NEAL CONAN, host:
The controversy over comments by Pope Benedict XVI does not appear to be dying down. Last week Pope Benedict cited a medieval text that characterized some teachings of the prophet Mohammed as evil. Faced with Muslim outcry on Sunday, the Pope said he was deeply sorry that Muslims took offense. He also said that the centuries-old text did not reflect his own views.
Not enough for his critics. Just today, the grand mufti of the Palestinian territory said the Pope must make a, quote, personal and clear apology to all the world's Muslims. The Iraqi Parliament also stepped in today and demanded an apology too.
Which begs the question: how could a man deemed infallible by the nature of his office apologize? Well, joining us now is Monsignor Father Irwin. He's the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University here in Washington, D.C., and joins us now by phone from his office. And, Father Irwin, nice to speak with you.
Monsignor KEVIN IRWIN (Dean, School of Theology and Religious Studies, Catholic University): Same here, Neal. Good to talk to you again.
CONAN: Is the Pope infallible?
Msgr. IRWIN: As of 1870, the Catholic Church decreed that on certain matters the Pope was infallible, yes.
CONAN: And what are those matters?
Msgr. IRWIN: Faith and morals is the phrase that's used. And this has been invoked very, very rarely by the Pope. In fact, only in 1950 when he declared that Mary was taken up into heaven body and soul. So infallibility is something that popes do not invoke very often at all.
CONAN: Here was an e-mail we got on this question from Linda in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Please advise your non-Catholic audience that the subject of the Pope's infallibility does not apply in this case. Infallibility is applicable to Catholic doctrine and moral teachings. This case involves an academic event where many ideas are put forth for discussion. He was not making a value judgment on a particular religion. Do you think she's right?
Msgr. IRWIN: Ft. Wayne wins the prize. She's absolutely correct.
CONAN: Where did this idea of papal infallibility come from?
Msgr. IRWIN: Certainly in the early centuries of the church, there was a concern that papal teaching be taken very seriously. And the question was how do you describe that level of teaching? No one ever raised the question of infallibility until the 19th century. And then the question was with a certain amount of centralization of the church, how could the church be very clear about its teaching and how could the Pope be its spokesperson?
And as I say, that only occurred in 1870. And it was a matter of making sure that the certain things the Pope would say would be taken very seriously by the faithful. So it was sort of fairly a recent term and a recent phenomenon.
CONAN: So that explains the content. I mean it seems ridiculous on its face that a man who used to be just an ordinary fellow and can change his mind over what to order for breakfast is all of a sudden regarded as infallible.
Msgr. IRWIN: Well, yes. But on the other hand, isn't that one of the problems with this particular controversy. Because if this was Professor Ratzinger speaking to a lecture hall of graduate students and beginning with an anecdote that might get their attention, no one would bother with this.
But, you know, the Pope really should be a bit more careful about his opening remarks to even an academic audience. You really can't be quite the same person after you're elected the Pope.
CONAN: Here's another e-mail. This one from Gail(ph) in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Please address the fact that the pope's comment, I am deeply sorry for others' reactions in some countries to a few passages, does not indicate he's sorry for what he said. Rather that he's sorry for other's reactions, not as she says, an apology in my view.
Msgr. IRWIN: And that's how people have parsed it. I think that some of the Muslim community have accepted on its face value that it is an apology. Others would say it's not. But quite frankly, Neal, as something of a Vatican watcher, I think that's as close as you're going to get to a public apology - because he put out his top person, Cardinal Bertone, the day after Bertone got the job of secretary of state to make a very, very clear statement about the church's teaching about this, and I think this is how popes apologize. I'm not quite sure you're going to get much more out of this pope, and what you have is a very, very sincere, dialogical, tranquil man who wants to dialogue, as he said in the balance of his talk.
CONAN: Are there other examples of papal apologies?
Msgr. IRWIN: Oh sure, and that's where John Paul II was really someone who basically said to the world, you know, the church has to apologize for some things that the church has done in its history about which we are not proud. And so, going back to issues having to do with Galileo and even Martin Luther and apologizing to the Orthodox Church - he's done that about ecumenical problems. He certainly did that in the year 2000 - his famous apology with regard to the Crusades and Inquisition. John Paul II led the way on that precisely because his argument is: unless you apologize and ask for forgiveness, you can't move on.
CONAN: Islam is a religion that does not have a hierarchical structure, as Roman Catholicism does, and so an apology that might be accepted by some Muslim authorities is not necessarily going to be accepted by others. The reverse of the situation is, if the pope says something that this applies to all Catholics, this applies to all Catholics?
Msgr. IRWIN: I think in this case what the pope has done is go back to the very clear statements of the Vatican Council II, in which we spoke about the need for dialogue with monotheistic faiths, and this is nothing new. So that Vatican document spoke to and for the whole church, and the pope has reiterated that very same document.
CONAN: And do you think that we're not going to hear much more of this from the Vatican? That's what you seemed to be saying a moment ago.
Msgr. IRWIN: Well, every Wednesday, the Holy Father gives an audience. And at that audience he gives an address. And my sense is that I would stay tuned tomorrow to see and to hear what the Holy Father has to say tomorrow. That would be to me probably the period on the sentence of the present controversy. I also think you will continue to see, out of this ecumenical dialogue, from -initiatives from the Vatican that maybe we've not seen lately.
CONAN: You described yourself earlier as a Vatican watcher. Does the pope have advisors, you know, a sort of inner cabinet that would say oh boy, you really messed up on this. You really need to go re-address this question again, or is he likely to make these decisions by himself?
Msgr. IRWIN: Oh, I think he's got a very close circle of advisors, and I suspect that once you saw Cardinal Bertone out there on - later this week, that said to me that they're talking about this, and they want it to be - to salve. They want to heal this. They want to go beyond this breach, and I think that that's exactly what's happened.
CONAN: And would he be swayed, or these advisors be swayed, by opinions in newspapers or heaven forefend, radio programs.
Msgr. IRWIN: Everyone watches television, and everyone listens to the radio, and none of us is immune to that. And quite frankly, if that's where - if we see people have been hurt or alienated, we need to deal with that.
CONAN: Monsignor Father Irwin, thank you very much for being with us.
Msgr. IRWIN: Great, Neal, good to talk to you.
CONAN: Father Irwin, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at Catholic University. He joined us today by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C. When we come back, we'll go to Bangkok.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.