Ethics & Public Policy Center

Religious Freedom: The Challenge to Islam

Published in Avvenire on December 13, 2006



On December 12, prior to his lecture at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel was interviewed by the Italian newspaper, Avvenire. The interview was published in the paper’s December 13 issue under the headline, “Liberta religiosa, la sfida dell’Islam” (Religious Freedom: The Challenge to Islam). It began with the following subhead: “For George Weigel, the biographer of John Paul II and now of Benedict XVI, ‘The Pope’s journey to Turkey was an opportunity for dialogue, but the question of religious freedom is still open.'” A translation of the interview follows:

His last book is simply entitled Benedict XVI, but it has an intriguing subtitle: God’s Choice. Because, according to George Weigel, Ratzinger is truly the right man at the right moment, thanks to his ability to get to the heart of the problem between the West and the “East:” the relationship between faith and reason, from which derive the capacity to distinguish good and evil…In this perspective, the fundamental character of recent papal voyage to Turkey comes into focus, but also the preoccupations of this pontificate.

What were the objectives of this papal trip?
The papal pilgrimage to Turkey had, first of all, an ecumenical and pastoral character: it wasn’t so much the case that the Pope was going to visit an Islamic country, but that Peter was going to meet Andrew. The Pope was also posing a challenge to the entire world to build a public culture which respects religious freedom as a basic human right — although Turkey, in fact imposes restrictions on the work of the (Orthodox) Patriarchate of Constantinople. So this trip had, in fact, two related purposes: to strengthen the ties between Rome and Constantinople, by a papal defense of the religious freedom of Patriarch Bartholomew and his people; and to identify the key question which underlies the debate (about Turkey) in Europe today — which is, is Turkey part of the civilizational orbit of Europe or not?

On this point, how do you read Pope Benedict XVI”s views?
There are several important ways to measure the question of whether Turkey, as it is today, is part of the civilizational orbit of Europe. The first has to do with human rights: among other things, there’s a real question as to whether there has been a genuine development in respect for human rights in Turkey. If there were, it would be very important development — it would demonstrate that an Islamic culture can sustain a state that respects religious freedom. When Father Lombardi (the Vatican press spokesman) clarified the Pope’s thinking on this point, he acknowledged the Pope’s willingness to accept progress by Turkey along this road (should such progress take place). Yet there would still remain a certain concern which Joseph Ratzinger had expressed some years ago: that, should Turkey be admitted fully to the European Union, such an accession would demonstrate that the E.U. is, at bottom, a pragmatic economic association, period. That, however, was not the vision of the founding fathers of today’s “Europe:” Adenauer, deGasperi, and Schuman all saw the creation of European institutions as an expression of Europe’s common Christian roots. Should a changed Turkey come into the E.U., that would suggest that a pan-European humanistic culture had evolved, a culture with deep Christian roots, but not uniquely Christian roots. But without significant change in Turkey, Turkey’s accession to the Union would mean that the Union is strictly a business proposition.

Why have you entitled your new book Benedict XVI: God’s Choice?
Ratzinger certainly did not want to be pope; when several of his friends and supporters approached him about this possibility, he resisted the idea. But once he accepted “God’s choice” in a spirit of obedience, he was determined to be the kind of pope that he was uniquely fit to be. That is, a master-teacher, a master-catechist, a man who constantly calls the Church to Eucharistic holiness, a man who constantly stresses the relationship of faith and reason. And that is exactly what he’s done.

You have also written about John Paul II: the temptation will be strong to contrast the two men.
It’s important to remember that, for the first fifteen years or so of his pontificate, John Paul II was a controversial figure; it was only in the mid-1990s that he became recognized as a kind of universal father-figure. But, in writing about these two men, I also wanted to stress that the Church is not just the pope: the bishops, priests, and all the people of the Church have the responsibility to carry the Church’s message into the world. We’ve got to get beyond the idea that the pope is supposed to solve all the world’s problems. (That’s very much every Catholic’s responsibility — to address the world’s problems with a properly-formed conscience.)

In what sense is Benedict XVI a master-teacher and a master-catechist?
The pastoral dimension is the key to his pontificate. When he speaks — whether it’s the weekly audience, the Sunday Angelus, a meeting with children who’ve just made their first Holy Communions, or in an interview on German television — he speaks with a kind of luminous clarity. Anyone open to listening can understand what he’s saying, and that creates the possibility for a decision: what should I do? Then there’s his role on the world stage: this pope has the ability, perhaps unlike anyone else, to identify publicly the major questions on the human agenda. That is precisely what he did at Regensburg, when he said, in brief, that irrational faith can lead to wickedness, just as a loss of faith in reason can.

Which was a criticism of the West
Of course. The way in which we think — or don’t think — about God has everything to do with how we imagine what is right, and how we understand out obligations. This is obvious in radical Islam. But it’s also obvious in the results we can observe in the West’s loss of faith in reason. This was, I should add, the same critique of contemporary western culture that John Paul II advanced in Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe) and Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

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.

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