Unasked Questions for a Not-Quite Apology

By Lilly Fowler

Coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s incendiary speech last Tuesday began almost immediately and refuses to fade away. By Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times Tracy Wilkinson had written an article covering the event with the headline, “Pope, Citing Islam, Criticizes Holy Wars and Fanaticism.” Within a few days, the Holy Father had issued an apology, of sorts, and Reuters distributed “Pope Expresses Regret for Remarks.” By Sunday, the pontiff, in a rare occurrence, had decided to impart a personal and public apology.

Yet despite countless articles on the subject, the question of whether or not journalists have done their job is yet to be resolved.

In her article, Wilkinson writes, “In contrast to fanatic abuse of religion, the pope said, in Christianity ‘the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself.'” Add to this the fact that, at the beginning of his talk, the pope, quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, cited Islam as an example of the dangerous, improper relationship between religion and violence and one could predict the outcry from Muslims.

Which is just what Wilkinson did: “Ultimately, the pope’s long exposition was not about Islam…but the remarks on Islam, however couched, were likely to draw the most attention.” She also adds, however, that “the pontiff’s lecture was long, dense and subject to wide interpretation.” When pressed for answers about the point of the papal address, church officials responded with, “Benedict was not attacking Islam but highlighting forced conversions and holy war as historical examples of the violent use of religion.”

Apparently, Muslims were not satisfied with this reply because by Friday, the Los Angeles Times ran another article by Wilkinson, “Muslims Lash Out at Pope’s Remarks.” In it she does a good job of summarizing Muslim reactions to the pope’s words, and she also mentions a Vatican statement released on Thursday regarding the matter. Questions, however, are still left unanswered. The statement by the church is a repeat of what was reported by Wilkinson on Tuesday with only a slight addition: “It is clear that the Holy Father’s intention is to cultivate respect and dialogue toward other religions and cultures, and that clearly included Islam.”

Given the seriousness of the situation, what is frustrating is that even after Sunday’s apology one still wonders why the Catholic Church has not provided more adequate answers. The pope has said that he did not agree with the quotations from the emperor he provided in his speech, but if his only true intention was to cultivate dialogue and not to criticize, why did the pope decide to evoke Islamic violence rather than the history of Catholic violence to make his point? What, exactly, does he mean to say about the differences between Christianity and Islam?

If he intended to say something about the way in which Muslims or Christians view God, journalists would do well to press the Vatican to talk about it now. Some may feel such theological points are too arcane to delve into, but the pope himself has said his talk was meant to increase dialogue between religious traditions.

The lack of answers to questions such as these is surely as much about the church’s reticence in providing them as it is about journalists not pressing hard enough or asking the right questions. Many Muslims have not been satisfied with what has been articulated so far, and neither should we.

Lilly Fowler is a graduate student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.