Pope Bene­dict in the lion’s den

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

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 in­ter­cul­tural 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 that “Lack­ing a com­mon spir­i­tual her­itage, such as shared be­tween Chris­tians and Jews, purely the­o­log­i­cal di­a­logue [with Mus­lims] is coun­ter­pro­duc- tive 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 re­li­gious­mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence and to gain­ing re­li­gious free­dom for re­li­gious mi­nori­ties — Chris­tians, Mus­lims, Jews and all oth­ers.

We should not ex­pect such rec­i­proc­ity soon. On Nov. 27 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 two weeks ago: [He is] “car­ry­ing a rep­u­ta­tion of a hard­knuckle 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 sec­u­lar­ist be­cause he re­mains true to his Chris­tian faith, just as he will be de­spised by many Mus­lims 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 ir­ra­tional- ity, 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 to­wards bet­ter days.

Tony Blank­ley is edi­to­rial page ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. He can be reached via e-mail at tblank­ley@wash­ing­ton­times.com.

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