St. Peter and the Minarets

St. Peter and the Minarets

Mini Teaser: The Catholic Church is under assault. A secularizing West, the encroachment of Islam into Europe, and the sexual-abuse scandal all threaten the Vatican's ability to influence the masses. The Church's response will be felt worldwide.

by Author(s): Harvey Cox

Clearly, both these two previous Benedicts had Europe on their minds. So, obviously, does the current pontiff, Benedict XVI—or at least this was the impression he created during the first two years of his tenure. Born in echt katholische Bavaria, where he served initially as a theology professor and then briefly as a bishop, Cardinal Ratzinger had little experience of the rest of the big wide world outside his region of baroque churches and votive candles before he moved to Rome. Even then, from his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he stayed home and kept house.

For Vatican watchers, Benedict’s first papal statements reinforced the notion that his policies would reflect his previous writing and teaching. His first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love,” 2005), reiterated the strongly critical position he had taken against liberation theology during his term as prefect: namely, that political action was something reserved entirely for the laity and that “the Church” (meaning, in this case, the clergy) should stay out of it. His book Jesus of Nazareth, written about the same time, is a paean to the divinity and spirituality of Christ, but says little about his specific actions for the poor and the maligned of his day. Together, these two documents reminded careful readers about Ratzinger’s stance at the Second Vatican Council, where he served as an adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne. What some later called “the crown jewel” of the council, the schema entitled “Gaudium et Spes” (“Joy and Hope”), declared that the “joys and hopes” of the world, especially of the poor, were also the joys and hopes of the followers of Christ. Ratzinger was disparaging of this pastoral constitution of the Church, preferring a much more critical stance toward the modern world. Reflecting that, his first two papal utterances called for a smaller, tighter, more spiritually oriented Church that, especially in Europe, would challenge the momentum of secularization.

Yet it seems Pope Benedict’s political theology is changing. Catholic social ethicist Lisa Cahill reads his more recent encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth,” 2009), as marking a major reorientation in his thinking, and therefore presumably in the Church’s policies. In this encyclical, Benedict declares that the whole Church (and this obviously includes priests and bishops) should be involved in working for structural change, especially to nurture peace, to prevent the degradation of the planet, and to combat economic injustice and inequality.1 These, then, represent some of the policies the Vatican may try to advance.

I think Cahill’s reading is right. “Caritas in Veritate” is phrased very circumspectly, but when it states that Catholics should work for justice alongside people of other faiths and none, it sounds at times more like John XXIII’s most important encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth,” 1963), or even like some of the writings of the liberation theologians Ratzinger quashed during his years as prefect. Perhaps Ratzinger is learning on the job.

THE POPE is likely trying to craft a twofold approach involving a leaner, more spiritually taut Church in Europe, but one that, on the global scene, brings its resources to bear in the cause of social justice. Yet there is a larger item on the papal agenda, and it is one that might overshadow everything else. That of course is Islam. With no Protestant Reformation, anticlerical deistic French Revolution or atheistic Communism to cope with, now the religion of the Prophet—with its own 1 billion followers worldwide—has emerged as one of the two most vigorous alternatives to Catholicism. (The other is Protestant Pentecostalism, which is growing rapidly everywhere, but especially in Latin America.) It poses a clear dilemma for the pope on the religious level.

Most Vatican observers agree that, in spite of a few awkward incidents, Benedict has appeared to be more sympathetic to Islam and Muslims than many had expected. He publicly condemned the publication of caricatures of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He also called upon Catholics to get to know and respect Muslim newcomers in Europe. His attitude has at times been reciprocated. For example, in September 2006, after Benedict stated that in his opinion Africa and Asia feel threatened by the West’s materialism and secularism, leaders of the Muslim communities in Italy quickly endorsed his view. “We agree with the pope,” said Roberto Piccardo, speaking for Italy’s largest Muslim group, “Muslims are puzzled by a West which is hostage to a materialistic system.” Mario Scialoja, a former president of the Muslim World League, added that the “West’s exclusion of God leads to the wrong life models.”

But, unlike Pentecostalism, a reinvigorated Islam also poses a distinct political dilemma for the Vatican. This arises in large part from the fact that the secular/religious distinction is not only less clear in some Muslim countries where religion and governance are often one and the same, but also because it varies from one to another, requiring a highly nuanced response that is often lacking with Benedict.

The complexity of the Vatican’s stance on Islam became particularly clear during the contretemps accompanying the pope’s widely reported trip to Turkey in 2006. The visit came after the pope stirred consternation in the Muslim world with his controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, 2006. In that talk, the pope quoted a remark about Islam made by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus in the fourteenth century. The emperor had said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Demands that the pope retract his statement followed. And indeed he did, or at least came close, insisting that the view he quoted was not his own.

Soon he reversed course again, on another front. Benedict had once voiced his opposition to Turkey’s entry into the EU. But even as he prepared for his historic visit to Istanbul, the pope began to rethink his strategy. A papal spokesman said the pope “viewed positively and encouraged” the process of Turkey’s entry into the EU “on the basis of common values and principles.” Though he is a vociferous critic of “secularism,” one suspects that Benedict prefers the “secular” constitution of Turkey to the systems in Saudi Arabia or Iran with their emphasis on Koranic-based sharia.

Perhaps at few times in recent Vatican history has its religious agenda so overlapped with its secular-political one as it now does in relations between the Holy See and Islam. The Vatican appears intent on encouraging religiosity in the face of secularism, and in this battle Muslims in Europe might be viewed as allies. But on the other hand, it can hardly view an increasingly “Islamized” Europe with equanimity.

HOW THE pontiff will reconcile these tensions is as yet unclear, for he must concern himself both with Catholicism’s position in the Muslim lands and Islam’s encroachment on Catholicism in the Church’s traditional areas of strength. Although a mosque now towers over one of the hills of Rome, it remains illegal to build a Christian church in Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has recently banned the erection of minarets (but, interestingly, not mosques). And as the flow of refugees into Europe continues to increase, mixing previously separated populations, the religious freedom of these people will become an ever-larger issue.

The Vatican has an official department, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, that reflects the Church’s traditional Christian policy of welcoming the stranger and sheltering refugees. But Benedict must balance this concern with his worries about the “Christian foundations” of European culture. The Vatican campaigned vigorously—albeit unsuccessfully—to include some mention of Europe’s “Christian heritage” in the constitution of the EU. Now the pope must walk a fine line in a Europe he considers sinking into secularism but whose populations are increasingly uneasy about their millions of new and very God-fearing Muslim neighbors. These questions suggest that the relationship between Catholicism and Islam will be a central preoccupation of the Vatican for a long time to come, and preparations are already under way. In fact, the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome has an ambitious program on Catholic-Muslim relations and regularly invites Muslim scholars as guest lecturers. There is some speculation that the next pope will be selected in part with an eye to his knowledge of Islam.

Is there any way of discerning what the Catholic Church will do with regard to Islam at home and abroad? The answer for the present is that it will “muddle through.” The Church thinks in terms of centuries, or even of millennia. The Vatican rarely acts precipitously. It will probably encourage more “interfaith” dialogue, but as one Vatican official told me, it will be “inter but not about faith.” He meant that given the Church’s insistence that its fundamental doctrines are never subject to change, the theological issues that divide the two traditions will not be on the table. But it will continue to encourage mutual respect among faiths, and there will undoubtedly be more conversation about cooperation on humanitarian issues such as refugees, poverty and the rights of political prisoners (like the recent role of the archbishop of Havana in releasing some of Cuba’s inmates). And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Vatican will continue to support a two-state solution worked out by the parties involved. It has long since given up the aspirations it voiced decades ago for an internationalized Jerusalem with a Vatican role in its governance.

Image: Pullquote: Perhaps at few times in recent Vatican history has its religious agenda so overlapped with its secular-political one as it now does in relations between the Holy See and Islam.Essay Types: Essay