The Pope and Islam
Is there anything that Benedict XVI would like to discuss?
by Jane Kramer April 2, 2007
Benedict wants to purify the Church, to make it more observant, obedient, and disciplined-more like the way he sees Islam.
These are fierce theological times. It should come as no surprise that the Vatican and Islam are not getting along, or that their problems began long before Pope Benedict XVI made his unfortunate reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in a speech in Regensburg last September, and even before the children of Europe’s Muslim immigrants discovered beards, burkas, and jihad. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and more than a billion Muslims. And what divides the most vocal and rigidly orthodox interpreters of their two faiths, from the imams of Riyadh and the ayatollahs of Qom to the Pope himself, is precisely the things that Catholicism and Islam have always had in common: a purchase on truth; a contempt for the moral accommodations of liberal, secular states; a strong imperative to censure, convert, and multiply; and a belief that Heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them.
It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception. He wants to purify the Church, to make it more definitively Christian, more observant, obedient, and disciplined—you could say more like the way he sees Islam. And never mind that he doesn’t seem to like much about Islam, or that he has doubts about Islam’s direction. (His doubts are not unusual in today’s world; many Muslims have them.) The Pope is a theologian—the first prominent theologian to sit on Peter’s throne since the eighteenth century. He views the world through a strictly theological frame, and his judgments about Islam, however defiant or reductive they sometimes sound, have finally to do with the idea of Theos—God—as he understands it. Those judgments have not changed much, in character, since he left Germany for the Vat-ican, twenty-six years ago.
In 1997, when the Pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and beginning his seventeenth year as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, otherwise known as the Holy Office, or the Inquisition, he told the German journalist Peter Seewald, “Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything. . . . One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of pluralistic society.” In 2004, the year before his election to the papacy, he elaborated on that dismissive thought for the German secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas, during a long recorded conversation in Munich. Talking about the “normative elements” in human rights—rights that in the West, by consensus, are not subjected to “the vagaries of majorities”—Ratzinger brought up Islam. He said that “Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue” and from the West’s understanding of the “self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man”—values that may not be readily apparent beyond “the Christian realm” or “the Western rational tradition.” What he does seem to admire about Islam is its insistent presence at the center of most Muslims’ lives.
Islam has been in Europe for thirteen hundred years. Arab armies were at the gates of Poitiers, in central France, in 732—only a hundred years after the Prophet died and more than three hundred and fifty years before the start of the First Crusade—and southern Spain was still under Islamic rule in the fifteenth century, some two hundred years after the knights of the Ninth Crusade straggled home. But Benedict is the first Pope to have developed what could be called an active theological policy toward Islam, as opposed to, say, a military or political one—“the first really functioning Pope in the post-September 11th world,” Daniel Madigan calls him. Madigan, who is one of the Vatican’s most prominent, and liberal, advisers on Christian-Muslim relations, runs the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Jesuits’ Pontifical Gregorian University, arguably the most intellectually independent of Rome’s Catholic institutions. It is probably safe to say that many of the faculty had been hoping for a more doctrinally liberated Pope. They acknowledge Benedict, though, as an intellectual, and, from a critical distance, recognize his purpose in what Madigan calls “laying down challenges to Islam, telling Muslims, ‘We need to do some hard talking.’ ”
Still, not even a Jesuit could explain what the Pope intended when he addressed a group of theologians at the University of Regensburg in September, beginning a speech that could best be described as a scholarly refutation of the so-called Kantian fallacy—Kant’s distinction between rational understanding and apprehension of the sublime—with a question posed by a fourteenthcentury Byzantine emperor to a Persian guest at his winter barracks near Ankara. “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new,” the emperor asked the Persian, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The problem for people who actually read the speech (by most reports, very few did) was that the Pope chose not to dispute the emperor’s statement. He allowed that the emperor had spoken with a “startling brusqueness,” but he did not say whether he disagreed, nor, for that matter, did he acknowledge that Christianity had contributed its share of inhumanity to history. He quoted from the emperor’s argument against violent conversion—“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature”—and contrasted that with a modern scholarly reading of the Islamist argument for it: “In Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories—even that of rationality.” After that, he did not mention Islam again. Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, who heard the speech, says it was “like a typical Protestant Sunday sermon, with the quote as the proposition, the passage to be examined—only it wasn’t examined.”
People at the Vatican quickly covered for Benedict. Some said that he must have been talking a Regensburg shorthand; he had taught at Regensburg for most of the nineteen-seventies, and it could be argued that, in such a familiar academic context, his disclaimer was implicit. A few joked that, being an academic, he had simply given in to a professionally irresistible temptation to show off with an obscure citation. But many of the Vatican correspondents who, like Politi, travelled to Regensburg with Benedict doubt that there was anything accidental or inadvertent in the citation. They had received copies of his speech at six in the morning of the day he gave it, and, at ten, they assembled in the university’s makeshift pressroom and informed the Vatican spokesman, a Jesuit priest and Vatican Radio director named Federico Lombardi, that the passage was going to be incendiary. “The point is that at 10 A.M. somebody got the message that the text was explosive,” Politi told me, adding that when the Pope had gone to Auschwitz to speak, last May, “we got copies of that speech, too, and it never mentioned the Shoah, so we said, ‘Hey, where is Shoah?,’ and he changed it.” Putting aside the obvious question of whether reporters should be in the business of saving Popes from embarrassment, the question remains whether Benedict got the message.
Father Lombardi, a soft-spoken man who at the time was only two months into his job as the Vatican’s official spinner, told me, “I don’t know the intentions of the Pope. I do know that his Regensburg speech was directed to the culture of the West; it wasn’t given to engage Muslims.” But, of course, it did. Within a day of the speech, riots and protests had broken out across the Muslim world. Before the worst of them ended, a week later, Benedict XVI had been burned in effigy in Basra; an Anglican church and a Greek Orthodox church had been fire bombed in Nablus; and an Italian nun had been murdered in Mogadishu, in front of the children’s hospital where she worked. In Europe, young Muslims took to the streets, calling for the Pope’s death and waving placards that said “Islam will conquer Rome” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah.”
The loudest voices, not surprisingly, were the first heard. Sheikh Abu Saqer, the head of the Salafiya Jihadiya movement in Gaza, called angrily for the conquest and conversion of Rome: “This is a crusader war against Islam, and it is our holy duty to fight all those who support the Pope. . . . The green flag of Allah and Muhammad will be raised over the Vatican. . . . Until they join Islam, Hell is their destination.” In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that the Pope’s speech was the “latest link” in the “chain of a conspiracy to set in motion a crusade.” And Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told Iranians, “The Muslim outcry will continue until he fully regrets his remarks.”
The Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, at Oxford, described this “counterproductive game” in late September, when he wrote that Muslim leaders who lend their voices to an angry mob protesting a “perceived insult to their faith” might well reflect on the consequences of “manipulating crises of this kind as a safety valve for both their restive populations and their own political agenda.” Ramadan has roots in Egypt (where his grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood) and in Europe (where he was born and raised), and he has cultivated a reputation as a kind of mediator between the Muslims of those two worlds, an interpreter of one to the other. He said that crises like Regensburg, with their “uncontrollable outpouring of emotion, end up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception.”
Joseph Ratzinger and his predecessor Karol Wojtyla were the first “foreigners,” as Italians still call them, to be elected to the papacy since 1522, when a priest from Utrecht began twenty uneventful months as Pope Adrian VI. The forty-five Pontiffs who followed Adrian were not only reliably homegrown; they were rarely driven to extremes of Christian ardor, and Italians liked them that way—for their self-interest and their discretion. Popes were not expected to transform Catholicism. Their job was to look after their land, their coffers, and their clergy, support the wars against Protestants, and dazzle Europe’s Catholic peasants with earthly displays of the heavenly pomp awaiting them once the misery of their indentured lives was past. The Church lost the last of its Papal States in 1870, with the Risorgimento, and, after years of wrangling with the capricious new entity called Italy, it settled into a fairly comfortable role. It delivered the Catholic vote to the Christian Democrats and kept the Communists at bay, and in return was assured that no unseemly new laws would disturb the patriarchal sanctity of the Catholic family. (It eventually lost on contraception and divorce.)
The received wisdom has been that the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today was born—or reborn—in 1962, with the opening ceremonies of the ecumenical council known to the world as Vatican II. The presiding Pope was the irresistibly benign Angelo Roncalli, or John XXIII, and, in calling that council, he had managed to crack a stifling papal mold, both in the huge pleasure he took in bringing together three thousand bishops from around the world and in the promise he made of opening the Church not only to the different voices of Catholicism but to the voices of the other great religions. “What do we intend?” he said, flinging open a Vatican window. “We intend to let in a little fresh air.”
The council sat for three years, and while John XXIII died less than a year into its four sessions, one of the key documents it produced—Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Time”—did revise Catholicism’s formal relationship to those religions. John had wanted to leave a strong statement about the Church’s history of antiSemitism, and in Nostra Aetate the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews”—the roots of Christianity in the Jewishness of Christ, and even the dim possibility of Jewish salvation—was finally acknowledged. Nostra Aetate also acknowledged, for the first time in Church history, if not what theologians call “the salvation status” of Islam—put simply, do Muslims go to Heaven?—then at least the humanity of Muhammad’s followers. “The Church regards with esteem . . . the Muslims,” it said. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of Heaven and earth.”
It wasn’t a lot. “You could say that Islam entered Vatican II through a Jewish door,” the historian Alberto Melloni told me. But it held out the possibility of a revolution in relations between two religions that (as John Paul II remarked twenty years later, on a trip to Morocco) had spent more time offending each other than embracing. The assumption, perhaps naïve, was that this was a revolution that Islam would welcome, and a new Curial office, for interfaith dialogue and relations, was opened by the Vatican. At first, it was known simply as the Secretariat for Non-Christians, or Pro Non Christianis. In 1988, it became the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Giovanni Montini, the cardinal who became Pope Paul VI a few weeks after John’s death, signed off on Nostra Aetate in 1965. Ten years later, he withdrew the Church’s long-standing objection to the construction of a Grand Mosque for Rome. He did it quietly, mindful, perhaps, of the fact that, for most Italians of his generation, the question of Islam belonged where Dante had left it—in the “schismatics” corner of the Eighth Circle, with Muhammad eternally disembowelled or, in the words of the poet, “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.” (It should be remembered that John of Damascus, the eighth-century saint and last Father of the Church, considered Islam to be a Christian heresy; today, by strict Catholic definition, any religion that postdates and rejects the divinity of Christ is heretical.)
Paul also left the new interfaith office pretty much to its own devices, thus avoiding the theologically sticky question of who, from the point of view of “dialogue” with a religion without hierarchies, could properly be said to speak authoritatively for Islam. This obviously pleased the priests who were off serving small Catholic communities in the Muslim world, but permission to talk about God with imams was not exactly the “fresh air” that liberal lay Catholics had expected from the first ecumenical council in a century. Despite the mythology that surrounds it, Vatican II was meant to open the Church to the world, not to liberalize its doctrine, and its most enduring legacy may have been not Nostra Aetate but the conservative backlash that Nostra Aetate inspired.
Thomas Michel, the Secretary for Interreligious Affairs at the Jesuit Curia, calls Vatican II “the 1968 of the Catholic Church”—a magical liberating moment that, like ’68, frightened as many people as it freed. Conservatives in the Church saw it as a step toward ecumenical license, if not doctrinal collapse. Paul himself seems to have thought so. Within three years of the council’s closing session, he produced the encyclical letters Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which affirmed the doctrine of clerical celibacy, and Humanae Vitae, which, despite the best efforts of the theologians on his papal commission on birth control, who after three years of scrutinizing the Gospels had tried to persuade him that contraception was morally acceptable, affirmed its sinfulness. It may prove that, in the end, the ecumenical council that really transformed the Church was not Vatican II but Vatican I, which sat from 1869 to 1870 and enshrined the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Church that Karol Wojtyla and, after him, Joseph Ratzinger inherited is in some ways as old and as new as that.
Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, had been one of the young theological advisers at Vatican II. He was thirty-five then, a full professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn, and on his way to a chair in dogmatics at the University of Tübingen, where he taught with Hans Küng, Germany’s premier Catholic theologian. Tübingen’s Catholic theologians were famously progressive, closer, in some ways, to Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, in Switzerland, than to their own bishops. Ratzinger, at the time, considered Küng his friend. The upheavals of 1968 changed that. Ratzinger, by his own account, was so repelled by the anarchy around him that he fled Tübingen for the conservative Catholic fiefdom of Regensburg’s new theology department—a move I have heard described as “going from Harvard to Idaho State.”
He had already written dissertations on Augustine and Bonaventura, and even a book arguing for a decentralized Church. But it was at Regensburg’s theology department that he honed his belief that the discourse of Christianity is a fundamentally rational discourse—as the West, grounded in Greek philosophical inquiry, understands reason—and as such not ultimately comprehensible, even for argument’s sake, outside the JudeoChristian tradition. That certainty, drawn from his reading of John’s Gospel, of the inextricability of Theos and Logos—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—was the heart of his speech in Regensburg nearly forty years later.
Ratzinger and Wojtyla shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro-choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome). But the resemblance ends there. Ratzinger did not really think that theological dialogue with non-Christians was useful, or meaningful, or even possible. John Paul II did. His papacy, he said, was going to be a peace papacy—a papacy of bridges. Unlike Ratzinger, he was not much concerned about whether a Trinitarian faith with an anthropomorphic God was “comprehensible” to a Muslim whose God is never manifest. He would talk to anyone about God. In twenty-six years as Pope, he made a hundred and two trips abroad, many of them to Muslim countries, and it didn’t matter whether the understanding of God was the same from one airport to the next.
“He decided that he wouldn’t govern—he would go” is how Mario Marazziti, one of the founders of the New Age Catholic movement called the Community of Sant’Egidio, describes those years. “Whereas Benedict governs through the Word.” Father Michael Hilbert, a professor of canon law and the dean of faculty at the Gregorian, puts it this way: “For John Paul II, the faith was a given, something to celebrate and proclaim. Ratzinger wants to explain it. His question is, Why did the Holy Spirit choose me? What message should I be giving now?” And Marco Tosatti, the Vatican correspondent at La Stampa and an admirer of Benedict, says simply, “John Paul was not a theologian.”
John Paul was not popular with the Church hierarchy. His freewheeling embrace did not include it. “He paid great lip service to the spirit of Vatican II,” a priest close to the Curia told me. “But, in fact, wherever he went he sat on the local bishop’s chair and said, in effect, ‘I am the bishop of this church.’ And one by one he reeled in the theologians, the bishops, the orders, everyone who believed that the celebration of the Word is adults living their faith as adults.” He stripped the bishops’ conferences of their authority. He suspended the Jesuits’ constitution for two years. He raised the reactionary lay order Opus Dei to the status of a “personal prelature”—the only personal prelature in the Church—directly responsible to him. The Old Guard of the Vatican and the priests of the most progressive orders were equally bewildered by John Paul’s populism. They complained endlessly, if privately, about his style, which was famously demonstrated on a trip to Paris, in the early eighties, when he raced through a High Mass at Notre-Dame in order to stop at a pilgrimage shrine and chapel on the Rue du Bac, where he kissed the ground and started praying. The same conservative bishops who later applauded his insistence that abstinence, not condoms, was the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis considered the embrace, or “dialogue,” that he extended to the world, including the Islamic world, to be, at best, naïve or messianic and, at worst, theologically irresponsible or indifferent.
Ratzinger is never theologically indifferent. He deals in truth—in “the Catholic ‘om,’ ” as Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, calls it—and has little tolerance for a church of broad, grand gestures. He worries about the illiteracy in the faith. He wants Catholics to be clear and strict about who, precisely, they are. Many people who know Ratzinger call his severity “shyness.” Mickens, who was educated by Benedictines, prefers “passive-aggressive.” He says, “John Paul II was always making exceptions. Benedict is a Neoplatonist. Everything is ‘order.’ When he says that homosexuality is a disorder, that divorce and remarriage is a disorder—he can’t find any exceptions to ‘order.’ ” (Catholics still argue about the role he played, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the late seventies, in the Vatican’s decision to strip Hans Küng of the right to teach Catholic theology, on the ground of what could be called Küng’s “doctrinal disorder.”) He made an exceptionally effective Grand Inquisitor at the Holy Office, censuring outspoken priests and literally silencing the liberation theologians who were reviving the Church in South America. His loyalty, as he saw it, was to Christianity and not to (to his mind) errant Christians.
God’s intentions tend to wobble from papacy to papacy, and the Church adjusts to the contradictions. Benedict, for all his doctrinal rigidity, remains extremely forthcoming as a scholar, and he is much more careful than his predecessor to distinguish between opinion and “truth.” John Paul II was untroubled by that sort of distinction, and, curiously, Benedict did very little to discourage his conflations of doctrine and what the Church calls “definitive teachings”—perhaps because, during the last years of the Pope’s long illness, those teachings were “guided” by Benedict himself. (“Ratzinger has been Pope much longer than you think,” Robert Mickens says.) Eventually, John Paul’s relations with other religions, especially with Islam, were also guided by Ratzinger, although this was obvious mainly to Rome’s vaticanisti, who could trace the change.
A case in point is the two big prayer gatherings for peace that took place in Assisi during John Paul’s papacy, the first in 1986 and the second in 2002, two and a half years before the Pope died. The first gathering, known today as Assisi I, was a common prayer: a hodgepodge of interfaith holiness convoked by the gurus of the Community of Sant’Egidio, blessed by the Pope, supervised by the head of his Commission for Justice and Peace, the French cardinal Roger Etchegaray, and including among the faithful a Crow medicine man named John Pretty-on-Top, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the president of Morocco’s High Council of Ulemas, and the Dalai Lama. (John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said that there were probably more religions represented at Assisi that day than women.) For John Paul, it was an irresistible, ur-ecumenical occasion, with everyone praying together in what was described by a spokesman for Sant’Egidio as “an unconditional opening to the religion of the other.” Justo Lacunza-Balda, a Spanish brother who until last year ran the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, told me, “The Pope’s reasons for Assisi I were maybe a little fuzzy . . . but he knew that Muslim-Christian relations had become fundamental for peace.”
It was not, however, the sort of occasion that appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger. “This cannot be the model,” he told an Austrian paper. Word came down from the Holy Office to the organizers at Sant’Egidio that Assisi I had been too folkloric and, worse, that it had carried a risk of religious relativism and “syncretism” (which, to be fair, it did). Assisi II was what you might call a highly negotiated outpouring. The Pope was failing, and Ratzinger had already delivered his own position paper on the uniqueness of Catholic salvation. (It said that the situation for non-Catholics was “gravely deficient.”) He called it Dominus Iesus, and it was a triumphalist document—not, in any event, an “unconditional opening” of the gates of the Vatican, let alone the gates of Heaven. “We sort of reinvented Assisi after that,” Mario Marazziti, from Sant’Egidio, told me. “The religions would pray one beside the other. Not together but beside.” This time, John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone.
Many of the people who found themselves praying beside but not together with the Pope at Assisi II that day—January 24, 2002—were distressed by the change, though only four months after the attack on the World Trade Center there wasn’t much faith left in Assisi in the power of prayer for peace. Alberto Melloni says that there was certainly “consciousness in the Curia, after 9/11, of the possible uselessness of such an event.” By the eve of his election, in the spring of 2005, Ratzinger was warning Catholics about the “waves” battering at the boat of the true faith, including among them mysticism, “sects,” and Turkish Muslims in Christian Europe.
In February last year, ten months into his papacy, Benedict removed the much admired British archbishop who presided over the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and dispatched him to Cairo as a papal nuncio. The archbishop, Michael Fitzgerald, had a particularly warm interest in Islam, and the Vatican called this a key appointment to the Arab League. But it amounted to exile. The council itself was turned over to a conservative cardinal named Paul Poupard, and, to some extent, folded into the Pontifical Council for Culture, which Poupard heads. In today’s Vatican, “cultural dialogue” is a code for relations with religions that, by Benedict’s definition, cannot sustain a theological relationship with Catholicism. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of cultural dialogue. It can mean that you start focussing on very concrete problems, and even try to resolve those problems. (Lacunza-Balda says that the Pope, if anyone, has the right to challenge Muslims to reflect on “their use of God as an umbrella to cover violence.”) On the other hand, it can mean that, in shutting the last theological windows of Vatican II, you are dismissing Islam as one more “gravely deficient” sect.
There are more than twenty Muslim ambassadors to the Holy See, although there is no official ambassador representing “Islam.” (The only religion with a permanent delegation to the Vatican is the Church of England.) Some of those ambassadors say Benedict is right, when it comes to the limits of conversation. Muhammad Javad Faridzadeh, the Iranian Ambassador, told me, “After Vatican II, the ‘dialogue’ was obligatory, it was written, and John Paul had to have it. The difference today is not in the obligation but in the way of having it. Theological dialogue between religions is no sooner born than it dies. Theological language is not Socratic. It becomes militant, it is the arm with which you defend your religion. You do not come to a friend to talk bearing arms. You leave theology at the door and come with flowers—which can be ‘culture.’ ”
Faridzadeh is a philosopher—a Platonist, he says, like the Pope. He has studied not only Islamic philosophy but also phenomenology, Continental philosophy, and medieval scholasticism. He reads Kant and Nietzsche and Heidegger and is given to quoting Hans Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Michel Foucault. It is as a philosopher, he says, that he doubts whether a Christian could “defend” the relation of Theos and Logos to a Muslim, who has no image of God, any better than a Muslim could defend Islam to a Christian, who does. Many Catholics with an intimate understanding of Islam share this doubt. Priests who have worked in orthodox Muslim countries like to point out that “dialogue” with fundamentalists is, almost by definition, impossible. James Puglisi, a Franciscan friar who runs the Center for Christian Unity, in Rome, told me, “You need competence on both sides. And it’s not just Islam. I was in an ‘official conversation’ with some Seventh- day Adventists. I said to them, ‘We need to write our common history.’ But how do you do that, when they don’t even accept the critical interpretation of our common texts?”
Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, a Jordanian diocesan priest who worked with Michael Fitzgerald at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue—and who remains one of the council’s leading Islamic experts—said that, to his mind, the best argument for the Pope’s campaign to concentrate on Christian identity, rather than on theological incursions into other people’s faiths, is that, “with a weak identity, you are unqualified for any kind of ‘interreligious’ dialogue . . . especially in the face of a strong and sometimes radical Islam.” He told me, “Knowing who you are, as a Christian, can be a preparation for dialogue, not a confrontation.”
Benedict, who is nearly eighty, is said to have set himself two goals for what he knows will be a short papacy. Neither of them involves Islam theologically, but they do involve it in very practical, political ways. His first goal is ecumenical. It has to do with reinvigorating, and perhaps enforcing, what he sees as Christianity’s nonnegotiable moral precepts. In other words, he wants to temper and constrain Western secularism with his own brand of Christian morality; he wants the leaders of other Christian fellowships to join him; and he wants to put the world on notice that, with more than fifteen million Muslims living in Western Europe, the only analogous mission in the West today is an Islamist one.
Moral unity doesn’t sound like a lot to ask of Christians, but it is. For one thing, Anglicans and Protestants and Orthodox Christians are hardly eager to take their moral marching orders from a man who holds Catholicism to be the one true articulation of Christian faith—and who is demonstrably more at home discussing moral imperatives with secular intellectuals like Habermas than he is with any of them. It is a matter of theological status. R. William Franklin, an Episcopal priest and a fellow of the Anglican Center in Rome, says that, from an ecumenical standpoint, “we make intellectual but little practical progress on questions of authority, and of course on the ‘sticking points.’ ” (He means the role of women and homosexuals in the two churches—subjects on which this Pope sometimes seems to have more in common with Qom than with Canterbury.) Franklin says that, given the goal of “real and full communion, the best possible scenario would be for the Vatican to say, ‘Get your best theologians together and we’ll duke it out.’ ” But, for Benedict, the Anglican schism remains, if not a heresy, an unacceptable rejection.
Of course, the Pope’s real interest is in numbers, and apart from the various Pentecostal and evangelical sects, with whom he does not do serious ecumenical business, the big numbers for his Christian moral crusade lie in some sort of reconciliation between the Eastern and the Western Churches. This has been a papal imperative since the Eastern Church broke with Rome, in the eleventh century, and it is especially important now, with Orthodox Christians being the first line of defense against radical Islam. Benedict’s visit to Turkey, in late November—two and a half months after his Regensburg speech—was originally intended to be the public face of the Vatican’s private negotiations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who, from his seat in Istanbul, remains the titular head of an Or-thodox communion of three hundred million people. The trip had been in the works since 2004—which is to say that it was going to be John Paul’s visit, and it was going to be pleasant. Turkey not only was a friend to the West—the prototype of George W. Bush’s friendly Muslim state—but officially considered itself the West, and was still confident of a European welcome. That welcome has pretty much been withdrawn by the European Union. And, because of it, Turkey’s handful of Christians—not much more than a hundred thousand in a country of seventy million people—feel particularly abandoned. (The Ottoman massacre of more than a million Armenian Christians, early in the last century, is for them a living nightmare.)
Turkey, by constitution and military oversight, remains Atatürk’s secular state. There are no laws limiting Christian practice, but the particularly volatile new mixture of Islamic internationalism and Turkish nationalism could make the country a very uncomfortable place for Christians practicing their faith outside the big, cosmopolitan cities, like Istanbul and Izmir. “The Pope now sees this visit as a moment to contribute to their serenity,” Father Lombardi, Benedict’s press secretary, told me the day before they flew to Ankara. Cardinal Etchegaray, who joined Lombardi and Benedict on the papal plane (on what was Etchegaray’s first trip to the Muslim world since John Paul sent him on a “peace mission” to Saddam Hussein, in 2003), explained it this way: “Don’t forget, the primary reason for this Turkish visit is ecumenical. We have had enormous difficulties with this trip, but we are going for this reason.”
It was classic Vatican understatement, given that Turkish nationalists had been rioting to prevent it; the Army was virtually occupying Istanbul to keep them from rioting again; and the country’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was fleeing to a NATO meeting in Latvia—and only at the last minute announced that he might have time for the Pope at the Ankara airport just before his flight. (He had twenty minutes.) Not even the Patriarchy was altogether happy about Benedict’s impending visit. The Orthodox Church had been counting on Turkish membership in Europe as a kind of protection, and Benedict’s earlier statements about Turkey being “in permanent contrast to Europe,” along with the local fury over Regensburg, had left all Christians in the East vulnerable. As it happened, the trip went peacefully, and by all accounts it was successful. Benedict made his spiritually fraternal gestures. He held hands and prayed—beside but not together—with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in the Blue Mosque. No one seemed offended by his obvious unease, perhaps because most Turks, Muslim and Christian, were just as anxious. “We are praying for this blessing to be over,” an Orthodox friend I phoned in Istanbul that day said.
Benedict’s second goal is reciprocity with Islam. He wants to use his papacy to restore to Christian minorities in Muslim countries the same freedom of religion that most Muslims enjoy in the West. The question of reciprocity is hardly new, but it was never a priority at the Vatican before Benedict’s reign. John Paul II avoided it, on his travels, by saying, in effect, “I go for the country, not the religion.” Benedict has pretty much made it a precondition for relations between the Vatican and the Muslim world. He clearly thinks that the JudeoChristian West has been self-destructively shortsighted in its concessions to the Islamic diaspora, when few, if any, concessions are made to Christians and Jews in most of the Middle East.
In countries under Islamic law, conversion to Christianity (or any other religion) is an apostatic crime. In Saudi Arabia, churches are forbidden. In the marginally more open sheikhdoms, Christian practice is strictly controlled. In Iran, where Christians and Jews are officially tolerated as “people of the Book,” the President not only denies the Holocaust but wants Israel “wiped off the map.” In Iraq, as many as half the country’s Christians have fled in the past three years—because of the war, but also because of the religious hatred that the war has unleashed. It is hard to imagine any of those Muslim states being so eager to please a Catholic Pope that they would bow to the sensitivities of Christians or Jews the way the West bowed to Muslim sensitivities when the Tate Britain removed a sculpture involving a tattered Koran from an exhibition; or the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten apologized for twelve cartoon drawings of the Prophet; or the Deutsche Oper stopped production of an “Idomeneo,” because of a scene in which the severed heads of Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and Poseidon were set on chairs. (The opera was eventually performed, though it has to be said that the Pope agrees with Islam when it’s a question of art versus God.)
But it may be that the price of reciprocity with militant Islam is unacceptable, given that it now seems to involve a demand that Christians recast Islam’s jihadist past and its particularly bloody present into something spiritually savory. Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, of the Islamic institute at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, after Regensburg, “Islam is innocent of everything mentioned by this Pope. . . . He is the only one adding fuel to the fire of hatred and division among the religions.” He threatened to “boycott the Vatican” and added that “stopping the interfaith dialogue is the least that can be done.” In Europe, the Islamist threats are far more serious, and certainly more inclusive; the fatwas arrive by e-mail, and the police count among their everyday duties the job of guarding people, most of them Muslims, on jihadist hit lists. Justo Lacunza-Balda, the former head of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, told me that the Pope had every reason to say to Islam, “Excuse me, we are not the same.”
For some Catholic theologians, the issue isn’t Benedict’s idea of Islam, or his notion of a purer Church, or his dismissal of the possibility that doctrine can evolve. It is his conviction that Christian faith is demonstrably “rational.” That was the argument of his Regensburg speech, and, much more impressively stated, of his long dialogue with Habermas about reason, religion, and the “dialectics of secularization.” Habermas has always maintained that secular morality—morality negotiated in and by civil society—can, and should, provide humanity with a governing ethos. Benedict, in the course of their conversation, maintained that “the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment.” By that definition, almost any dialogue that does not include a shared definition of the rational, the ethical, or the religious becomes impossible. And it precludes any attempt at theological dialogue with Islam.
It is worth remembering that Manuel II Paleologus, the Byzantine emperor who got the Pope into so much trouble in Regensburg, was having a theological dialogue with his Muslim guest—or thought he was. That dialogue went on for the better part of a long winter, in the middle of a war, and the Emperor enjoyed it enough to fill two volumes trying to preserve it. At the time, Orthodox Christians like Paleologus had almost as much to fear from Catholic armies as from Muslim ones; and his Persian friend had certainly as much to fear from Ottomans as from Christians. Some clerics believe that Benedict’s unexamined reference to the words of an obscure emperor under siege in the fourteenth century was, in fact, less an attack on Islam than a kind of coded message to those Orthodox Christians, a misguided step on his ecumenical mission, a way of saying, in effect, Let’s stop arguing with each other—we have a new enemy now. Feisal Abdul Rauf, a well-known Egyptian Sufi imam who sits on the board of New York’s Islamic Center and leads an interfaith initiative “to heal the relations between the Islamic world and America,” told me, “I read that speech, and reread it, and it was not very philosophically coherent. So I asked myself what it was. . . . The real enemy, for the Pope, isn’t Islam. It’s the secular West. He sees that, in the West, religion is banished from the boardroom of society—that it has no place at the table in the public debate on how to build ‘the good society, the ideal society.’ And he sees that in Islam religion is not only at the table; it’s in some ways at the head of the table. He’s jealous.”
Rauf was one of the few Muslim leaders who appealed for calm and tolerance after the Regensburg speech. Some moderate Muslims who publicly addressed the Pope were more concerned with refuting his argument than with condemning the violence it inspired. Thirty-eight Muslim theologians from around the world produced an open letter praising Benedict’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life” but respectfully pointing out “some errors in the way you mentioned Islam” (his understanding of compulsion in Islam, for one, and of transcendence, and jihad, and conversion) and even the errors of an eleventh-century Muslim scholar he had cited as his expert. A few wrote to remind him that, as far as “reason” was concerned, it was Arab rationalists like Avicenna and Averroës who, with their commentaries on Aristotle, had saved Greek thought from obliteration during Europe’s undeniably dark Dark Ages. Most mentioned that they missed the ecumenical embrace of John Paul II.
The Pope, in his way, apologized: he announced that he was “deeply sorry” that anything he said had upset Muslims, though not that he was sorry to have said it. In the course of the next weeks, the Vatican Web site doctored a few phrases of the Regensburg speech. A short footnote was added, saying that the Pope did not agree with the Emperor’s “things only evil and inhuman” vision of Islam. He met with the Muslim ambassadors to the Holy See, hoping to appease the rulers they represented. His biggest success was with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sent his “respect” to Benedict and noted his satisfaction in seeing that he had “modified the remarks.”
St. Paul was born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. He was a Roman citizen—a Jew with an education—and he knew Greek. It has been said that if John the Evangelist put the Word into Christianity, Paul put Greece into our understanding of John. People have been arguing about the meaning of the Word for nearly two thousand years—it is one of the beautiful mysteries of Christianity. But as the Catholic Encyclopedia said, in 1910, in its chapter on Logos, “Hellenic speculations constitute a dangerous temptation for Christian writers”—even when the writer happens to be Pope. Christianity, like any faith, changes with the language that describes it.
The Muslim anthropologist Talal Asad puts it this way: “Theology, being in language, is part of culture”—which is to say that, if “culture” is open to discussion, so is God. Asad’s mother was a Saudi. His father was an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam—a journalist who wrote one of the great English translations of the Koran. Asad himself grew up in India, studied in England, teaches in New York, and is married to an Englishwoman. It isn’t surprising that he finds Benedict’s distinction between theological and cultural dialogue bewildering. He told me, “This notion of ‘theological dialogue’ is a very modern, liberal idea in some ways. But they had it in Spain once, where there was as much of a mix of different religious cultures as human beings seem to be capable of. And today—take the idea, in Islamic tradition, of the ‘inconceivable and unrepresentable God.’ I would assume each side would be interested in investigating that further, in talking about it more. To say no to that is simply not very interesting intellectually.”
Daniel Madigan, who is leaving the Gregorian this year to teach at Georgetown, says his colleagues are worried about the pressure that the Council for Interreligious Dialogue is under now to restrict itself to “political, cultural, and human-rights issues,” with no theological component to the discussion. He thinks they are right to worry. But he also says that there is no way, really, to monitor, let alone separate, theological and cultural exchange. “The idea that social and cultural dialogue won’t be theological—it’s not really true,” he told me. “You can’t separate religious ethics from the concrete ethical decisions that people make. Interreligious dialogue has been going on since Vatican II, but that doesn’t mean that under John Paul II people were just sitting around discussing the nature of the Holy Trinity. At the Gregorian, the idea has been to train people to work in interreligious dialogue. We teach the theory and fundamentals of the anthropology and sociology of religions: how each religion—Islam, say—sees itself. But interreligious dialogue, theological dialogue—we have it every day. We struggle with our texts in each other’s presence.”
And Khaled Akasheh, at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told me, “The Pope’s message is that there will be more attention to the cultural dimension of theological dialogue—well, every religion is born in culture. That’s fine. But the very important point for me is that the dialogues we have take place through local churches and mosques all over the world. The council exists to encourage these dialogues, and, whatever its criteria, they were never about universals.” The larger problem, of course, is not friendly Christian and Muslim clergymen talking about God. It is radical Islam, which has nothing to say to Christians beyond, at best, invective and, at worst, threats. Marco Tosatti, at La Stampa, told me, “The big meetings have been organized by the Christians, not by the Muslims. I’m wondering more and more if most Muslims are even interested.” Maybe. But it would seem that today, for moderate Muslims, the argument for embrace is particularly strong. They are as much at risk, in radically Islamist countries, as Christians are. They are frightened and isolated, and if there is no dialogue with the Church they will be more isolated. The idea of interreligious dialogue may have no meaning for fundamentalists, but it does for most Muslims—waiting, in some alarm, for the jihad to pass.
Muslim believers do not separate “real life” and religious life (and neither, for that matter, do most Christians). Priests with experience of Islam know this, and so do the many Catholic intellectuals who say that the trouble with the Pope’s “no” to theological dialogue isn’t simply its dismissal of Islam; it is what that dismissal says about Christianity. The certainty that Greek philosophy is part and root of Christianity—one Muslim philosopher called it God having “a Greek friend”—seems almost diminishing to those Catholics. “We have to remember that Jesus wasn’t Greek,” Daniel Madigan says. “ John was a Jewish document, not a Greek one.” Thomas Michel says, “Asian Catholics say, ‘We’re Catholics, but we’re not Greek.’ ” And Robert Mickens says, “Ratzinger is Eurocentric. To him, Europe means Christianity.” It may be that in reducing Islam to a “culture,” an artifact of its time and place and circumstances, Benedict ends up reducing Christianity to a culture, too. Alberto Melloni, the historian, thinks that the Pope’s idea that “there is nothing of me in the other and nothing of the other in me” doesn’t even do justice to the idea of culture—Talal Asad would certainly agree with that—let alone to Christianity. Melloni told me, “The fact remains that Catholicism exists within other cultures. Take Arab Catholics. They can be as militant about Israel as any other Arabs, and this has to open some very deep questions for Benedict. . . . Talking about culture as the bottom line of religious dialogue brings the question of culture within the Church. It’s a contradiction.”
Marco Politi put it this way: “There’s not just the Greek Logos in Christianity. There’s been violence and irrationality and literalism. O.K., that may be what Islam is in this century. But for centuries it was us.” ♦