may want to dig into "The Year of Two Popes," that interesting Paul Elie cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. One of its major themes is that Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger had major differences on the style and content of the Vatican's interfaith and ecumenical work. Check it out. This story isn't finished.

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