Tuesday, 5 March 2013*

It can only be hoped that the next pope will be better fitted to
grasp the great issues of the day.

Pope Benedict will not have left his mark on history quite as
decisively as his predecessor, John Paul II. The latter’s name
will live after him as an exemplar of openness, of service to
humanity and of dialogue with the world’s spiritual and
religious traditions. When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope
eight years ago, it was expected that he would reaffirm the
central position of dogma, of the principles and the laws of the
Roman Catholic Church. He brought with him a reputation for
theological rigour, strictness in matters of doctrine and
practice, and an inflexible attitude toward other Christian
traditions and other religions. The Church was Truth, and must
reaffirm that truth with clarity and courage. This reaffirmation
was the foundation stone of his conception of the papal function.

The outgoing pope’s great knowledge of theology must of course
be recognised, as must his genuine and sincere meditative
intelligence. He was above all fundamentally Catholic, a man of
profound conviction, driven by an ongoing fixation with
consistency. The first years of his papacy quickly revealed his
deficiencies as well as his qualities, as he learned to interact
with the world of media and communication. Benedict XVI emerged
as inward-turning, expressing himself as a theologian immersed
in texts and traditions; more than a few of his public
statements demonstrated a mixture of Catholic consistency and
media awkwardness. He, and his advisors and representatives,
were often forced to rephrase, explain or clarify a statement, a
formula, a speech. He was by no means a media pope, but a pope
of holy writ, more faithful to norms to be respected than guided
by the imperative of responding to contemporary challenges.

This same scrupulous consistency led him to positions that
proved difficult for the broader Christian family to accept. For
him, after all was said and done, the truth, and the only true
salvation, could not be envisaged outside the Catholic church.

Dialogue with the Protestants, the Orthodox or other Christian
churches were, of course, both necessary and positive but he
could never forget that one imperative. It came as no surprise
that he approached dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim
monotheistic traditions, and beyond them, Hinduism and Buddhism,
with the same consistency: as spiritual traditions, and as
religions, they might well contain an element of truth, but they
could never represent a pathway to the salvation of souls.

Dialogue might well focus on shared ethical principles,
respective practices and social realities, but under no
circumstances could any doubt be cast upon the truth that in his
eyes the Catholic church alone possessed and incarnated: a
position that seemed logical enough to those within, but
logically—and dogmatically—exclusivist when seen from without.
So it was that the pope came to stand for the fraught and
close-minded consistency of the dogmatist. It came as no
surprise that interfaith dialogue was biased, diluted, all but
useless except as an adjunct to missionary competition or the
comparison of positive and negative practices.

It is in this light that his lecture at Ravensburg University in
2006 should be understood. His reading of European history was
charged with fears about the modern era. For him, two threats
loomed over the continent: secularisation that drives religion —
as faith, rules and hopes — to the margins of society, and the
arrival of Muslims whose numbers, practices and growing
visibility represented, for him, a major challenge for the
Catholic church.

Forcefully, rather clumsily and with historical inaccuracy, Pope
Benedict XVI asserted Europe’s Greek and Christian roots. His
insistence on rereading the past, on reducing the cultural
origins of Europe to the Hellenic rationalist tradition and the
Christian faith, were designed to reaffirm European identity.
While millions of Muslim citizens live in Europe they remain
foreign to Europe’s deep identity, which must be affirmed,
defended and protected.

Historical truth is another matter, of course. Islam, like
Judaism, is part and parcel of the European soul, a soul shaped
by their thinkers, philosophers, architects and authors, their
artists and merchants. Islam is, historically and
contemporaneously, a European religion; the pope’s remarks must
be viewed through the prism of fear, fear of the Muslim
presence, and driven by the urge to revitalise missionary
activity in the very heart of Europe.

Benedict XVI viewed interfaith dialogue through the same prism.
In the course of our encounters, the last one in Rome in 2009,
it proved impossible to broach theological fundamentals and
principles: the discussion quickly turned to our respective
practices, and to the treatment of Christian minorities in the

Of course we could point to shared values, but even then,
dialogue rapidly veered off into comparisons, reciprocity, and
even competition. Debate on the treatment of Eastern Christians
cannot and must not be avoided; discrimination is a fact and
Muslims must respond in full candour, but this cannot become a
pretext for shirking fundamental theological questions, or, more
generally, the obligation to place things in their proper
historical and political context.

The fact that the rights of Muslims are often better protected
in the secular West has very little to do with Christianity,
just as occasional discrimination in Muslim-majority societies
cannot be attributed to certain interpretations of Islam alone.
It is impossible to disregard the political and historical
factors that go well beyond strict interfaith dialogue. To
confine dialogue—with other religions in general and with Islam
in particular — to missionary posturing (against the “threat” of
Islam in the West) and systematic criticism (underlining the
contradictions of Muslim majority societies) can only deprive it
of its value and limit its potential for improving mutual
awareness and promoting fruitful, respectful, pro-active and
harmonious co-existence.

The church must face facts: it has a serious youth problem. The
final years of Pope John Paul II and the retirement, at 85, of
Benedict XVI symbolise an era: the church today seems frail, on
the defensive, far from the common people, stubbornly fixated on
principles that millions hear and few apply. The churches of
Europe, and more generally in the West, are emptying; those who
remain are increasingly old.

It can only be hoped that the next pope will possess
youthfulness of spirit combined with seriousness and theological
competence, that he will be better fitted to grasp the great
issues of the day, both within the Church and at the heart of
contemporary society. It can only be hoped that he will be
capable of articulating a less abrasive message, one more open
to other traditions; one that, even though the faithful quite
naturally understand it as the “truth,” never neglects dialogue
and mutual respect, all the while standing firmly for a
pluralist and inclusive West as the embodiment of the Catholic

To the recognition of diversity within (the presence of other
Christian traditions) and without (the world’s other spiritual
traditions and religions) must be added full and open debate
within the church on rules and practices. The celibacy of
priests, the exclusion of women from the clerical hierarchy, the
acceptance of divorce, the use of contraception, or the ethical
response of the Catholic church to contemporary scientific and
technological issues are only a few of the questions to which
the incoming pope will be called upon to respond: not against
Catholic principles, but with the triple exigency of fidelity to
those principles, to the critical re-examination of the sources,
and to the acceptance of responsibility for the state of our world.

Every religious and spiritual tradition must submit itself to
the process of criticism and self-criticism. Such a process will
demand the full support of a Pope, of priests and competent,
self-assured, courageous and qualified representatives (rabbis
and ulama) of other faiths who will reject defensive attitudes
and accept that their first responsibility is to awaken minds
and hearts to the meaning of life and death, to the dignity of
beings in their diversity, and the affirmation of overarching
(universal and shared) goals that any society would neglect at
its risk. The church today awaits this message and pastoral
guidance, as do all of the world’s religious and spiritual

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