April 14, 2008


How Benedict XVI Will Make History (George Weigel, April 14, 2008, Newsweek)

Modern popes deploy a distinctive form of power: the power of moral persuasion. Its effects are sometimes difficult to recognize.

Take John Paul II's epic pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. Cold-war historians now recognize June 2–10, 1979, as a moment on which the history of our times pivoted. By igniting a revolution of conscience that gave birth to the Solidarity movement, John Paul II accelerated the pace of events that eventually led to the demise of European communism and a radically redrawn map in Eastern Europe. There were other actors and forces at work, to be sure; but that John Paul played a central role in the communist crackup, no serious student of the period doubts today.

In 1979, however, the effects of the moral and spiritual revolution John Paul triggered were hard for some to discern. On June 5, 1979, The New York Times concluded an editorial in these terms: "As much as the visit of John Paul II must reinvigorate and reinspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the [Polish] nation or of Eastern Europe."

What accounts for this myopia? Granted, the Polish pope had not used the vocabulary normally associated with affairs of state: over nine days and 40-some addresses, John Paul II said not a word about politics, economics, the Polish communist regime or its masters in Moscow. Rather, he spoke of Poland's authentic history and deeply religious culture while summoning his people to a noble project: the restoration of their true identity. The message was received by those with ears to hear, and history changed as a result. (Including John Paul II's personal history, for the pope's success hardened the conviction in Moscow that something drastic had to be done about this meddlesome priest. The assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, followed in due course.)

Perhaps the deeper reason for missing the impact of John Paul II's "June 1979 moment" lies in the filters through which many people read history today. According to one such filter, religious and moral conviction is irrelevant to shaping the flow of contemporary history. They may give meaning to individual lives; but change history? Please. The world has outgrown that.

Or has it? The different personalities of John Paul II and Benedict XVI sometimes mask their shared (and unshakable) conviction that religious and moral ideas can redirect the course of human affairs. And that, in turn, suggests the possibility that Benedict XVI may have had his own "June 1979 moment"--a moment that was missed, or misunderstood, at the time.

That moment was the most controversial episode in Benedict XVI's pontificate: his Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason, delivered at his old German university on Sept. 12, 2006. By quoting a Byzantine emperor's sharp critique of Islam, Benedict XVI drew worldwide criticism. Others, however, including significant personalities in the complex worlds of Islam, took the pope's point about the dangers of faith detached from reason quite seriously. And over the ensuing 19 months, there have been potentially historic tectonic shifts going on, both within Islam and in the world of interreligious dialogue.

Benedict has received two open letters from Muslim leaders; the October 2007 letter, "An Open Word Between Us and You," proposed a new dialogue between Islam and the Vatican. That dialogue will now be conducted through a Catholic-Muslim Forum that will meet twice yearly, in Rome and in Amman, Jordan. The forum will address two issues that Benedict XVI has insisted be the focus of conversation: religious freedom, understood as a human right that everyone can grasp by reason, and the separation of religious and political authority in the modern state.

Perhaps even more important, given his influence in Sunni Islam, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Benedict XVI in November 2007. Subsequently, the king announced his own interfaith initiative, aimed at drawing representatives of the three monotheistic faiths into a new conversation, and negotiations between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia opened on building the first Catholic church in the kingdom. (A new Catholic church, also the first of its kind, recently opened in Doha, Qatar.) Abdullah's voice was noticeably absent from the chorus of critics who charged Benedict XVI with "aggression" for baptizing Magdi Allam, a prominent Italian journalist and convert from Islam, in St. Peter's Basilica on March 22. That all of this has happened after Regensburg is, at the very least, suggestive.

In addition to reshaping the dialogue between Catholicism and Islam, Benedict XVI has made significant changes in the Vatican's intellectual approach to these volatile issues. Catholic veterans of the interreligious dialogue who did not press issues like religious freedom and reciprocity between the faiths have been replaced by scholars who believe that facing the hard questions helps support those Muslim reformers who are trying to find an authentic Islamic path to civility, tolerance and pluralism. Thus Benedict XVI has quietly put his pontificate behind the forces of Islamic reform--and may have found a crucial ally with a Saudi king who is wrestling with Wahhabi extremism in his own domain.

The pope is thinking in centuries here: a reformed Islam capable of living with religious and political pluralism could be an ally in the struggle against what Benedict once called the "dictatorship of relativism."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2008 7:52 PM

Of course the NYT concluded that there is no threat to the political order of Eastern Europe. For them (and their ilk), the Soviet Union was the highest achievement of mankind, and its puppet states just one step below paradise. John Paul was a threat to the Times, and I am certain that he was editorialized as such (in more polite terms) during his tenure.

And while I didn't read the Times in Sept. 2006, I doubt if they said anything about Benedict's speech other than that he was inarticulate and perhaps needlessly direct or dismissive.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 14, 2008 11:09 PM

Engaging in a 'dialogue' (almost sounds gay, doesn't it?) with Islamic scholars is a good thing, because the nearly inevitable conclusion is that they will have to denounce the terror-mongers and screamers from their side (as the leading Saudi cleric has now done).

No serious Christian leader or philosopher is going to approve of random violence in the name of Christ, or even approve of someone like John Brown killing people in the name of God.

Any Islamic scholar who politely smiles at Hamas, Al Qaeda, the Revolutionary Guard, most of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa, Force 17, the nutjob groups in Pakistan, the Taliban, the theology of Khomeini and Ahmadinejad, etc. knows that he has basically marginalized himself (and his faith) in the name of secular violence. And no 'serious' scholar wants to be seen as just another Mookie (or Hamza, or Zawahiri, etc.). Neither do they want to be linked to Saddam, the House of Saud, Mubarak, and other oppressive and exploitative expressions of 'Islam', but that is their fate if they do not respond to Benedict.

Benedict knew just how to challenge Islam. If it wants to be a serious faith instead of just a bunch of angry shouters and drones marching to Mecca, now is the time to prove it.

Posted by: ratbert at April 15, 2008 12:16 AM

Ratbert: Bravo Zulu.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 15, 2008 6:48 AM

I'll add that some point of "dialogue" will have to address the understanding of Mohammed. The history we know of him is not attractive at all, and if Islam wants to be taken seriously, then it has to realize how Mohammed is viewed in comparison to the historical figures of Judeo-Christianity, not to mention Christ himself.

Otherwise, Islam will always be the nutty uncle in the attic (with the AK and the RPGs, of course). And the "scholars" will be nothing more than mouthpieces for the worst among them.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 15, 2008 7:33 AM