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Because, you know, contrarians abound, we’ve been subject to a raft of "Has the Pope gone soft" op-eds over the the past few days. Ian Fisher in the NYTimes, for example:

HAS the pope gone wobbly?

The question might matter less if he weren’t the man he is — and if the images of his facing Mecca in prayer on his trip to Turkey weren’t fresh. Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear. But his was never mere blunt confrontation. With his big brain and the heft of Roman Catholic tradition behind him, Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it.

That penchant for truth-telling found its date with history two months ago in the pope’s now-famous speech in Regensburg, Germany. Rare for a mainstream leader, he planted a steely marker in the struggle against terror and militant Islam, quoting a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had brought only things “evil and inhuman.” Islam, he seemed to say, was distant from reason and thus prone to violence.

But in his visit to Turkey last week, the face of confrontation, and perhaps the hold on certainty, seemed to soften. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged happily from his meeting with Benedict, saying that the pope had endorsed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and so reversed his long-held personal opposition.

In the place of tough talk, Benedict suggested “dialogue” — a concept, with regard to Islam especially, that he had not seemed completely open to before.

Hogwash. Hogwash trotted out to create a conflict where there isn’t one. Lord knows, there’s enough conflict in this situation, but the paradigm constructed in this piece – that gee, the Pope seems to have learned something – really has to be challenged.

Benedict/Ratzinger has not been silent on the relationship between Catholicism and other world religions before, but in order to focus, we need only look at what has been his lengthiest speech to a primarily Muslim audience, one which we highlighted before during the Regensburg controversy: his speech on 8/20/05 in Cologne to representatives of Muslim communties. No one should even be allowed to touch a keyboard and write about the Pope and Islam without reading this – and we wish they’d read more, but if this is the best they can do, it’s okay. He spoke strongly against terrorism and religiously-motivated violence, quoted from Nostra Aetate, and of education. Then:

Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism. We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope.

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.

The young people from many parts of the world are here in Cologne as living witnesses of solidarity, brotherhood and love.

I pray with all my heart, dear and esteemed Muslim friends, that the merciful and compassionate God may protect you, bless you and enlighten you always.

May the God of peace lift up our hearts, nourish our hope and guide our steps on the paths of the world.

The trouble lies in the word "dialogue." Secular journalists (and others) don’t understand this term in the same way that the Pope is using it. They seem to think that "dialogue" must mean: "Conversations between people of differing views, with the ultimate purpose of finding what we believe in common, discarding everything else, and making that common belief the basis of a new religious understanding." It’s the way a lot of us, growing to religious maturity in the 60’s and 70’s understood the purpose of "ecumenical dialogue" and the way it was often presented and even pursued. (Not that this is unhelpful. See the RC dialogues with the Orthodox and Lutherans as examples.)

However  – when Benedict speaks of "dialogue" – that’s not what he means. And his definition of "dialogue" and its purpose fits quite well into his strong commitment to the truth of Catholicism.

Joseph Ratzinger, as a theologian, was a firm believer in and devotee of "dialogue," as is any real intellectual. It is possible – and this is what is so hard for many to understand – to hold firmly to what one believes is Truth, and be very interested in dialogue, the views and experiences of others, not simply out of curiosity, but to the view of expanding one’s own vision and understanding.

To focus again on the question of the moment, one really has to put on the magic Glasses of Perpsective and see what exactly it is Benedict is intent on dialoguing about with Muslims. What is it?

Is it the nature of God?

The identiy of Jesus Christ?

The nature of salvation?

No.

The "dialogue" that Benedict is so intent on having with Muslims concerns three basic points, it seems to me:

1) The role of religion in society. Two subsections to this:

a) The role of religion contra secularism

b) Religious freedom in societies

2) Religiously-motivated violence

3) The dignity of the human person

(3) could actually include the other two, of course.

The dialogue the Pope promotes is rooted in what he says is a specific value that Muslims and Christians share: the dignity of the human person. In a world in which human dignity is not respected, in which poverty is rampant, war victimizes and even in industrialized nations, children are aborted and human beings are objectified, there can be, the Pope hopes, common cause between Muslims and Christians to address these problems and work together to alleviate them.

Yes, sometimes Muslim-dominated states and movements are part of the problem and do not exactly reflect any commitment to the dignity of every person. But evidently, the Pope sees, in Islam, a reason for hope – a sensibility to which he can appeal.

That is the ground and purpose of dialogue the Pope hopes for, and that should be the ground of our discussion of his words – his own purpose, not some dramatic conflict over whether he’s gone soft or is too rigid or whatever the journos decide to write on today. Benedict’s hope is certainly worthy of discussion and argumentation, because some would disagree and maintain that Islam is hopeless – that there really is no fundamental respect for all human beings at its core, that believing that is an act of self-delusion. Whatever the case, it would be far more interesting to discuss the issues the Pope raises himself rather than constantly imposing our own definitions upon him.

So with all that by way of introduction, let’s look at what Benedict said today at the General Audience about his visit: (No full text available yet. This is the AsiaNews account)

The prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque was “not initially planned but it turned out to be very meaningful”. It was a prayer to the “one Lord of heaven and earth, merciful father of all mankind”. Addressing today’s general audience, this was how Benedict XVI described his silent prayer on 30 November in Istanbul.

The Pope “thanked divine Providence for this” and said: “May all believers identify themselves with the one God and bear witness to true brotherhood.”

Ga6 The Pontiff augured that Turkey “will be a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West” and he thanked the Turkish people “for the cordiality and sympathy” they showed him throughout his stay, when “he felt loved and understood”.

For Benedict XVI, in secular Turkey, “the distinction between civil and religious spheres constitutes a principle and the State should guarantee effective religious freedom.” At the same time, he continued, “Christians and Muslims should collaborate together on issues like justice, peace and life.”

The Pope then prayed to God, so that He may “help the Turkish people, their rulers and representatives of different religions to build a future of peace together” and so that He may “make this apostolic journey fruitful and animate across the world the Church’s mission to announce to all nations the Gospel of truth, peace and love.”

John Allen’s take:

Commenting this morning on his recent trip to Turkey, Benedict XVI appeared to sharpen his rhetoric on religious freedom, challenging Muslim governments to ensure that expressions of religious faith do not fail to protect individual freedom, that they do not shade off into fundamentalism, and that they’re capable “of rejecting every form of violence.”

In contrast with remarks Nov. 29 during a Mass in Ephesus, when the pope limited himself to a passing reference to the “fine witness” of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro, shot to death in Trabzon, Turkey, in February by a young Muslim who said he was agitated by the Danish cartoon controversy, Benedict this morning also specifically added that Santoro paid for that witness “with his own blood.”

At the same time, Benedict told the large crowd in the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican that he had returned with “a soul full of gratitude” for the trip to Turkey, where he said he felt “welcomed and understood.”

snip

The pope also spoke about his moment of silent prayer alongside Istanbul’s chief Islamic cleric in the Blue Mosque on Nov. 30, describing it as an “initially unexpected” and “very meaningful” gesture that Divine Providence had allowed him to undertake.

Benedict characterized what happened as “a few moments of recollection in that place of prayer,” and suggested that he had addressed himself “to the one Lord of Heaven and Earth, the merciful Father of all humanity." He said he hoped the act would lead “all believers to recognize themselves as creatures,” and said that it was “a witness to true fraternity.”

And do you know what? Perhaps it’s all more subtle than we realize. Not too subtle for commentor Rosemarie who notes below:

Then it definitely wasn’t a "Muslim prayer." No Muslim prayer would be addressed to the "merciful Father of all mankind,” since they don’t call God "Father" at all.

There’s more than one way to get your point across.

The only way to legitimately compare befores and afters is to actually compare befores and afters.

What has the Pope, as Benedict or Ratzinger, said about Muslims and dialogue before? Is that different or similar to what he says now? Any analysis of this cannot rest on "this was the Pope’s image (that we created)  before." It just can’t. And if it does, it’s not worth listening to.

Now. The question could be reaised, and has, about the Pope and the Muslims and the Mosque, etc. I blogged about this at the time, and maintain that Robert Moynihan’s take at Inside the Vatican is the most helpful.

As is, you know, the Pope’s own statement about it today.

Some would maintain that he shouldn’t have even entered these places, especially if he wasn’t prepared to reclaim the Hagia Sophia for Christianity or begin chanting a Te Deum in the Blue Mosque. Martyrs died, the conversation in some places is going…rather than offer incense to the emperor.

Well, first of all, the Pope did not engage in Muslim prayer and did not pray to Allah.

Secondly, the Pope, by his own account, prayed to the One True God, and had his thumb discretely on his pectoral cross the entire time.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH! GIVE US A LEPANTO POPE!

And…if the Pope had starting preaching in the Blue Mosque…who would have suffered? The Pope? Of course not. You know who would have suffered, and you’re not one of them.

It is not an easy place to be in, and Lord knows, Popes are not infallible in their gestures, and Vatican diplomacy has prompted people to tear their hair out in confusion and frustration more than once.

But really, given the situation, the place, the role of the Pope, the purpose of the visit, the hopes for the future, and just…reality…was this a sell-out? I can’t see how, myself.

Raymond Ibrahim, in an LATimes op-ed, disagrees:

But perhaps Muslims cannot be blamed for expecting special treatment, as well as believing that jihad is righteous and decreed by the Almighty. The West constantly goes out of its way to confirm such convictions. By criticizing itself, apologizing and offering concessions — all things the Islamic world has yet to do — the West reaffirms that Islam has a privileged status in the world.

And what did the pope do in his controversial visit to Hagia Sophia? He refrained from any gesture that could be misconstrued as Christian worship and merely took in the sights of the museum. Moreover, when he was invited into the Blue Mosque nearby, he respectfully took off his shoes and prayed, eyes downcast, standing next to the the grand mufti of Istanbul like a true dhimmi — a subdued non-Muslim living under Islamic law and acknowledging Islamic superiority.

And therein is the final lesson. Muslims’ zeal for their holy places and lands is not intrinsically blameworthy. Indeed, there’s something to be said about being passionate and protective of one’s own. Here the secular West — Christendom’s prodigal son and true usurper — can learn something from Islam. For whenever and wherever the West concedes ideologically, politically and especially spiritually, Islam will be sure to conquer. If might does not make right, zeal apparently does.

Update: Go listen to Charles Collins’ report at Vatican Radio. Lots of audio of the Pope, talking about his trip, speaking in English. Do listen.

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