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John Allen, Jr. on Pope Benedict and Islam
Appropos of conversation this week during the conference in Sarajevo, Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen? The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens, here is an exceprt of Jon Allen, Jr.’s blog All Things Catholic today concerning the pope’s take on Islam. The entire post can be read here.
In the political argot of our time, Pope Benedict XVI is unquestionably a “conservative.” A core aim of his papacy is to revive a strong sense of traditional Catholic identity over against radical secularism, a classically conservative agenda.
Precisely because of those credentials, however, the old American axiom that “only Nixon could go to China” fits Benedict XVI like a glove. Because of who Benedict is and what he represents, every once in a while he can do things a more “liberal” pontiff either wouldn’t dare or couldn’t pull off without splitting the church apart.
That point has been brought home anew due to Benedict’s new book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, titled in English Light of the World, which featured some surprising comments on condoms.
Consider the following defining traits of cultural conservatives these days:
- A hawkish line on Islam
- Unyielding pro-life advocacy
Here’s the irony, one which is often underappreciated: While Benedict XVI is obviously sympathetic with all three concerns, in some ways he’s also taken the legs out from under the extremists in each camp.
On any list of improbable recent papal moments, the site of Benedict standing alongside a mufti in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2006, facing the mihrab in a moment of silent prayer, would have to figure near the top.
As a theologian, Benedict expressed doubts about the very possibility of inter-religious prayer. The fact that he stepped outside his own skin, so to speak, on such a high-profile occasion, offered a clear signal of his commitment to reconciliation with the Muslim world.
When Benedict was elected, many observers prophesied he would be the pope of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” rallying the Christian West against an Islamic threat. His Regensburg lecture in September 2006 seemed to cut in that direction, igniting protest across the Islamic world by appearing to link Muhammad with violence. (In his new book, Benedict admits he failed to realize that people would take his academic address as a political statement.)
Yet since Regensburg, Benedict instead has emerged as a great friend of Islam, albeit without pulling any punches on terrorism and religious freedom. He’s met with Muslims on scores of occasions, opened up new dialogues, and pulled off highly successful trips to Muslim nations. Today, it’s abundantly clear that détente with Islam is the top inter-faith priority of this papacy.
At the core of Benedict’s vision is what he described during a May 2009 journey to Jordan as an “Alliance of Civilizations” – a phrase obviously crafted as an alternative to the “Clash of Civilizations.” The idea is that Christians and Muslims should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of shared values such as the right to life, care of the poor, opposition to war and corruption, and a robust role for religion in public life. (The pope calls that “inter-cultural,” as opposed to “inter-religious,” dialogue.)
In Light of the World, Benedict is asked if he has abandoned the medieval notion that popes are supposed to save the West from Islamization.
“Today we are living in a completely different world, in which the battle lines are drawn differently,” Benedict says. “In this world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.”
In that struggle, Benedict sees Christians and Muslims as natural allies.
Bottom line: The only crusade Benedict is interested in leading is against a “dictatorship of relativism,” not against Islam. If only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Benedict XVI can go to Mecca.