Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to the United States has offered him a chance not only to celebrate his birthday on the White House lawn but to publicly mend a few fences, as well. On several occasions the pope has admitted to being "deeply ashamed" by the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church here, forceful public statements that observers called an important step for the pope.
Benedict, after all, since taking over from his predecessor, John Paul II, has stumbled spectacularly several times over his own pointed, occasionally inflammatory, references to other faiths. In 2006, while giving a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict offended many Muslims when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's harsh description of the prophet Muhammad: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new," Benedict quoted the emperor saying, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The pope's comments were met with outrage in parts of the world: Pakistan's parliament voted to condemn him, and Lebanon's top Shiite cleric demanded an apology. After saying he was "deeply sorry," the pontiff seemed to stumble again less than a week later, this time over the church's relationship with Judaism, when he quoted St. Paul in another speech describing the crucifixion as a "scandal for the Jews."
His comments might have been dismissed as momentary gaffs, experts say, if they hadn't been accompanied by more subtle shifts in the language emerging from the Vatican. Last year, Benedict permitted the use of an old Good Friday liturgy, shelved since the early 1960s, that had anti-Semitic overtones, calling for the conversion of the Jews, in their "blindness" and "darkness," to Christianity. Benedict has raised eyebrows among some Christian leaders, as well, with his renewed emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist and the apostolic succession. To be fair, Benedict has also tried to ease some of the religious tension he has created: He agreed to remove the questionable references from the Good Friday prayer this year, and, after his comments at Regensburg, he made a point of reaching out to Muslims by praying with the imam of the Blue Mosque in Turkey and organizing a series of dialogues with leading Muslim scholars.
Still, experts say, there seems to be little doubt that this pope, in both style and substance, has proved to be a decisive departure from his sunny, hands-across-the-Vatican predecessor. "Since Benedict's pontificate, some of the rhetoric [coming out of the Vatican] has seemed to be sharper, and that has caused some concern and dissatisfaction on the part of other churches and faiths," says the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit priest and professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. Benedict may have chosen his words poorly in Regensburg, and his formal, stilted locution may be part of the reason he has occasionally been misunderstood. But experts inside and outside the church still believe Benedict's comments reflect a shift in the Vatican's relationship with other faiths—and offer a glimpse into the new direction Benedict intends to take the church.
Benedict is the head of a church that has been grappling for decades with how it should treat other religions. After the reforms of the 1960s, the Vatican moved, at least rhetorically, into a much more liberal era, recognizing publicly that all religions represented some form of fundamental truth, seeming to leave some of its more conservative theology behind. John Paul II, for one, carried this rhetoric into his papacy, meeting not just with Jewish and Muslim leaders but with members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well, while writing and speaking about the activity of the "spirit" beyond the confines of the church itself and implying that other religions, too, might offer a path to some form of salvation.