Jesuit Father Tom Michel, who served on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 1981 to 1994 as the Vatican's top expert on Islam, writing in the Turkish political journal Yeni Asya this week said "the deeper question is, why did the pope say what he did in Regensburg?"
Father Michel, a member of the Indonesia Jesuit province, revealed that he was contacted in recent days by many Muslims, as well as Christian bishops, diplomats and journalists, who asked him: How could this have happened? Was there no one to urge the pope to change his text? How can it be prevented from happening again?
One of his "most useful tasks" while serving on the pontifical council, he said, "was to look over the late Pope John Paul II's speeches to Muslims to see if there was anything that might be considered offensive in them, and if there was something of that nature, to propose changes for the Pope."
He recalled that "Pope John Paul II was very conscientious lest he accidentally say something offensive or disrespectful to Muslims or to the followers of other religions."
On the small number of occasions that Father Michel detected problems in papal texts, "the Pope always corrected those questionable phrases before delivering the talk." As a result, "there was never a controversy like we are experiencing today."
While "every pope has his own style," John Paul II "was always ready to make good use of his Vatican staff," Father Michel said. "My feeling is that a mistake of the order we saw last week in Regensburg would not have been possible with that pope," he added.
Father Michel also pointed out that John Paul II "had trained scholars in Islamic studies on his staff," citing Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as well as himself. Archbishop Fitzgerald was president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue until Pope Benedict reassigned him earlier this year as nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League.
"With Archbishop Fitzgerald's departure, there remains no one in the Vatican who is properly trained in Islamic faith practice and tradition, and the lack becomes glaringly evident on occasions like that of the Regensburg address," Father Michel wrote.
"Had the Pope's talk been reviewed and controlled by any competent staff person, they would immediately have told the Pope that the citation of Manuel II Paleologus, which was in fact marginal to the Pope's main point, should not be included in the speech," the Jesuit scholar stated.
The Byzantine emperor, he pointed out, "was not a Christian theologian, nor a scholar knowledgeable on Islamic matters, nor a peacemaker, and since he was writing more than seven centuries ago, his observations have more historical than practical relevance for today."
Some observers say "the Pope did not intend to offend Muslims," Father Michel noted. He too believes this, but it is "beside the point," he said.
"Most of the time when we offend others, we do not intend to do so," he explained. "Rather, we do so because of ignorance or lack of sensitivity. In such cases, an apology is required." For this reason, "it is also proper for the Pope to ask forgiveness for his offensive remarks, even though, as I believe, he did not intend to offend."
Pope Benedict "offered that apology clearly and formally" on Sunday Sept. 17, Father Michel said. "I pray that Muslims will be generous and extend forgiveness."
The priest concluded his article with a call to Christians and Muslims alike, especially religious leaders, heads of nations, members of the diplomatic corps, professors and journalists. He asked them "to urge the new Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to make sure than any future statements about Islam or other religions be reviewed, and if need be, revised by competently trained persons, so that, in the case of Islam, every expression by Catholic leaders reflect the directive of the Second Vatican Council that 'the Catholic Church should show respect and esteem for Muslims.'"