Ethics & Public Policy Center

Pope Benedict XVI in the Holy Land

Published in Il Foglio (Italian) on May 12, 2009


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies George Weigel was interviewed by the Italian daily “Il Foglio” on Pope Benedict XVI’s current pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The interview was published in the paper’s May 12 edition:

Il Foglio (IF): Can the concepts of Reason and dialogue described by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg address also be used in dealing with Judaism?

George Weigel (GW): Strengthening the relationship between faith and reason has become one of the principal public themes of the pontificate — and with good reason. First, it’s important for the new evangelization, especially in light of the challenge of the new atheism. Second, it’s the available ground on which a serious conversation with Islam — rather than an exchange of interreligious pieties and pleasantries — can take place. An Islam that looks to Avicenna and Averroes for inspiration about its encounter with the non-Muslim world, rather than to Sayyid Qutb and Ruhollah Khomeni, is an Islam that won’t be a threat to the rest of the world.

What we call “the West” is a product of the fruitful interaction of biblical religion (Judaism and Christianity) with classical culture (meaning Greek philosophy and Roman law). Thus the Catholic dialogue with Judaism has a somewhat different structure and a different texture, so to speak, than the dialogue Benedict XVI is trying to build with Islam. A good place for the Catholic-Jewish dialogue on faith-and-reason to start is with John Paul II’s address at Mt. Sinai in 2000, when the late Pope spoke of the moral truths of the ten commandments being written on the human heart (i.e., in the natural moral law) before they were written on stone tablets.

IF: Why does it seem that so few understand the strength of Benedict XVI’s thought when he explains that friendship and dialogue do not mean accepting (and acquiring) everything of the other. Do you agree with the Pope when he says that it is not religion that divides, but its ideological manipulation by those who would use it for their own purposes?

GW: Friends tell friends the truth: friendship without truth-telling is not true friendship. So genuine dialogue proceeds from the premise that, while there is a natural human desire for the truth, sometimes our dialogue partners can get it wrong. We respect their search for the truth, in itself and because it can enlighten our own search for truth. But we also tell them when we think they have made wrong turn in the road to truth.

There are obvious differences in the truth-claims of, say, Christianity and Islam: Christians cannot accept, for example, the Muslim claim that what they believe to be God’s revelation to Muhammad supersedes and completes God’s biblical revelation. From our point of view, that’s simply not true. Yet that significant difference of judgment need not lead to violence and war: as, for example, the difference in the Christian and Mormon approaches to what Mormons believe to be a revelation to Joseph Smith don’t lead to war today. So, yes, the Pope is making a serious point when he says that it’s the manipulation of differences for political ends that gets us into serious trouble.

IF: Do you think that his words are often manipulated by those who desire to give the impression of great conflict between faiths?

GW: I think it’s more often the case that reporters simply don’t have the intellectual equipment to understand, and explain, what the pope is actually saying. Regensburg is a perfect example. Of course, there is a lot that could be improved in Vatican communications.

IF: Which are the real points on which Judaism and Christianity can converge? And on which must the two religions remain separate?

GW: We share a messianic hope. We differ on whether that messianic hope has already been realized in history. A friend who’s a rabbi once said, “When the messiah comes, will it be for the first time, or the second time? You Christians say he’ll be coming for the second time. I just hope that, when he does come, we’ll all recognize him.”  That seems about right to me.

IF: How do you think Jews see the Pope’s visit? Benedict XVI comes in the footsteps of a pope who apologized for the Holocaust and Pope Benedict has shown more than once how much he cares about Judaism. Nonetheless, many seem to label Benedict XVI simply as the “German” who has re-opened the Church to the likes of [holocaust denier] Bishop Williamson and his ilk. What do you think about this?

GW: Joseph Ratzinger has spent more than half a century explaining to Christians the debt they owe to Judaism – including living Judaism. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand Ratzinger and doesn’t understand this pontificate. It would be a shame if Catholics, Jews, Muslims or anyone else dealt only with the cartoon Ratzinger, not the real man.

IF: The Holy See keeps repeating that this is a pilgrimage and not a political visit, but how important is this visit as far as diplomatic relationships in the region are concerned?

GW: I frankly don’t think the visit has much of anything to do with diplomacy in the region. That happens on a different plane, and with different actors. If the Holy See strengthens its relations with the reasonable powers in the region through this visit, that’s good. But I don’t think the Pope’s visit, however well it goes, is going to change the minds of the leaders of Hamas or Hizbollah. And it won’t change the fact that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an existential threat to the future of Israel.

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