Every day there's a
different spin on Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Middle East: Pope
Not Sorry Enough for Holocaust, Pope Not Angry Enough Over Gaza,
Pope's Past Becomes PR Blunder, Pope Supports Palestinian State…
But the media has overlooked one of the most significant achievements
of his trip — détente with the Islamic world.
Two years ago
Muslims erupted when the Pope quoted a thoroughly obscure Byzantine
prince's assessment of Islam in a speech at Regensburg, in Germany. A
leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said at the time that the remarks
"pour oil on the fire and ignite the wrath of the whole Islamic
world to prove the claims of enmity of politicians and religious men
in the West to whatever is Islamic."
But on this trip
Benedict has given a speech in a mosque, addressed Muslim leaders and
taken off his shoes to piously visit the Dome of the Rock
mosque, the third holiest in the Islamic world. After a few
tutorials in tact, he seems to have watered down his message to
Muslims to make it soothing and inoffensive.
Well, actually he
hasn't. Not a bit of it. In fact, he has almost photocopied his
Regensburg speech after swabbing the inflammatory bits with liquid
paper. Benedict XVI is proving to be a master of long-term public
relations for the Catholic Church. Despite all the protest from
Muslims (most of whom never read the Regensburg speech anyway), he
hasn't budged one inch.
No one has noticed
this because journalists think in sound-bites and Benedict thinks in
paragraphs. But he is bearing a powerful message: that Christianity
and Islam face a common enemy in secularism. As he told Muslim
leaders in Jordan, "Indeed some assert that religion is
necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that
the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the
Muslims is a delicate balancing act. There are plenty of mullahs who
preach that Christians are idolaters because they worship a Trinity.
Benedict subtly emphasised that Christians are monotheists. They
believe in one God, whom he described as "merciful and
compassionate", a characteristically Muslim phrase. "We can
begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of
justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity,"
he told Muslim leaders in Jerusalem.
Muslim suspicions that Christians are really Bible-toting polytheists,
Benedict then argued that the oneness of mankind flows from the
oneness of God. In other words, peace amongst nations, mutual
respect, and even religious freedom has a theological basis, not
merely one of political convenience:
"fidelity to the One God, the Creator, the Most High, leads to
the recognition that human beings are fundamentally interrelated,
since all owe their very existence to a single source and are pointed
towards a common goal. Imprinted with the indelible image of the
divine, they are called to play an active role in mending divisions
and promoting human solidarity."
For all but the most
fanatical of Muslim clerics, this must seem unobjectionable. But then
Benedict explains what is distinctive about the Christian notion of
God — that man participates in the nature of God.
"Christians in fact describe God, among other ways, as creative
Reason, which orders and guides the world. And God endows us with the
capacity to participate in his reason and thus to act in accordance
with what is good. Muslims worship God, the Creator of Heaven and
Earth, who has spoken to humanity. And as believers in the one God we
know that human reason is itself God's gift and that it soars to its
highest plane when suffused with the light of God's truth."
This was precisely
the point of the Regensburg address. Then, however, the Pope was
addressing a Christian audience and he tackled difficult question of
theologically-sanctioned violence. Using the long-forgotten words of
Manuel II Paleologus, he pointed out that "God is not pleased by
blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature."
But when speaking to Muslims, he describes reason as the ultimate
basis for human dignity — and both religions esteem human dignity.
says, faith and reason support each other. Religion purifies reason
of the temptation to presumption (was he thinking of Christopher
Hitchens?). It protects society from "the excesses of the
unbridled ego which tend to absolutise the finite and eclipse the
infinite" (a dig at Richard Dawkins perhaps?). It helps us to
appreciate "all that is true, good and beautiful".
It was a remarkable
performance — to explain the deepest notions of Christian theology
to a potentially hostile audience and leave without a murmur of
It seems clear that
the Pope is seeking outcomes from this dialogue with Muslim leaders
— more respect for Christianity, more religious tolerance, more
common action against secularism, more common action in support of
human dignity. How long it will take for the message to sink in is a
But the very positive reaction from Muslim leaders
gives ground for hope.
What a contrast with
the ham-fisted attempt of another head of state to dialogue with the
Muslim world. President Obama's address to the Turkish parliament
earlier this year was the religious equivalent of speed dating. He
told Muslims: "We will listen carefully, we will bridge
misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground."
Back on his home
turf, Obama's rhetoric about "common ground" is already
tarnished after his whole-hearted endorsement of abortion in the
teeth of religious opposition. What chance has he of convincing
Muslims that they share common ground with a nation that tolerates
same-sex marriage? The president's strategy for dialogue boils down
to "Hi, my name's Hussein, too. Let's be buddies." This
approach might turn Turkish parliamentarians into cheering
schoolgirls, but it won't cut the mustard in the madrassahs.
If we're talking "common ground", the Vatican's is the
only game in town at the moment.
Michael Cook is
editor of MercatorNet.