John Paul II arrived in Warsaw on June 2, 1979; there and then, he ignited the revolution of conscience that would give birth to the Solidarity movement, the Revolution of 1989 — and the end of European communism. Distinguished secular historians of the Cold War now argue that John Paul’s first pilgrimage to Poland, from June 2 to June 10, 1979, was one of the pivots of twentieth century history.
What seems obvious now, however, wasn’t quite-so-clear at the time. On the fourth day of the June 1979 papal pilgrimage, for example, the New York Times concluded its editorial, “The Polish Pope in Poland,” in these striking — and, as things turned out, strikingly myopic — terms: “As much as the visit of John Paul II must reinvigorate and inspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the [Polish] nation or of Eastern Europe.”
On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the United Nations and his first pastoral visit to the United States, let’s consider the possibility that his “June 1979″ has already happened and that, just as in the real June 1979, most observers missed it. And by Benedict XVI’s “June 1979 moment,” I mean the most controversial event of his pontificate, his September 12, 2006, Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason. Widely criticized as a papal “gaffe” because Benedict cited a robust exchange between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian Islamic scholar, the Regensburg Lecture now looks a lot like June 1979: a moment in which a pope, cutting to the heart of a complex set of issues with global impact, re-arranged the chessboard in a dramatic fashion, with historic consequences.
In June 1979, a pope challenged the orthodoxies of what the Times called “the political order” in Poland and throughout the old Warsaw Pact; in September 2006, a pope challenged the shopworn conventions of interreligious dialogue. In June 1979, a pope set in motion a revolution of moral conviction that eventually replaced “the political order” in east central Europe with something far more humane; in September 2006, a pope may have set in motion a process of intellectual and spiritual awakening that could help resolve the centuries-old question of whether Islam and pluralism can co-exist, and in such a way as to safeguard the religious freedom of all.
Consider what has happened since Regensburg. The pope has been the addressee of two statements from Islamic leaders throughout the world, respectfully requesting a new dialogue with the Holy See. Responding, Benedict XVI has politely but firmly insisted that any such dialogue must focus on the two issues at the heart of the chafing within Islam, and between radical Islam and the rest of the world: religious freedom (understood as a basic human right that can be known by reason) and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the 21st century state.
Those issues are precisely what the new dialogue will address, in several venues. One is a new Catholic-Muslim forum that will meet biennially, once a year in Rome and once in Amman, Jordan. Another may be the new interfaith dialogue among the monotheistic religions that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — who has considerable leverage in the world of Sunni Islam — has recently proposed.
Benedict XVI has also urged reciprocity in relations between faiths. Thus the Pope’s Easter Vigil baptism of the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who was raised in Egypt as a Muslim, was not an act of aggression, as some Muslims quickly charged, but a public defense of religious freedom — as was John Paul II’s welcome to a newly-built mosque in Rome. Some, it seems, have begun to get the message about reciprocity: it is no accident that negotiations between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia on building the first Catholic Church in the kingdom happened after Regensburg — and quite likely because of the dynamics Regensburg set in motion.
Benedict XVI thinks in centuries. His courageous exercise in truth-telling at Regensburg has already begun to reshape the debate within Islam and the dialogue between Islam and “the rest.” That is no mean accomplishment.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.