Pope Benedict XVI’s native tongue contains an apt term for this week’s meeting with diplomats from Muslim-majority states accredited to the Holy See. A Schlussstrich literally means the bottom line separating a column of figures from the sum below; and, more colloquially, the readiness to close one episode or chapter in life in order to open the next (by “drawing a line under the past,” according to a common German expression). As the pope brought to a close — at least for now — the uproar that followed his September 12 remarks on faith and reason in Regensburg, he reiterated yet again his very precise bottom line for future dialogue with the Muslim world.
Benedict’s brief remarks, delivered in French as a courtesy to his interlocutors, are fully intelligible only in the light of the four ecclesial texts he cites or quotes from. Only in that context do the Holy Father’s remarks permit the following conclusions.
First, dialogue merely for its own sake is a thing of the past. Benedict quotes extensively from Nostra Aetate (“In these our times”), the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on inter-religious relations, which the Holy Father calls the “Magna Carta” for relations between Roman Catholics and Muslims. This document is, however, best known as providing the basis for the unprecedented — and fortunately continuing — rapprochement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
A bit of history is in order. The Council originally intended to address the Jewish people as part of a broader treatment of ecumenism (strictly speaking, relations among the various Christian churches and denominations). Later, there evolved a wholly separate document dealing exclusively with the Jews, to which a much briefer section (roughly four times shorter) was added at the last minute addressing Muslims (which in turn was inserted partly at the insistence of prelates from the Middle East fearing reprisals against Christian minorities if Islam went unacknowledged).
What’s relevant is that Jews and Muslims occupy wholly separate categories in Catholic thought. Nostra Aetate acknowledges “the spiritual ties that link the people of the New Covenant [Christians] with the stock of Abraham [Jews].” More specifically, “Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage,” grounded in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), that joint “biblical and theological enquiry” is very much in order.
There is, however, no such “common spiritual heritage” between Christianity and Islam (especially since orthodox Muslims hold that the Quran wholly supercedes and replaces the Bible). In fact, the Council Fathers merely note that “the Church also has a high regard for the Muslims” while carefully prescinding from any comment on Islam as such. (Benedict repeats this formulation almost word for word in his September 25 remarks.) In comparison with ecumenical dialogue with other Christians (with whom reunion remains the ultimate goal in accordance with Jn 17:21-22) and inter-religious dialogue with Jews (with whom both genuine theological and practical collaboration is possible), dialogue with Muslims is by nature limited to such purely practical initiatives — above all, forging agreed rules of the road for avoiding conflict — that Benedict raises in two carefully chosen quotations.
The upshot is that purely theological dialogue between Christians and Muslims is pointless, if not counterproductive. Whatever its other attributes, the most fundamental elements of all orthodox Christian thought are Trinitarian and Christocentric; and these are precisely the same elements that orthodox Muslims necessarily find blasphemous on the one hand and idolatrous on the other. What’s more, sharia jurisprudence plays roughly the same role in Islam as systematic theology in Christianity. That’s why purely theological dialogue inevitably mixes apples and oranges. But basic disagreement over the nature of God in no way precludes discussing how best to coexist peacefully in a pluralistic world. That’s the meaning of Benedict’s September 25 exhortation in favor of “sincere and respectful dialogue, based on ever more authentic reciprocal knowledge which, with joy, recognizes the religious values we have in common and, with loyalty, respects the differences.” In other words, it’s possible to share — and discuss — certain religious values without sharing religious truths.
Similarly, fruitful dialogue does not consist in futilely seeking to assign relative responsibility for religious conflicts lasting more than a millennium. These historical issues — all too easily reduced to whataboutery or the politics of the last atrocity — have rightly been relegated to a joint Vatican/al Azhar commission. What really matters, as Benedict put it in another address he quotes, is the “imperative to engage in authentic and sincere dialogue, built on respect for the dignity of every human person, created, as we Christians firmly believe, in the image and likeness of God.” Do Muslims believe in the equal, indivisible, and inviolable dignity of every person, or are some (namely Muslim males) more equal than others?
Second, the Holy Father identifies religiously-motivated violence as an urgent agenda item, as he did quite forcefully in a little-noticed address to German Muslim leaders in Cologne in August 2005. In fact, one of the reasons why Benedict quoted the now-famous passage from a hitherto forgotten Byzantine emperor was to point out that jihad — in the sense of armed conflict for religious reasons — remains a living element of Islamic thought and life, while all Christian churches long ago set their faces against holy war in favor of the just war tradition (with its wholly secular categories) or outright pacifism.
Third, Benedict identifies religious freedom as perhaps the most urgent single issue for Christian/Muslim dialogue. He quotes his predecessor, John Paul II, speaking to young people in 1985 at Casablanca: “Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom.”
Toward the end of his John Paul II’s pontificate, the Vatican rather belatedly began seeking reciprocal treatment for Christian and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority states. It is an unfortunate fact that these minorities all suffer varying degrees of discrimination — and in far too many cases, outright persecution — while Muslim minorities in the West enjoy the same religious and other freedoms as their fellow citizens. Benedict put it very plainly in his Cologne address: “The defense of religious freedom … is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization.” That’s a polite way of saying that mistreatment of minorities is a mark of barbarism.
Look for Benedict to raise more forcefully — and publicly — the plight of Christians and other minorities in the Muslim world. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for instance, lack of reciprocity means that there’s not a single church (or publicly-acknowledged Christian cleric) in the kingdom while Saudi money funded a gargantuan $30 million mosque in Rome erected several years ago with the Vatican’s tacit consent. But the situation is actually far more dire, since at least one million Christian expatriates working in Saudi Arabia (many are Filipinos and south Asians) are prohibited even from private worship, much less any public expression of their faith (such as wearing a crucifix or even possessing a Bible). These unfortunates — whose plight I became familiar with while living and working in Jordan — are denied any pastoral care whatsoever in circumstances that the local bishop (based elsewhere, of course) rightly called “reminiscent of the catacombs.”
Fourth, Benedict quite delicately raises the pressing question of who exactly speaks for Islam. He observes that the September 25 meeting was attended by “religious authorities” on the Catholic side and “political leaders” on the Muslim side. Not only does the pope have no counterpart in the Muslim world, there’s nothing remotely equivalent to the Roman Catholic episcopal hierarchy and ordained priesthood (though Iran’s unique religio-political set-up bears some surface resemblances). At the same time, there are Muslim clerics who play enormously important political roles, either directly or indirectly (consider the respective roles of Iraq’s Abdul Azziz al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, for instance). In fact, one of Italy’s most respected and perceptive columnists, the Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, gently chided the pope for in effect mixing apples and oranges (link in Italian). But meeting with Muslim diplomats accredited to the Holy See is a better approach than presuming to pick and choose among Muslim clerical leaders.
Finally, it’s relevant that the Holy Father has begun to install prelates in whom he has confidence at the highest levels of the Roman curia. This may seem like inside baseball, but personnel is policy. Earlier this month Benedict installed two prelates now serving in effect as his prime minister and foreign minister. Relations with the Muslim world were just one factor in these selections, but that was decidedly not the case with Benedict’s earlier replacement of the midlevel long cleric responsible for dialogue with Islam (a British prelate widely regarded as overly accommodating). Look for much closer coordination — regrettably absent in the past — between Vatican officials responsible for inter-religious dialogue and Vatican diplomats responsible for state-to-state relations between the Holy See and Muslim-majority states.
Perhaps the Muslim diplomats gathered at Castel Gandolfo this week were expecting some further expression of “regret” for the “reaction” of their co-religionists to the Regensburg remarks. What they got instead is a challenge.
— John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.