In recent weeks the media spotlight has focused its harsh and unyielding beam on global Catholicism – softening its glare just a bit for the mourning period. The death of Pope John Paul II saddened world citizens of all creeds not only because of the pope’s considerable human strengths but also because he made a crusade of reaching out to other faiths.
John Paul II fundamentally changed the papacy. Though many Americans criticized his dogmatic conservatism, he is the only world leader to draw cheering crowds across the globe. To mark the turn of the century he embarked on a historic tour of the Muslim world, visiting Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There, he was the first pope to pray in a mosque. Over the course of his decades-long tenure, he worked to repair the church’s long-suffering relationship with Jews, too. He mourned Holocaust victims, condemned anti-Semitism, and established a formal relationship between the Vatican and Israel. He is the first pope since biblical times to visit a synagogue. While John Paul was doctrinally conservative, he was also a striking liberal internationalist. He may not have encouraged what European and American liberals believe to be social “modernity,” but he turned the church into an important player on the rapidly globalizing world stage.
Contrast this to the complete conservatism of recently elected Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, of Germany. While his dogmatic views on social issues such as birth control and women in the priesthood are traditionalist and no different from those of his predecessor, these are – as they were under John Paul – internal, doctrinal concerns that should be resolved within the community of the faithful. In terms of external relations, John Paul’s globetrotting ways set higher expectations and gave the papacy a wider global influence, Ratzinger’s views on the church’s relationship with the rest of the world in general and with other faiths in particular are troubling.
I am referring specifically to Cardinal Ratzinger’s condemnation of Turkey’s proposed membership in the European Union. In a 2004 interview with a French magazine, Ratzinger said: “In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe.” Instead of joining the European Union, Turkey “could try to set up a cultural continent with neighboring Arab countries.” His isolationist, ethnocentric comments stand in stark contrast to his predecessor’s, who during a 2003 visit to the Holy Land called for a “strengthening of the bond … between Christians and other great religions which flourish here.” A few months before, he told visiting bishops from Indonesia that “war must never be allowed to divide world religions,” and that “good inter-religious relations are important at this moment of heightened tension in the entire world community.” He spoke out against religious violence in Egypt in 2000 – well before Sept. 11, 2001 – when he said: “To promote violence and conflict in the name of religion is a terrible contradiction and a terrible offense against God.” The pope recognized the threat of global terrorism long before America awakened to the problem, and he was wise enough to realize the ultimate solution lay not in war but in greater understanding among Christians, Jews and Muslims.
In the age of global terrorism – or, really, in any age since the dawn of history – inter-religious relations are a matter of life and death. If Pope Benedict XVI continues to use religious rhetoric to condemn Turkey’s membership in the European Union, he will be making a grave mistake. Drawing deeper rhetorical and physical lines between the world’s great monotheistic religions encourages what Samuel Huntington called the “clash of civilizations.” In doing so, he will inadvertently discourage the peace John Paul II called for and encourage the violence he denounced.
A sign Ratzinger might retreat from his hard-line stance is his chosen name. The last Benedict reigned during World War I and was widely recognized as a moderate who worked tirelessly to reconcile modernists and traditionalists within the church. More importantly, he desperately wanted to reconcile with Orthodox Christians. If Ratzinger chose Benedict XVI because he admires and intends to emulate Benedict XV’s example, there is hope he intends to change his tune – or at least tone down his rhetoric – on Turkey.
Turkey’s membership in the European Union is a thorny issue surrounded by political, economic, social and religious concerns. It is dangerous and ignorant for the world’s most prominent leaders to reject Turkey because of its Muslim majority and then insist it stand only with other Muslim countries. As one of the only “bridge” countries between the so-called “West” and “rest,” Turkey shines with unique potential for religious tolerance and coexistence. Benedict XVI will do the world a disservice if he ends John Paul II’s crusade for tolerance and begins his own against it.
-The writer is a sophomore majoring in international affairs.