The Pope and Islam

The April 2, 2007 issue of The New Yorker has an article titled The Pope and Islam by Jane Kramer.  It’s an analysis of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam under Pope Benedict XVI. 

Kramer’s thesis, as I understand it, is that Benedict’s rigorous theological approach to Islam has heightened tensions between the two faiths, and that this is probably intentional.  What may not be intentional is that this approach has also increased certain tensions within the Church itself.   

Kramer starts her article by noting that tensions between the Vatican and Islam pre-date by many centuries the Pope’s speech at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 (my comment here). 

"And what divides the most vocal and rigidly orthodox interpreters of these two faiths, from the imams of Riyadh and the ayatollahs of Qom to the Pope himself, is precisely those things that Catholicism and Islam have always had in common:  a purchase on truth; a contempt for the moral accommodations of liberal, secular states; a strong imperative to censure, convert and multiply; and a belief that Heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them."

These divisions are exacerbated by a Pope who is one of the most "rigidly orthodox interpreters" of his faith to occupy St. Peter’s throne in a long time.  Benedict is first and foremost a theologian, where his predecessor, John Paul II was not.  His approach to Islam follows from his theological training and inclinations. 

Kramer states that Benedict has two goals for his Papacy:

  • To "purify" Christianity, making it more observant, more vigorous in adherence to "non-negotiable moral precepts."
  • Reciprocity with Islam.

The second goal is easily understood:  The Pope wants Christian minorities living in Muslim countries to have the freedom to practice and presumably even evangelize their faith without discrimination and persecution.  This would reciprocate the situation of Europe’s fifteen million Muslims.  Of course, the treatment of Muslims in Europe is nowhere near perfect, but I think it’s substantially better than the treatment of Christians (and Jews) in many Muslim countries. 

The first goal is a little subtler and Kramer takes some time exploring it fully.  The main threat to Christianity, as seen by the Pope, is western secularism.  By strengthening and clarifying Catholic values, the Pope apparently hopes to contain secularism.  In this he hopes to ally the Catholic Church with other Christian churches, hence his recent trip to Turkey to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church with its 300 million members.  In so doing he also highlights that the only other counter-secularist force in Europe is Islam. 

It is Benedict’s Eurocentric view that is causing some of the tensions within the Catholic Church. 

It’s hard to see where this can lead.  Kramer asserts that there is no basis for a theological discussion between the Church and Islam, according to the Pope, and that what dialog can take place must be confined to "cultural" matters. 

The article is not very well organized in my view, but is certainly well worth reading. 

It also stands in marked contrast to Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and The Almighty, recently released in paperback.  Albright contends that diplomats and other foreign policy practitioners need to find common ground across religious divides in order to further the cause of peace in the world.  The Pope’s position on the fundamental theological incompatibilities between Catholicism and Islam seems to highlight the difficulty if not impossibility of carrying out Albright’s recommendation.

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