Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey was characterized by the Associated Press thusly (in one of their increasingly rare exercises in objective journalism): "Benedict’s journey is extraordinarily sensitive, a closely watched pilgrimage full of symbolisms that could offer hope of religious reconciliation or deepen what many say is a growing divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds." While we must hope for the former, it is hard not to expect the latter.
Lamentably, the time is past (if it ever existed) when mere benign expressions of convivial tolerance could have any lasting, positive effect on inter-religious and inter-cultural relations. Pope Benedict well understands the current inefficacy of mere expressions of tolerance unconnected to specific, current Muslim nation practices, whatever he may or may not say on the remainder of this dangerous trip (originally intended as an outreach from the Catholic pope to the Eastern Orthodox Christian patriarch of Constantinople, before it was transformed by events into a Muslim-Christian-dominated event).
The pope believes in the need for deep, honest dialogue, premised on the need for reciprocity between Christians and Muslims. But as a man of honest faith and scholarship he refuses to go beyond where the teachings of his faith can take him.
As former foreign policy advisor to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, John F. Cullinan pointed out in National Review a few months ago, Pope Benedict recognizes "Lacking a common spiritual heritage, such as shared between Christians and Jews, purely theological dialogue [with Muslims] is counter productive and should be subordinated to an examination of how to exist peacefully in a pluralistic world." Thus Benedict sees reciprocity as applicable to attempting to reduce religious-motivated violence and to gaining religious freedom for religious minorities — Christians, Muslims, Jews and all others.
We should not expect such reciprocity soon. Just this Monday two Turkish Christians (Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal) were defendants in a Turkish court accused of violating penal code Article 301, "insulting Turkishness" and Article 216, "inciting hatred against Islam." Their crime was peacefully missionizing on behalf of Christianity.
Similarly, the pope seeks to correct the imbalance between mosques being built throughout the cities of the West, while any non-Islamic religious expression (let alone church building) is strictly proscribed from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to most other Muslim countries.
There is something courageous but forlorn in Benedict’s modest request for reciprocity on these matters. Such minimalist goals of the pope nonetheless earned him the following characterization by Time magazine last week: [He is] "carrying a reputation of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and inter-religious confrontation." Time went on to write: "Ratzinger [i.e. Pope Benedict XVI] has always favored bright theological lines and correspondingly high walls between creeds he regards as unequally meritorious."
It would seem that the pope is destined to be a bafflement to secularists because he remains true to his Christian faith, just as many Muslims will despise him because he remains true to his Christian faith — even as he reaches out for at least minimal standards of reciprocal respect between the religions of the world.
Though I am not a Catholic, I rather prefer the description of Pope Benedict by the Catholic essayist Michael D. O’Brien (to the silliness of Time magazine’s):
"Benedict is a man of charity and of truth, and rarer still, he is a man who has integrated both within his life and teaching. In a sense he is like St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1219, during the Crusades, walked into the midst of the Saracen camp and preached for days, and eventually spoke with the Sultan of Egypt in the hope of converting him … He was a sign of contradiction to all parties in the wars. He was unarmed. He was a presence of Christ to the major adversary of Christian civilization in those times."
"So, too, Pope Benedict continues to be a sign of contradiction. He has crossed the lines of our normal categories regarding the world situation. He has made possible a dialogue with Islam. … He is not naive about the nature of radical Islamics, and indeed his Regensburg speech has been a catalyst of clearer vision about the nature of militant Islamism — its irrationality, its spirit of relentless hatred and contempt for human dignity. Yet we must remember that neither is the pope naive about the other beast — the one that is killing us from within the parameters of our civilization, the secular humanism of Late Western Man."
Benedict will surely be condemned in both the secular and Muslim media for political sins he has not committed. But if given time, Benedict’s stubborn, peaceful witness to his faith both in the Lion’s den and amidst the non-believers may yet lead the world toward better days.