John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Islam

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By George Weigel

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Throughout the recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on faith and reason at Regensburg University, attempts have been made to drive a wedge between Benedict and his papal predecessor.

The Arabic satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, for example, ran a series of cartoons featuring a John Paul-figure releasing peaceful doves; the doves are then shot down by Benedict from the roof of the Bernini colonnades surrounding St. Peter’s. The last images in the series have John Paul weeping, head in hands, while Benedict, holding a smoking shotgun, smirks. All of which is silly and vulgar, of course. But it isn’t that far from the views expressed by some Catholics, lamenting what they allege to be the drastic difference between Wojtyla’s and Ratzinger’s views of Islam.

The 1994 international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope was John Paul II’s most personal statement, a summary of his convictions about faith, prayer, the papal mission, other world religions, and the human future. As such, it has a special claim on our attention as an expression of Karol Wojtyla’s views, which were honed by an acute intelligence and a long experience of the world. One section of Threshold is devoted to Islam; in it, John Paul expressed his respect for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer.” As the late pope put it, “The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.”

But do these expressions of respect suggest, as NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli did, that, unlike Benedict XVI, John Paul II put Islam “on the same plane” as Catholicism? Hardly. Here, again, is the authentic voice of John Paul II, from Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

“Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

“Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”

In other words, there isn’t a millimeter of difference between John Paul II’s substantive evaluation of Islam and Benedict XVI’s. John Paul II was a master of the public gesture; but to read from his public gestures of respect for Islamic piety an agreement with Islam’s understanding of God, man, and moral obligation is to make a grave mistake. John Paul II would have completely agreed with Benedict XVI’s critique, at Regensburg, of a theology that reduces God to pure will, a remote dictator who can command the irrational (like the murder of innocents) if he chooses. And, like Benedict XVI, John Paul II knew that such misconceptions can have lethal public consequences, because all the great questions of the human condition, including political questions, are ultimately theological.

Benedict XVI bears the burden of the papacy at a historical moment in which religiously-warranted irrationality is a lethal threat to the future of civilization. He and his predecessor have the same view of the sources of that irrationality.

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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