July 27 marked Pope Benedict XVI's 100th day in office. Over
that time, we have had indications of several of the pope's core concerns --
the struggle against the "dictatorship of relativism," the push for
Christian unity, a shakeup in ecclesiastical bureaucracy, and global
development, especially in Africa.
No global leader, however, has the luxury of setting his or
her agenda in a vacuum. The fabric of a papacy is woven not only from what a
pope sets out to accomplish, but the way in which unforeseen events push him in
One event that seems likely to occur with appalling
regularity is terrorism, specifically terrorism inspired by Islamic radicalism.
This means that the relationship with Islam is destined to be a defining
element of papal leadership under Benedict XVI.
The delicacy of that relationship has already been in
After the London bombings on July 7, a draft telegram of
condolence prepared for the pope by the Secretariat of State called the attacks
"anti-Christian," which would have been taken as a reference to a
"clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. That language
was removed before the telegram was issued, but not before Italian media had
reported the earlier version.
Last Sunday, July 24, Benedict XVI was pressed on Islam by
journalists after his Sunday Angelus address in Val d'Aosta.
Can Islam be considered a religion of peace?
"I wouldn't label it with generalized words," the
pope responded. "Certainly it has elements that favor peace, as it has
other elements. We always have to seek to find the best elements that
Can these terrorist attacks be considered 'anti-Christian'?
"No," the pope replied. "Generally the
intention seems to be much more general, not precisely directed at Christianity."
In this light, it is worth reviewing what is known about
Pope Benedict XVI's attitudes towards Islam. One note of caution, however, is
in order: There is not always a straight line between one's personal views, and
the policies that person pursues once in power. The extent to which Joseph
Ratzinger's history shapes the concrete choices awaiting Benedict XVI remains
to be seen.
At a personal level, Ratzinger has had fruitful contacts
with Muslims over the years. When the Iranian Ayatollah Kashani, for example, a
member of the powerful Council of Guardians in Tehran, decided to write a book
comparing Islamic and Christian eschatological themes, Ratzinger met with him
in the Vatican and swapped theological ideas.
In 1999, Ratzinger joined Prince Hassan of Jordan, Orthodox
Metropolitan Damaskinos, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (a former United Nations
official and an Ismali Muslim who died in 2003), and former French chief rabbi
Rene Samuel Sirat, in launching the Foundation for Interreligious and
Intercultural Research and Dialogue in Geneva. The foundation is dedicated to
promoting relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Ratzinger also took
part in a Christian-Muslim dialogue sponsored by the Orthodox Patriarchate of
Constantinople in the 1980s.
In his address to the representatives of other religions the
day after his April 24 installation Mass, Pope Benedict made a point of
"I am particularly grateful for the presence in our
midst of members of the Muslim community, and I express my appreciation for the
growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and
international level. I assure you that the church wants to continue building
bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the
true good of every person and of society as a whole," he said.
Ratzinger's most extended comments on Islam came in 1997's
The Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview with German journalist Peter
Seewald. It's worth quoting those comments in full:
"I think that first we must recognize that Islam is not
a uniform thing. In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and for
this reason dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with certain groups. No one
can speak for Islam as a whole; it has, as it were, no commonly regarded
orthodoxy. And, to prescind from the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, it also
exists in many varieties. There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the
King of Morocco, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which,
again, one must not identify with Islam as a whole, which would do it an
"An important point, however, is … that the interplay
of society, politics, and religion has a completely difference structure in
Islam as a whole. Today's discussion in the West about the possibility of
Islamic theological faculties, or about the idea of Islam as a legal entity,
presupposes that all religions have basically the same structure, that they all
fit into a democratic system with its regulations and the possibilities
provided by these regulations. In itself, however, this necessarily contradicts
the essence of Islam, which simply does not have the separation of the
political and religious sphere which Christianity has had from the beginning.
The Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and
social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes
society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such partial
freedoms as our constitution gives, but it can't be its final goal to say: Yes,
now we too are a body with rights, now we are present just like the Catholics
and the Protestants. In such a situation, it would not achieve a status
consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself.
"Islam has a total organization of life that is
completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything. There is a very
marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal
law, indeed, a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern
ideas about society. One has to have a clear understanding that it is not
simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic
society. When one represents the situation in those terms, as often happens
today, Islam is defined according to the Christian model and is not seen as it
really is in itself. In this sense, the question of dialogue with Islam is
naturally much more complicated than, for example, an internal dialogue among
"The consolidation of Islam worldwide is a multifaceted
phenomenon. On the one hand, financial factors play a role here. The financial
power that the Arab countries have attained and that allows them to build large
Mosques everywhere, to guarantee a presence of Muslim cultural institutes and
more things of that sort. But that is certainly only one factor. The other is
an enhanced identity, a new self-consciousness.
"In the cultural situation of the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, until the 1960s, the superiority of the Christian
countries was industrially, culturally, politically, and militarily so great
that Islam was really forced into the second rank. Christianity -- at any rate,
civilizations with a Christian foundation -- could present themselves as the
victorious power in world history. But then the great moral crisis of the
Western world, which appears to be the Christian world, broke out. In the face
of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness
-- which was suddenly opposed by a new economic power of the Arab countries --
the Islamic soul reawakened. We are somebody too; we know who we are; our
religion is holding its ground; you don't have one any longer.
"This is actually the feeling today of the Muslim
world: The Western countries are no longer capable of preaching a message of
morality, but have only know-how to offer the world. The Christian religion has
abdicated; it really no longer exists as a religion; the Christians no longer
have a morality or a faith; all that's left are a few remains of some modern
ideas of enlightenment; we have the religion that stands the test.
"So the Muslims now have the consciousness that in
reality Islam has remained in the end as the more vigorous religion and that
they have something to say to the world, indeed, are the essential religious
force of the future. Before, the shariah and all those things had already left
the scene, in a sense; now there is a new pride. Thus a new zest, a new
intensity about wanting to live Islam has awakened. This is its great power: We
have a moral message that has existed without interruption since the prophets,
and we will tell the world how to live it, whereas the Christians certainly
can't. We must naturally come to terms with this inner power of Islam, which
fascinates even academic circles."
The pope obviously admires the religious and moral
seriousness of Islam. In a debate with Italian intellectual Ernesto Galli della
Loggia on October 25, 2004, Ratzinger rejected the argument that public
conversation about the Christian roots of Europe offends Muslim immigrants.
"But this isn't what offends them," Ratzinger
said. "It's disrespect for God and religion that offends them. This
disrespect is a kind of arrogance in diminished reason. This is what provokes
Yet in his writings on eschatology, Ratzinger has accused
some Muslim strains of fomenting a kind of liberation theology vis-a-vis Israel
-- i.e, the belief that liberation from Israel will be accomplished through
divinely approved armed resistance.
Finally, Ratzinger has irked some Muslims by his opposition
to Turkey's candidacy to join the European union.
In an August 2004 interview with the French publication Le
Figaro, Ratzinger said that Turkey has always been "in permanent contrast
to Europe," and that it should look instead to play a leadership role in a
network of Islamic states.
"In the course of history, Turkey has always
represented a different continent," Ratzinger said, citing the Ottoman
Empire. "Making the two continents identical would be a mistake. It would
mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of
What does all this tell us?
First, Pope Benedict XVI is aware of the diversity within
Second, Benedict is hardly blind to the impulses towards
theocracy and "Arabization" within Islam, which he sees not as
distortions, but part of what he calls its "inner nature."
Third, Benedict also sees in Islam an admirable, even
enviable, sense of itself, coupled with clarity both in the metaphysical and
moral realms. In his war against the "dictatorship of relativism,"
Muslims can be powerful allies.
Fourth, the flash-point in the Catholic/Muslim relationship
under Benedict is likely to be Europe, and specifically, the extent to which
Europe as a matter of both cultural conviction and civil law should express and
defend its Christian identity.
In this context, Benedict's meeting with European Muslims in
Cologne on August 20 is likely to be important, as it gives the pope an
opportunity to outline the contours of how he sees things.
This week saw an unexpected crisis in Vatican-Israeli
relations following the pope's July 24 Angelus address, in which Benedict
expressed sympathy for the victims of recent terrorist actions in Great
Britain, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, but not Israel, where five people died on July
14 after a bombing in Netanya.
Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israel foreign ministry,
said that the omission of Israel "cries out to heaven," and that it
"could be interpreted as a license for acts of terrorism against
Jews." Regev also said that the pope's "deafening silence … risks
reinforcing extremist elements who oppose peace, and weakening moderates."
The Israeli foreign ministry formally called in the papal
nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, on Monday for an explanation.
At 5:21 that evening, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin
Navarro-Valls issued a one-line statement to journalists. "The nuncio has
already replied to the Israeli authorities," it read.
At 6:24 p.m., another alert appeared, this time signaling a
The full text follows:
"Regarding the reactions on the part of the Israelis to
the fact that the Holy Father in his Angelus of July 24 did not, alongside
other countries, also mention Israel, it should be noted that the words of
Benedict XVI referred expressly to the attacks of 'these days.' It is
surprising that the intention of the Holy Father would be distorted on a
pretext in this way, since the numerous interventions of the church, of the
magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs and most recently of Pope Benedict XVI, in
condemnation of every form of terrorism, wherever it comes from and whoever
it's directed against, are well known. Obviously, the grave attack of Netanya
from last week, to which the observations from the Israelis refer, reenters
into the general condemnation without exception of terrorism."
By emphasizing that Benedict had spoken of actions in
"these days," Navarro-Valls was calling attention to the nature of
the Angelus address. Since it's a weekly affair, it's customary for the pope to
refer to events that have taken place in the last week. By July 24, the bombing
in Netanya was 10 days in the past.
Obviously unsatisfied, an official of the Israeli Foreign
Ministry gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post on July 26, asserting that
John Paul II had also failed to denounce terrorism against Israel.
That triggered an acerbic response from Navarro-Valls, who
issued a declaration at 4:16 p.m. on July 28, along with a note containing
various citations from John Paul II in which he denounced terrorism against
Israel. English translations of the declaration and note can be found in the
Special Documents section of NCRonline.org or follow this link: Declaration and
In the declaration, Navarro-Valls said the claim that the
Israelis had repeatedly asked John Paul II to speak out was "invented,"
and that the pope's statements on the subject were "numerous and
"It was not always possible with every attack against
Israel to make an immediate public condemnation, and this for diverse reasons,
among others the fact that the attacks against Israel of the time were followed
by immediate reactions from the Israelis that were not always compatible with
international norms. It would thus have been impossible to condemn the former
and remain silent about the latter," the declaration said.
Finally, Navarro-Valls bluntly suggested that the Israelis
had crossed a line.
"Just as the Government of Israel understandably does
not allow others to dictate what it should say, in the same way the Holy See
cannot allow itself to take instructions and directives from another authority
regarding the orientation and contents of its own declarations," his
Some looked to explain the harshness of the Israeli
reaction. One commentator suggested the broadside was an excuse to scuttle a
meeting between Israeli and Vatican negotiators scheduled for Monday, to
discuss agreements on the financial and juridical status of church institutions
in Israel. Those negotiations have been dragging on for 11 years.
Others suggested that traditional Jewish sensitivity to
alleged papal "silences" on anti-Semitism, and not the specifics of
the current negotiations, were more likely the underlying motive.
Whatever the case, sources tell NCR that the Israeli/Holy
See negotiations are currently stalled, among other things, over the question
of what force an agreement would have under Israeli law. In essence, the
Israelis want the agreement to be subject to the ordinary legislative process,
so that if the Knesset decides a year from now to overhaul the country's tax
system, church institutions would be included. Vatican negotiators insist that
the point of a bilateral agreement is that its terms cannot be unilaterally
altered by one party.
Optimism that an agreement could be worked out quickly
seems, in the wake of this dispute as well as the new diplomatic flap, to have
World Youth Day is the closest thing in Roman Catholicism to
the Olympic Games. This year's version is set for Aug. 15-21 in Cologne,
Germany, and is expected to draw between 800,000 and one million young people
from all corners of the globe.
Competition to host World Youth Day is not quite as fierce
as the Olympics, in part because it's an expensive production that requires a
staggering amount of work. Still, there's no shortage of bishops who would like
to see a World Youth Day on their home turf.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, for example, took a
strong personal interest in this year's event. When John Paul II underwent a
tracheotomy on February 24 and then experienced great difficulty in speaking,
Meisner visited him to urge him to come to World Youth Day anyway.
"You don't have to say anything," he told the
pope. "Your presence will be the most eloquent homily of all."
John Paul was determined to make it.
"I won't let you down," he told Meisner.
After John Paul died and Benedict XVI was elected, Meisner
was quick to implore the new pope to confirm his attendance at World Youth Day.
Meisner and Ratzinger are old friends; during the years Ratzinger was at the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was their custom to speak on the
phone usually once a week. Benedict immediately announced that he would be
As preparation for Cologne goes on, the Vatican has
simultaneously been considering where the next event will take place. No
prelate has been more ardent in expressing his desire to host a World Youth Day
than Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia.
Though Pope Benedict XVI will make the formal announcement
in Cologne, NCR has learned that Pell's efforts have paid off -- the next World
Youth Day will indeed be held "down under" in Sydney.
Sources said the tentative plan is to hold the event in June
2008, but this date is not finalized. If it happens this way, it would suggest
a shift from holding World Youth Days every two years to every three; Cologne
comes three years after the last World Youth Day, in Toronto in 2002.
Pell pushed hard to host the event, despite knowing that it
doesn't come cheap. German organizers recently estimated the costs for the 2005
production at roughly 100 million euro ($120.7 million). Even in prosperous
Canada, the last World Youth Day in 2002 left behind a debt of $23.8 million.
So what's in it for Pell?
Pell will speak for himself when the announcement is made,
but one suspects the basic aim is to break through the fog of apathy and
disinterest that often surrounds institutional religion in the West. World
Youth Day is a jolt to the story that secularized society likes to tell itself,
which is that religion is a quiet, private thing with little impact on the
broader culture and little appeal for the young.
Up against powerful social currents that press youth towards
secular conceptions of identity and satisfaction, many bishops, including Pell,
regard $120 million as a relatively small price to pay to balance the scales,
if only for a week.
I was in Innsbruck, Austria, this week, for a story
concerning the 10th anniversary of the "We Are Church" movement, the
most serious effort at a liberal Catholic reform movement in recent memory. It
was born in April 1995 in the Innsbruck kitchen of a high school religion
teacher named Thomas Plankensteiner, who went on to become the public face of
Today Plankensteiner is a schools inspector in the Tyrol
region of Austria, disengaged from church activism. His story offers a metaphor
for why ecclesiastical insurgencies so often lose steam -- Plankensteiner grew
weary of waiting for things to happen, and decided to get on with his life.
My piece, based on an interview with Plankensteiner, will
appear in a September issue of NCR.
While in Innsbruck, I had the chance to attend a Saturday
vigil Mass in English at the Jesuit church. The Jesuits have long been a strong
presence on the theology faculty at the University of Innsbruck.
Mass was held in the crypt, and I discovered that just
outside are the tombs of a number of Jesuits, including the famous theologian
Fr. Karl Rahner, who died in Innsbruck in 1984, having taught here from 1948 to
Rahner's tomb is a very simple affair, a simple wooden
marker with the dates of his life, and a small flower tucked in behind it.
Mass that night was concelebrated by two young Jesuits, one
from Indonesia and another from India. Rahner predicted that Vatican II would
usher in an era in which Roman Catholicism becomes truly a "world
church," and here was no better proof -- English-speaking expatriates in
Austria, being led in worship by two Asians.
Rahner undoubtedly would have approved.
Tony Hall, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization, is a devout Christian, though not a Roman Catholic,
and has long been concerned with global hunger.
Speaking at a press conference in Rome last week, Hall
accused the European Union of pressing the World Trade Organization to adopt a
cash-only system for donations that would eliminate the distribution of
emergency food in Africa and other famine-stricken regions.
"It would be a costly mistake to limit our food aid. We
are talking about peoples lives," Hall said. "We don't need to have
less food. We need more food."
The warning came after members of the European Union offered
to end farm subsides that undercut African growers if the U.S. agrees to reform
its farm aid. The European Union alleges that food aid programs have become a
dumping ground for U.S. agricultural surpluses.
Hall urged the Vatican to weigh-in on the debate. Praising
the impact of church-sponsored humanitarian agencies, Hall said feeding the
poor "is at the heart of what the church is about."
"I think they need to make their voices heard. When the
church speaks a lot of people listen."
According to U.N. estimates, over 300 million children
suffer from hunger worldwide resulting in the death of one child every five
Speaking of American ambassadors, it is now six months the
United States has been without an ambassador to the Holy See.
Though the choice of Francis Rooney to succeed James
Nicholson has been widely reported, his nomination has not yet been formally
submitted to the United States Senate. Sources tell NCR that there does not
seem to be a problem with the nomination. Rather, protracted Senate debates
over other nominees, coupled with the difficulty of sifting through Rooney's
extensive financial holdings, have brought things to a crawl.
To date, the Vatican has taken the delay with good humor.
One official in the Secretariat of State pointed out to me this week that once
a host country has given the agreement, or approval, for a new ambassador,
failure to post that ambassador in a timely fashion can be seen as a
discourtesy. He said this with a twinkle in his eye, but how long that patience
will endure remains to be seen.
Given the time necessary to secure Senate approval, and then
to organize the logistics of a move, it seems unlikely that Rooney could be on
the job much before October.
In the meantime, the embassy has a new chargé d'affaires, or
number two official, in Christopher Sandrolini. He replaces Brent Hardt, who
faced the unenviable task of guiding the embassy through the death of John Paul
II and the election of Benedict XVI, including organizing two high-profile U.S.
delegations for the funeral Mass and the installation Mass, without an
ambassador. By all accounts, Hardt did yeoman's work.
Sandrolini has worked in the State Department, and has also
held sensitive diplomatic posts in India.
More than one reader has pointed out that in a recent piece
in the print edition of the National Catholic Reporter, in a special section
titled "Rome Tourbook," I inadvertently located the North American
College on the Aventine Hill. It is, of course, on the Janiculum, just a few
hundred meters away from the NCR offices and our apartment.
The NAC will be hosting a reception in October for people
who were planning to attend the Rector's Dinner in April, which was cancelled
after the death of John Paul II. I hope by my presence to demonstrate that I
really do know where it is.