Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States as Pontiff was remarkable for the spirit of gentle authority that seemed to win over enthusiastic crowds wherever this German theologian went during his five-day trip. Known as a determined defender of traditional Catholic doctrine, this Pope has impressed more with his intellect than his charisma since his Papacy began in 2005.
The contrast with his much beloved predecessor, John Paul II, formed an impression in the minds of many of a rather stern and doctrinaire enforcer. Indeed, Benedict’s last position before being elected the 265th leader of the Catholic Church was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the direct descendent of the Inquisition. In this position, and ultimately as Dean of the College of Cardinals, the former Joseph Ratzinger fiercely defended Catholic teaching on a host of controversial issues, but especially took aim at what he considers a nihilistic moral relativism that finds expression as a creeping multiculturalism in both his native Europe and the U.S. Tellingly, one of his namesakes was St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of medieval Europe’s monastic Benedictine order and an early champion of Christianity among its pagan tribes.
Less remarked, but nonetheless potentially far more dramatic in the long run, is this Pope’s deliberate development of another theme: the centrality of both faith and reason in Christianity — and the absence of reason in Islam. Repeatedly in speech and writing, Pope Benedict has asserted the balanced coexistence of both faith and reason that avoids the empty materialism of reason alone and the religious extremism that characterizes faith without reason. Even before the Papacy of Joseph Ratzinger began, the Vatican had embarked on a strategy to reinvigorate Europe’s identification with its Christian roots as a way to counter the aggressive expansionism of a resurgent Islam.
Even as it slips back into a kind of pre-Christian secular paganism, the Continent appears oblivious, indifferent even, to the Islamist agenda so candidly laid out in front of it. But both the Vatican and this Pope understand that, having largely lost touch with its Christian identity, Europe now stands dangerously exposed to a faith imbued with zeal, but savagely lacking in the tolerance and respect for the universality of human dignity that mark belief derived from reasoned reflection on the nature of the divine.
There is fundamental conflict between a faith that celebrates Judeo-Christian concepts of a just and loving God who bequeaths to his creatures the ability to know identifiable truth and a belief construct that insists upon the utterly irrational absolute transcendence of God — a construct that permits good and evil to coexist in diametrically-opposed, yet simultaneous, equivalence. A series of significant actions illustrates the direction Pope Benedict seems to be heading as he lays the groundwork for a significant shift in the Church’s relationship with Islam.
Starting with his seminal speech on “Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflections” at Regensburg University in Germany in September 2006, Pope Benedict posed an intellectual challenge to the irrationality of religious violence. He drew both attention and criticism with his quotation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor, who decried Islam (then assaulting the gates of Constantinople) as a religion spread by the sword. The Pope’s purpose in mounting such a frontal assault on Islam derived from his conviction that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Riots by outraged Muslims served only to validate the premise.
In December 2006, Pope Benedict traveled to Turkey on a visit intended to extend the offer of interfaith dialogue but in the context of mutual respect based on religious equality, religious freedom, and minority rights. These conditions were not lost on Turkey as it sought entry into the European Union but clashed predictably with the essential inflexibility of Islamic law that cannot be reconciled to genuine religious freedom and equality under existing European law.
Then, at the end of Ramadan in October 2007, a group of Muslim scholars sent an open letter to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders. Calling for “peace between Muslims and Christians,” the letter elicited an enthusiastic response from across a spectrum of the all-too-gullible mainstream media. The less-than-delirious response from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, observed that the potential for serious dialogue between Muslims and Christians was limited by Islam’s reluctance to discuss the elements of its faith, which are considered textually literal and immutable. The Vatican also no doubt is aware that the full message of the Quranic verse 3:64, quoted twice in the letter, actually is a condemnation of Christianity and Judaism and a call for conversion to Islam.
The 2008 Holy Saturday baptism by Pope Benedict himself of a Muslim convert to Catholicism in a public ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica is perhaps the most assertive step yet for a Catholic Church now demonstrably set on reshaping the dialogue between Islam and Christianity and accelerating the pace of change in the Muslim world. Magdi Allam, an Italian journalist who took the name “Cristiano,” penned a personal account of his conversion to Christianity in which he expressed gratitude to Pope Benedict for his guidance and condemned the “hatred and intolerance” that Islam directs at any who are not Muslim. His denunciation of what he called the “obscurantism of an ideology that legitimizes lies and deception, violent death that leads to murder and suicide, the blind submission to tyranny,” surely marks Allam an apostate to Islam, a status he acknowledges brings with it a death sentence. And yet, the defiant collaboration between Pope and convert indicates the Church’s commitment to an agenda directed to the future, a future that lies perhaps many decades ahead.
President George W. Bush’s remarks at the White House arrival ceremony for Pope Benedict on 16 April 2008 were notable for the apparent unanimity of vision they shared with this agenda. Invoking America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, President Bush noted that “In our nation, faith and reason coexist in harmony.” The Pope in reply recalled the pivotal role played by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, as he inspired “the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism,” in his native Poland and in Eastern Europe and seemed to evoke his own chosen path with John Paul’s words: “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation.”