HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – Call it a change of substance, call it a change of tone, or call it simply a change – Pope Benedict XVI’s publicly stated view of Islam has undergone a remarkable transformation in less than five months.
This is the pope who last September quoted without disagreement a 14th-century Christian emperor’s complaint that Mohammed had accomplished nothing but “things evil and inhuman.” Now Pope Benedict calls for Christians and Muslims to work together in the cause of peace.
This also is the churchman who before becoming pope opposed Muslim Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Now he looks favorably on having Turkey a part of that grouping of 27 European nations joined for political and economic cooperation.
What accounts for the change? Pope Benedict went a long way toward answering that question in his pre-Christmas address to the Roman Curia reviewing the events of 2006.
Speaking of the potential for conflict between “cultures and religion” – the much-discussed clash of civilizations between Islam and the West – Pope Benedict called it “still threateningly present at this moment in history.” Finding the way that leads to peace is “a challenge of vital importance,” he declared.
His preferred way of meeting the challenge is dialogue leading to a convergence of faith and reason. According to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, the pope’s September address at the University of Regensburg in Germany, which included the controversial quote about Mohammed, should be read in that light.
Cardinal Bertone also spoke in glowing terms of Turkish admission to the European Union, thus undercutting the resistance of diehard papal defenders who’d kept insisting that Pope Benedict meant nothing of the kind. One even accused the Turkish prime minister and compliant media of spreading “disinformation” by suggesting the pope had taken a different view during his late-November trip to Turkey.
But Pope Benedict’s hand-picked secretary of state laid that view to rest. “Without Turkey, Europe would no longer benefit from that bridge between East and West that Turkey has always been throughout history,” he said in an interview.
‘In God’s name’
The papal turnaround began in reaction to the furious Muslim response to his Regensburg talk, continued via fence-mending remarks and gestures that included praying in a historic mosque during his trip to Turkey, and has kept up since then.
That doesn’t mean Pope Benedict has simply thrown in the towel as a critic of Islam. Rather, as he has done often before, so also he has made it clear that Islamic terrorism is beyond the pale of civilized behavior. “War in God’s name is never acceptable,” he said in his 2007 World Day of Peace message.
The picture now emerging of where Pope Benedict stands looks something like this: Fearful of a cataclysmic clash between extremes – a hollowed-out, secularized West and jihadist Islamic fundamentalism – the pope hopes to promote entente between reasonable, responsible Christians and Muslims as an alternative.
Evidently, too, he thinks Catholicism can be a model to Islam, showing how a traditional faith can adapt to the modern world while remaining true to itself.
Pope Benedict told the curia that Islam today faces “a task very similar” to the one that Christians have faced since the 18th-century Enlightenment – and to which Catholics found “concrete solutions” at the Second Vatican Council.
The pope defined what needs doing in these words: “On the one hand, it is important to avoid a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from community life and public legislation. … On the other hand, it is necessary to welcome the true achievements of the enlightenment: human rights and especially the freedom of faith and of its expression,” he said. “The Muslim world … is facing the great task of finding appropriate solutions to these questions.”
Pope Benedict apparently hopes to encourage Muslims in doing that. And however he may have seen it in the past, he now evidently believes he will achieve more with carrots than sticks.
Need for respect
The visit to Turkey was a turning point, with his November address to Islamic leaders at the Religious Affairs Directorate in Istanbul a key moment. There he cited “the sacred character and dignity of the person” as the central value linking Christians and Muslims.
“This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem … the basis for cooperation in the service of peace,” he said. And, he noted, this personalist emphasis is the basis of religious freedom – a policy inimical to some Islamic nations today.
As if to illustrate the new thinking, a one-day conference of Catholic and Muslim scholars, held Jan. 16 in Washington, D.C., focused on the relationship between God and the human person. The ranking Catholic at the event, held at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, was Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, a confidant of the pope.
The conference’s printed program recalled that a drafter of the 1948 United Nations Charter on Human Rights said the people responsible for that document were “unanimous … on condition that no one asks us why.” Through dialogue, it added, Catholics and Muslims “may find ways to articulate for our contemporaries a shared way of grounding the dignity of the human person.”
It can hardly come too soon. The same day Muslims and Catholics were dialoguing in Washington, three bombs, apparently set by sectarian extremists, exploded at a Baghdad university, killing scores of people, students among them, and injuring many more.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.