I had never heard you address this on your show or Blog – though I’m certain you are familiar with it and have covered it before. But what gives about the story of JPII kissing the Koran?! I’ve seen it mentioned enough times by serious Catholics to accept this must have happened. However, I don’t know the context of this event or any other details so I can only wonder what our late Holy Father might have been thinking… Your thoughts?
This question has come up over the years, and I know that I’ve addressed it on the show (though I don’t have the faintest idea in what episodes), but I don’t seem to have done so on the blog, so here goes. . . .
First, I’ve reprinted the famous picture of the event above so that people can see what is being talked about.
Based on the picture alone, I would not be sure what is happening. The book is ornate and could be something other than the Quran. From the looks of it, it could be a book of the gospels.
However, the former Chaldean patriarch–Raphael Bidawid–was present at the meeting where the event occurred, and in an interview with the press service FIDES, he said the following:
On May 14th I was received by the Pope, together with a delegation composed of the Shi’ite imam of Khadum mosque and the Sunni president of the council of administration of the Iraqi Islamic Bank. There was also a representative of the Iraqi ministry of religion. I renewed our invitation to the Pope, because his visit would be for us a grace from heaven. It would confirm the faith of Christians and prove the Pope’s love for the whole of humanity in a country which is mainly Muslim.
At the end of the audience the Pope bowed to the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, presented to him by the delegation, and he kissed it as a sign of respect. The photo of that gesture has been shown repeatedly on Iraqi television and it demonstrates that the Pope is not only aware of the suffering of the Iraqi people, he has also great respect for Islam [SOURCE].
What, then, is one to make of the event?
It seems that there are a number of possibilities:
1) The FIDES news agency misquoted the patriarch.
2) Patriarch Bidawid was mistaken about what happened. It was not the Quran but something else.
3) John Paul II kissed the Quran but didn’t know the nature of the book he was kissing.
4) John Paul II kissed the Quran and knew that this is what he was doing.
I would love to think that either option (1), (2), or (3) was the case, but I have no evidence that any of them was the case.
The most likely one of the three, to my mind, would be (3), because so far as I know, John Paul II was not an Arabic speaker and may not have understood the nature of the book that he was being presented with.
People shove all kinds of books into the pope’s hands at audiences, and if the pope was under the impression that the thing to do with a gift in Iraqi culture is to kiss it as a sign of respect to the one who gives the gift then he might have kissed it reflexively, not even understanding the nature of the book.
While this is possible, I think it likely that an interpreter explained the nature of the gift that was being given on this occasion. This still leaves the possibility that the pope kissed it as part of Middle Eastern politeness rather than as a gesture of respect for the book itself.
I have heard claims that in some Middle Eastern cultures that this is a typical gesture of respect for one giving a gift, but I have asked Chaldean friends of mine whether this is the case in Iraqi culture and the answer was a definite "No." "The pope put his foot on the neck of all Chaldeans with this action" was the response I was given. (Just to make things clear, putting your foot on the neck of someone is a bad thing in Iraqi culture.)
Still, the pope may have been under the mistaken impression that this was the appropriate thing to do when receiving a gift in their culture. He can’t be an expert on every culture in the world, and he could get this wrong.
Or maybe he didn’t.
Maybe he knew it was the Quran and kissed it anyway, not as a customary gift giving response, but for some other reason.
What might that reason be?
It certainly wouldn’t be that he believes in Islam or believes that Islam is on a par with Christianity. If he believed either of these two things then he (a) wouldn’t be the earthly head of the Christian faith and (b) wouldn’t have approved the publication of Dominus Iesus, which asserts the salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.
Any attempt to represent him as thinking one of those things doesn’t even get out of the gate.
So what might he have been thinking?
We’re only speculating here, but two things spring to mind as what JP2 might have been thinking:
1) The Quran does contain some elements of truth (as well as grave elements of falsehood) and he might have wanted to honor the elements of truth it contains.
2) Showing respect in this way could foster world peace and interreligious harmony.
Of these two, I would conjecture that the latter would have been uppermost in John Paul II’s mind, though the former may not have been absent.
John Paul II was a man who was enormously concerned with world peace and interreligious harmony. As a young man he lived through the horrors of World War II, which had a permanent effect on him and his generation and their views about war and peace.
As a mature man he lived through the Cold War that repeatedly brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster, and this also had a permanent effect on him and his generation and their views about war and peace. The constant threat of nuclear warfare hung particularly heavily over Europe–which would have been the chief battleground in a conflict between the Soviet Union and the West–and (particularly on the heels of WWII) it deeply impressed the "find peace at any cost" message on his generation.
As a result of the Cold War, the nations of western Europe were forced into an alliance (NATO) whereby their centuries-long enmities (as between France and Germany) had to be suppressed for the sake of common survival. Negotiation became the key to survival in western Europe, and the same message was driven home to those in Eastern bloc countries, such as John Paul II’s native Poland.
By letting the US shoulder the main burden for the military defense of Europe (during and after the Cold War), many Europeans of John Paul II’s generation absorbed the idea that negotiation was paramount and could solve virtually any problem. It wasn’t until the events of the Global War On Terror that this idea began to be seriously called into question many in European circles.
As a result, as a man of his generation, John Paul II–for the best of motives–may have overestimated both the need for and the utility of gestures such as the one exhibited in the Quran-kissing event.
If the former pontiff did understand that the gift was a Quran and if he wasn’t under the impression that kissing a gift was a standard response in Iraqi culture then I would suppose that he did so out of a desire to foster peace and interreligious harmony, but it would still have been a mistake to my mind.
The Quran, whatever elements of truth it contains, also contains venomous attacks on the divinity of Christ and on Christian doctrine and these make it inappropriate for the Vicar of Christ to kiss it under any circumstances.
John Paul II also may not have been attending to the gravity of the false elements in the Quran. Even if he knew them, he may not have been thinking about them and may have acted on the spur of the moment, without fully thinking through his action.
Fortunately, the infallibility of the pope and the indefectibility of the Church do not extend to such actions. A pope is not attempting to make anything remotely like a dogmatic definition in an act of this nature. And so, however misguided the action may have been and however good the motives for it may have been, it would constitute an error that does not touch upon papal infallibility or ecclesial indefectibility.
It would be one of the mistakes that all fallen humans are heir to, even the vicars of Christ.