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.
But after visiting President Bush and a group of American bishops yesterday, Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal elected to the papacy three years ago, may have some other, equally important, fences to mend. This evening, the pope was to meet with representatives from several other religions, including Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders, at a Washington, D.C., cultural center. And once again, experts say, the pope will probably have some explaining to do.
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."