Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the al-Husseini Mosque in Amman, Jordan, is the best signal we have had since the dialogues that followed “Common Word” initiative (2007-08) of the Holy Father’s attitude toward Islam. In a speech to Islamic religious leaders, diplomats and educators, the pope (1) replied to the criticism that religion is a source of violence, (2) once more affirmed the ties of reason to revelation, (3) expounded a broad interpretation of religious freedom known to Catholics but not necessarily to Muslims, and (4) acknowledged the importance of “the dialogue of everyday life” in countries where Christians and Muslims live together, as they do in Jordan.
The pontiff’s preoccupation with the place of reason in revealed religion, on which many felt he stumbled in his Regensburg address, remains strong. Contrary to the perceptions of that university talk, the pope affirmed that Christians and Muslims share a belief in reason as God’s gift. “Purified by faith,” he asserted, reason “[gives] expression to our highest aspirations,” expanding rather than “confining public debate.” Chief among reason’s blessings, he argued, is the recognition of human rights. The right to religious freedom, he went on to say, “extends beyond the right to worship and includes the right–especially of minorities–to fair access to the employment market and other spheres of public life.” This was a variant on Benedict’s early insistence on “reciprocity” for Christians living in Muslim countries, that is the expectation that they enjoy the same rights in Muslim countries non-Christians enjoy in the West.
On the subject of violence, another topic of the Regensburg lecture, he pointed to how the charge that religion “fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony” functions as an excuse to exclude religious participation in public life. Admitting “the tensions and divisions between followers of different religions,” he asked whether it is not frequently the manipulation of religion for political ends “that is the real catalyst of tensions and divisions.” In the present situation, he noted, “the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice, but to replace it with their own . . .” It was clear from these remarks that he hopes to enter an alliance with Muslims to preserve a role for religion in public life. The third party to this dialogue are clearly those secularists who seek a monopoly on public discourse and in the formation of public policy.
Finally, pointing to Muslim-Catholic collaboration in education of the handicapped at the Reginia Pacis Center, where he spoke yesterday, and in the new University of Madaba, where he laid the foundation stone today, Benedict affirmed the collaboration of Muslims and Christians together as a sign of religions’s power to unite people of different faiths and to inspire them to work together for the common good of society.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.