The evening of September 12, 2006, was, in a word, memorable. My wife and I were having dinner in Cracow with two of John Paul II’s oldest friends when my mobile phone rang and an agitated Italian journalist started hollering in my ear, “Have you zeen zees crazee speech zee pope has given about zee Muslims? What do you zay about it?” I replied that I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on papal texts before I had read them, which only drew the further plea, “Yes, yes, but what do you zay about it?” I finally asked my caller to e-mail me the text and call again the next day.
The “crazy speech” was, of course, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, which, far from being crazy, was a lucid, penetrating description of the challenges facing Islam in late modernity—an analysis lost in the media scrum over Benedict’s (arguably imprudent) quoting of a robust exchange between an Islamic ruler and a Byzantine emperor, many long years ago. What Benedict outlined in 2006 remains true eleven years later, however: In order to live in peace with “the rest,” Islam must find within its own religious and intellectual resources a way to affirm religious tolerance, and to distinguish between the institutions of religion and the institutions of politics; Catholicism took several hundred years to traverse that path; reflecting on that Catholic experience of finding a Catholic rationale for religious tolerance and free politics might help Muslims who wish to move beyond the intellectual stagnation in which they find themselves on these crucial questions; a conversation exploring how Catholicism’s wrestling with political modernity may or may not be applicable to Islam should focus the Catholic-Islamic interreligious dialogue for the foreseeable future.
There was no media blowback after Pope Francis’s fine address at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on April 28. But the money quote from the Holy Father’s speech fit neatly with what Benedict said at Regensburg in 2006:
As religious leaders, we are called … to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than an authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam. Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God for it would profane his name.
What kind of Islam could “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity”—and more than “unmask” it, condemn it and drive it to the peripheries of the Islamic world? Precisely the Islam that had taken Benedict’s Regensburg advice: that had dug deeply into its religious, philosophical, and legal traditions and had found there warrants for religious tolerance and a clear distinction between religious and political authority.
This approach differs in kind from suggestions that jihadist terrorism will only cease when Muslims become good Western liberals—which too often means good secular liberals. That just isn’t going to happen across a complex religious world that now numbers more than 1.6 billion souls. Moreover, secular warrants for religious freedom are not as sturdy as religious warrants, as we’ve discovered in the West in recent years. The secular defense of religious freedom crumbles when lifestyle agitations (“gay marriage,” the LGBT agenda) reach critical mass politically. By contrast, people who believe it’s God’s will that they be tolerant of those who have other ideas of God’s will are more likely to defend the religious freedom of the “other” when social and cultural pressures for intolerance (and political correctness) intensify.
Catholicism didn’t embrace religious freedom as a fundamental human right by surrendering core Catholic convictions to secular liberalism. Catholicism came to affirm religious freedom by recovering an ancient conviction that had gotten encrusted with political barnacles over the centuries: the conviction that (as the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation put it, luminously) “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” Can Islam make such an affirmation? That is the Benedictine/Franciscan challenge to twenty-first-century Islam, and it ought to frame the future of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.