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Drew ChristiansenJuly 16, 2007

Nearly a year after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor on the evils of Islam, one hears much less talk of the Vatican’s alleged hard new line on Islam. The shift of attention is a tribute to the pope’s unexpected success in taking on the roles of diplomat and peacemaker. After the late Pope John Paul II presided over the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and set in motion the change of governments from Haiti to East Timor, few anticipated that Benedict, a scholar and church administrator, would similarly influence world affairs. But it appears, despite a brief period of turmoil, that two years into his pontificate Pope Benedict is mastering his role as a diplomat and religious peacemaker. It is a role he could not avoid.

Religious Peacemaking: The ‘Spirit of Assisi’

For a thousand years the Holy See has sent diplomats abroad. With the demise of the Papal States in 1870, as Archbishop Celestino Migliore, now the Holy See Permanent Observer at the United Nations, has said, the Holy See was free of “the ball and chain” of ordinary statecraft and could carry out “a diplomacy of conscience” and peace. In Pope John Paul II’s peripatetic pontificate, the diplomatic role took on new intensity and a new form. The new intensity was evident in a flurry of activity from central Europe to the Balkans to the Middle East. The new form came in religious peacemaking, especially John Paul II’s convocation of religious leaders in times of conflict to oppose violence and proclaim their common commitment to peace.

John Paul’s religious peacemaking came to be known popularly as the “Spirit of Assisi,” referring to the 1986 interreligious prayer for peace held in Assisi. It was followed by two other major gatherings there: in 1992, following the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia; and in 2002, following the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan. In between those events and since 2002, the Spirit of Assisi has been kept alive by Rome’s Community of Sant’Egidio with an annual Day of Prayer for Peace. Last year’s gathering met at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The presence there of Catholic prelates with world leaders of other faiths made it clear that religious peacemaking is fully integrated into the life of the church today.

As Bishop William F. Murphy, the under secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace at the time of Assisi I in 1986, explained in America last year (“Remembering Assisi After 20 Years,” 10/23/06), the whole Roman Curia was involved in planning the event. Despite this corporate preparation, John Paul’s religious peacemaking, like his steady series of apologies to groups harmed or offended in the past by the church, remained controversial in some corners of the curia. Rumors persisted that Pope Benedict had had reservations about the alleged syncretism at Assisi I and was continuing his opposition as pope. Those rumors gained more weight when he reined in the Franciscans of Assisi, putting activities at the Basilica of Saint Francis under a millstone of ecclesiastical control that included the bishop of Assisi, the Episcopal Conference of Umbria and the Italian Episcopal Conference.

Though it is hard from this side of the ocean to pierce the veil of Italian church politics, the issue appears to have been just that, one of Italian church politics, specifically an effort to curb the independently progressive Franciscans, who showed excessive sympathy to the Italian left. For when the 20th anniversary of the first Assisi event was observed in September, Pope Benedict sent warm and encouraging greetings. While gently warning against syncretistic interpretations of the meeting, Benedict reflected at length on the need for such meetings, both two decades ago and in our own day. He wrote of the first Assisi convocation:


It should be stressed that [the] value of prayer in building peace was testified to by the representatives of different religious traditions, and this did not happen at a distance but in the context of a meeting. Consequently, the people of diverse religions who were praying could show through the language of witness that prayer does not divide but unites and is a decisive element for an effective pedagogy of peace, hinged on friendship, reciprocal acceptance and dialogue between people of different cultures and religions.


Earlier this year, the pope praised the charisms of the lay religious movements, including Sant’Egidio, the carrier of the Spirit of Assisi.

This June, at the observance of the 800th anniversary of the conversion of St. Francis, Benedict called the first Assisi gathering “a prophetic intuition and a moment of grace,” clearly not the words of a deep skeptic. He continued, “Assisi tells us that faithfulness to one’s own religious convictions, faithfulness above all to the crucified and risen Christ, is not expressed in violence and intolerance but in sincere respect for others, in dialogue and in an announcement that appeals to freedom and reason while remaining committed to peace and reconciliation.”

Some of the over-interpretation of the disciplining of the Assisi Franciscans came from Vaticanisti, journalists covering the Vatican, with an interest bordering on advocacy in the reshaping of the Vatican’s post-9/11 policy toward Islam. They touted Benedict’s new, supposedly hard-line position toward Islam. In their coverage, one could often detect neoconservative alliances, with Europeans like Michele Pera and Americans like George Weigel receiving extensive and favorable attention for publicizing the new pope’s alleged toughness on Islam. It was a case of bringing the culture wars into the church. But Benedict did not share their enthusiasm for finding new enemies.

Islam: A Dialogue of Cultures

Early in his pontificate Pope Benedict took a series of steps that Vatican journalists presented as evidence of a new hard line toward Islam. Most important, he set “reciprocity” as a goal of Vatican Islamic policy, that is, the demand that Christians be allowed the same rights in Muslim countries that Muslims are allowed in the West. By itself, this was a necessary adjustment to the realities of an asymmetrical relationship. Pope John Paul’s openness had won the right to open churches in some Persian Gulf states, led to memoranda of understanding with the Palestine Liberation Organization and with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan guaranteeing religious liberty, and furthered cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. But in places like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, life for Christians went from very trying to downright oppressive. After 20 years of dialogue, more progress could reasonably be expected.

In another move, the new pope missioned the Vatican’s leading Islamicist, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, M.Afr., the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, as nuncio to Cairo and the Arab League and placed that council under Cardinal Paul Poupard, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

As a result, the Holy See now speaks of a “dialogue of cultures” rather than a dialogue of religions. The cultural dialogue is broader than Catholic-Muslim relations narrowly defined; and given the size of the two communities, the contemporary global political climate and the plight of the ancient churches of the Middle East, the Muslim dialogue, it may be argued, has become the most important bilateral conversation on the church agenda.

As if to signal the renewed importance of the relationship, the Vatican announced June 25 that the pope has appointed the former secretary for relations with states, or foreign minister, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as president of the P.C.I.D. A serious and progressive diplomat, Tauran can be expected to lend new purpose to the office.

Solidarity Against Secularism

In his end-of-year address to the Roman Curia on Dec. 22, 2006, Pope Benedict expressed sympathy with Islam, which like Christianity must confront the Enlightenment, both adopting its virtues, as Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council did, for example in the field of human rights and religious liberty, and correcting its excesses and deficiencies, like its materialism and moral relativism. Above all, the pope argued, both must address the positivist notion of reason that “excludes God from the life of the community.” Christians and Muslims must be united in the commitment “to find solutions” in opposing violence and finding a synergy “between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.” The theme of the common tasks facing people of faith, both Muslims and Christians, in confronting the godlessness of the Enlightenment ran through the essays in Cardinal Ratzinger’s exchange with Michele Pera, Without Roots (Basic Books, 2006). In these recent statements, the pope exhibits not an abstract respect for Islam, but rather a sense of spiritual solidarity with people of faith in the face of unbridled secularism.

In the Mideast, moreover, where the church and Islam have their most intimate encounters, local church leaders have long spoken of the “dialogue of daily life,” referring to the many social interactions in which Muslims and Christians routinely engage one another. Benedict takes this notion a step further, counseling nonviolent “conviviality.” “Simply living together and suffering together,” he explains, “has a healing effect on wounds and disposes people to thoughts and deeds of reconciliation and peace.” In a Christmas 2006 letter, he encouraged Middle East Christians “to continue along the path of trust with acts of friendship and good will [toward Muslims]” in “both the simple daily deeds you have practiced in your region by so many good and humble people who have always treated others with consideration and also those deeds considered heroic, inspired by authentic respect for human dignity and the desire to find solutions to situations of grave hostility.”

Where, then, does Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg fit, with its imputation of violence and irrationality to Islam? For it seemed at the time that the great “clash of civilizations,” promoted by the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington but repeatedly rejected by the Vatican and Benedict himself, had actually exploded across the world stage following the lecture. Parliaments and Islamic scholars denounced the pope; diplomats were recalled; protesters marched in the streets; in Somalia, a nun was murdered. Through it all, Benedict remained serene, but the new chief of Vatican communications, Federico Lombardi, S.J., swung into action, and Vatican diplomats, when they were not summoned by host governments, buttonholed their colleagues to soothe tempers and answer questions.

It is hard to recall a crisis in which the Roman Curia responded so rapidly with such concerted action and in such a short period of time. Explanations with varying degrees of credibility were issued. The pope offered expressions of regret. Though not apologies, they nonetheless count as an unprecedented step taken in record time. Pope Benedict met with Muslim diplomats and other Islamic leaders. Above all, despite the firestorm of controversy stirred by the lecture, Benedict refused to cancel his visit to Turkey planned for late November. The lecture itself may have been poorly staffed (or staff advice overruled), but the recovery was exceedingly well executed. By the time the pope returned from Turkey, not only had relations with Islam been genuinely calmed, but with the help of his team, Benedict had proved himself a diplomat.

The Visit to Turkey

Even before the Regensburg lecture, the visit to Turkey looked fraught with trouble. For months, Turkey had been filled with anti-Catholic agitation. As cardinal, Benedict had roiled the waters by declaring his opposition to Turkey’s entrance into the European Union on the grounds it did not share the (Christian) identity of Europe. In the months leading up to the visit, priests were attacked and assassinated, and a novel depicting the pope’s murder during a visit to Turkey made the Turkish best-seller lists. The Regensburg lecture, following as it did a summer of protest against the blasphemous Danish cartoons, aggravated existing hostility toward Christianity and toward Benedict in particular. To hold firm to his resolve to visit Turkey in the face of this turmoil showed exceptional courage and trust in providence.

These tensions made the primary task of the trip, showing solidarity with the Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, even more difficult. While Turkey is a secular state, government constraints on the patriarchate are especially grave. It sets limits on the election of the patriarch, refuses to recognize the role the patriarch plays among Orthodox Christians and refuses to allow the patriarchal seminary, closed in 1971, to reopen. As a result of the controversy over Regensburg, the pope’s ability to provide a show of unity with the Orthodox appeared greatly weakened.

To its credit, the Turkish government never asked the Vatican to cancel the trip. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who let it be known he would be out of the country during the papal visit, in the end remained to greet the pope before heading to a European summit. The pope expressed his affection for the Turkish people, quoting the late Pope John XXIII, once nuncio to Ankara: “I am fond of the Turks to whom the Lord has sent me.... I love the Turks.” He also expressed his esteem for Turkey as “a noble land” that “has seen a remarkable flowering of Islamic civilization in the most diverse fields, including its literature and art as well as its institutions.”

In a meeting with Ali Bardaoglu, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Benedict, citing Pope Gregory VII, appealed to the “particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe one another ‘because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the creator and ruler of the world.’” At the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s most important shrine, Benedict stood with the city’s grand mufti, Mustafa Cagrici, before the mihrab niche that marks the direction of prayer facing Mecca. According to one reporter, the pope told the mufti, “Thank you for this moment of prayer.” Father Lombardi explained, it was a personal prayer without the outward manifestations of Christian prayer, so as to emphasize what unites Christians and Muslims. Later the pope related that he had prayed there so that all believers may see themselves as brothers and sisters. After those encounters, it would be hard any longer to regard Benedict as a “hard-liner” on Islam.

By the end of the visit, Pope Benedict had won the hearts of the Turks. As one said, “We are quick to anger and quick to forgive.” At the same time, in his quiet, direct manner, Benedict affirmed his core message. Against the background of religious and civilizational violence, he continued to promote a dialogue of cultures, reiterating that it is “a vital necessity, on which...our future depends.” Faced with the suffering of Turkey’s religious minorities, however, he also pleaded for religious freedom and the rights of minority religions. “The civil authorities of every democratic country are dutybound to guarantee the effective freedom of all believers,” he told the diplomatic corps in a meeting in Ankara, “and to permit them to organize freely the life of their religious communities.” In staying on message, Benedict demonstrated that even while healing and nurturing relationships, a world religious leader can speak the truth in love. In so doing, he proved himself both a diplomat and a peacemaker.

Lebanon: The Israel-Hezbollah War

Another crisis in which Pope Benedict proved himself a diplomat and religious peacemaker was Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer. Throughout, Benedict’s position was sure. With pastoral sensitivity he requested that the first Sunday of the war become a day of prayer and fasting—the latter a sign of the seriousness with which he regarded the conflict. He regularly brought the situation to the world’s attention during his weekly Angelus message. His public statements were clear and direct, characteristic marks neither of traditional Vatican diplomacy nor of the pronouncements of John Paul II. From the beginning, he laid out a farsighted program that exceeded anything coming from major foreign ministries. It included an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, respect for the humanitarian law of war—that is, immunity from attack for civilians and medical workers, the recognition of humanitarian corridors (so refugees could escape the fighting) and aid for the refugees to sustain them in the emergency.

A month passed before the world community caught up with the pope and put a ceasefire in place. Within days of the ceasefire, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, laid out U.S. plans for reconstruction aid and humanitarian assistance for Lebanon. It was a clear sign that the importance of Lebanon to the Holy See and the future prospects for Christianity in the Middle East had finally—and one hopes not too late—registered with the administration. This followed weeks of delay in agreeing to a U.N. plan to end hostilities and forestall further conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border. The Maronite Patriarch, the Synod of the Maronite Church and the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in Lebanon have also exercised an extraordinary mediating role in Lebanon, opposing factionalism and supporting national unity based on Lebanese citizenship. Maronite Patriarch Nazrallah Pierre Sfeir, at the outset of Lent this year, published an extraordinary pastoral letter, On Love of Country, reflecting on the nature of genuine patriotism.

Counseling Nonviolence to Victims

Christians face unprecedented pressures in Iraq, in Palestine and in Lebanon, as well as in countries like Jordan and Syria, which are burdened with refugees. In a Dec. 21 Christmas letter to the Catholics of the Middle East, Benedict wrote to the faithful across the region to bolster their perseverance. He recognized that events in the region “naturally give rise in those involved to recriminations and rage, leading them to thoughts of retaliation and revenge.” While recording grievances, he wrote, might offer an illusory satisfaction, experience had shown the results of such efforts were “disappointing.” “When one person suffers he should first of all wish to understand how much someone else in a similar situation suffers.” The best hope of healing, he advised, was in “patient, humble dialogue.” Such dialogue, he correctly noted, “has already [yielded] positive results in many countries previously devastated by violence and revenge.” Thus, even to the victims of violence he counseled nonviolence.

The Christmas letter is a model of pastoral care that at the same time never fails to uphold the prophetic mission of the church. Fully aware of the politics involved—“dangerous geopolitical situations, cultural conflicts, economic and strategic interests, forms of aggression that claim justification from a social or religious basis”—the pope’s concern is to address the immediate pain of the faithful, offset their discouragement and offer counsel on the choices they face regarding, for example, acting on impulses of revenge or weighing the possibility of emigration. But he also reminds individuals of the duties of discipleship and the need to build up the church as an instrument of peace. Accordingly, he encourages both individuals and communities to acts of forgiveness, reconciliation and solidarity.


Benedict: What’s in a Name?

Benedict’s nonviolent counsel to Middle East Christians is consonant with the path many of them, especially in Israel and Palestine, have already set for themselves. It is also consistent with the teaching of Pope John Paul II. But it flows as well from Joseph Ratzinger’s own models of ministry, symbolized by his choice of Benedict as his papal name. Pundits noted, and Benedict confirmed, that he was invoking the memory of both St. Benedict, the patron of Europe and the founder of Western monasticism, and Benedict XV, the early 20th-century pope who labored in vain to end the First World War. Joseph Ratzinger became pope late in life, but his long attachment to Benedictine spirituality has informed his personal style in international affairs.

During the 2006 Lebanon war, his Angelus messages often focused on the life of the saint of the day. Two of the messages seemed to reflect Benedict’s view of his own papal ministry and particularly the struggle to balance contemplation and action in the life of a church leader: those on Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux. Pope Gregory, Benedict remarked, was the model the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it outlined the role of the contemporary pastor, “inspired by the love ‘that rises wonderfully to high things when it is compassionately drawn to the low things of neighbors; and the more kindly it descends to the weak things of this world, the more vigorously it recurs to the things on high.’”

On the pastoral practice of Bernard of Clairvaux, he said, “The life of a pastor of souls must be a balanced synthesis of contemplation and action....” Bernard’s advice to Pope Eugenius III to avoid excessive activity because it leads to hardness of heart, Benedict told his listeners, is advice “to the pope of that time and to all popes, to all of us.” Bernard, he observed, “knew how to harmonize the monk’s aspiration to the solitude and tranquility of the cloister with the pressing needs of important and complex missions at the service of the church.”

For Benedict, diplomacy and the care of souls fit together like hand in glove. Diplomacy is not an add-on or a remnant of the temporal power of the papacy. As in the letter to Middle East Christians, concern for pastoral care of the faithful—their religious and moral affections and their practical personal and political choices—is combined with counsels to nonviolence and to heroic action amid conflict, as well as to the promotion of “solutions to situations of grave hostility.” In initiatives like the letter to Middle East Christians, one senses a natural, integrated Christian imagination that is at home in the world but not of it.

Benedict would be the first to admit that not every move he makes may be correct, but if his diplomacy succeeds, it will be because his Christian peacemaking, rooted in Benedictine spirituality, is so authentic.

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16 years 11 months ago
As a point of clarification, Senator Pera's first name is "Marcello," not "Michele." President of the Italian Senate, he is personally an atheist, as well as a scholar - philosopher of science - who co-authored the book "Senza Radici" about the loss of Christian identity in Europe and the rise of Islam.

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