Pope Benedict XVI has just resigned from the papacy, citing the move as “for the good of the Church.”
The 85-year-old pontiff shocked the world earlier this month when he said that his age was a hindrance to leading the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. While everyone has been wondering who will take his place, there is also conjecture on what he will do, especially with regards to other religious groups. The Muslim world, for one, is highly interested in the Vatican’s new leader and what it will mean for future relations.
Relations between the Muslim world and the Vatican were at an all-time low in 2006. Pope Benedict XVI angered Muslims worldwide when he quoted a Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence in a lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany. The speech came just a year after the Danish cartoon controversy that sparked violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. And although the pontiff later apologized and even made a visit to Turkey two months later, the damage had already been done. But many Muslim leaders are optimistic that the next pope could open a new chapter in Muslim-Vatican relations. Here's how that could happen.
1. The new pope will have to reestablish the tenet of mutual respect for all faiths
Of course the Church has been saying that for years now, but in light of political tensions, more vocal confirmation would be extremely helpful. Especially in this embittered post-9/11 world, there can be no room disrespecting other faiths. Extending the hand to the Muslim world once again by making visits with leaders will bring the two groups closer together. Continually stereotyping Muslims as violent and backwards is not a new phenomenon, it has been ongoing since the Crusades. A new pope means a new chance to end the trend.
2. Continue the reformist theology
University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole puts it well when he writes that the new pope will need to continue the tradition of the reformist theology in the church in order for “the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims to go forward together in the 21st century.” He sees Pope Benedict as, over time, grudgingly accepting his global responsibilities. Cole says the next pope must take this even further.
3. Political maneuvering
The new pope is going to have a lot of political maneuvering to do as the Muslim world changes in light of recent political events, most notably the Arab Spring. And even though Pope Benedict apologized for the 2006 fiasco, reconciliation is still far off. The new pope must be cognizant of brewing tensions and patiently work to assuage them. Patience is the key word here. There has been a long history of mistrust that can be overcome. No one should give up just yet.
4. Meet with different groups
Since there is no clergy in Sunni Islam and no equivalent to the pope, there will have to be all the more opportunities for dialogue. The new pope will have to meet with different groups of Muslims from different countries and various sects. Though it requires more work, it would be necessary since there is no one person or group who represents the entire global Muslim population. This will mean several trips to different cities, groups, sects, people, and communities.
5. Remember what's easily forgotten
In the midst of this conversation there should be room for what is easily forgotten. There is more in common between the major Abrahamic traditions than is generally assumed. All major religions have to deal with the similar task of taking theology forward in a post-modern, secular era. Issues ranging from sexuality, abortion, contraception, and beyond need to be worked out from a theological perspective. It would serve everyone well if Muslim leaders and the Vatican could see that religions can actually complete one another rather than compete.