I think that a discussion about whether JPII was right to kiss the Qur’an (or even whether he actually did so–I have heard it claimed that he was actually kissing a Gospel Book in Arabic, although that may be spin) misses the point. If JPII kissed the Qur’an, it is absolutely clear from his writings that this cannot be interpreted as a statement that the Qur’an was just as true as the Bible or that there is no absolute truth. If he did it, and if he intended more than courtesy by it, then what he was saying symbolically was that the Qur’an was a real (though imperfect) embodiment of the divine truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Now we can argue all day about whether that is correct (I don’t see how one can reasonably deny that the Qur’an contains truth, but we would get into the whole “all falsehood is perverted truth” business if we took up that question), and whether kissing the Qur’an is a good way of conveying that message. But we would not be arguing about relativism.
The same is true of Assisi. Even if what JPII allowed to happen there was wrong, it wasn’t an expression of relativism. It was an expression of inclusivism–the belief that all truth points toward Christ and that we should honor the truth and goodness found in other religions (and particularly the ways in which all religions can work together toward moral goals such as peace) even as we disagree with some parts of those religions. “Relativism” is misused when it becomes simply a term for any attitude toward other religions/ideologies which you consider too generous. Relativism normally denotes the denial that there is any standard of truth and goodness outside ourselves. Clearly JPII never said that–he frequently said the exact opposite. Indeed, I would argue that JPII’s interfaith initiatives were precisely the result of his belief in objective truth. At Duke Divinity School, I’ve been exposed to a particular kind of postmodern dogmatism that is completely uninterested in dialogue with other religions precisely because it doesn’t believe that there’s any objective standard by which we could have such a dialogue. The Christian “story” is understood to be the necessary starting point. Since we can’t get beyond this, there’s no ground on which to have a rational dialogue with people who don’t accept the story. All we can do is proclaim the story and let the Holy Spirit convert people. (Stanley Hauerwas is the theologian I have in mind primarily in this description, though he’s not alone. Hauerwas actually likes JPII 's work a lot, but I think this is one of the major differences between them.) One of JPII’s last encyclicals called the postmodern world back to reason–back to a conviction that God has implanted within us the love of and capacity for the truth. This is the opposite of relativism.
I find these sorts of criticisms of JPII ironic, because in the academic world I much more often hear him criticized from the other direction. I’m reminded of Chesterton’s comments on the contradictory criticisms of Christianity he encountered in early-20th-century Britain:
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.
By the way, I admire Truthstalker’s courteous (and humorous) response to my cranky post. You’re a Christian gentleman, Truthstalker!