You recall those awful years of John Paul II’s authoritarian and repressive pontificate when the ailing pontiff, taking advice only from a cabal of right-wing intimates and yes men, turned the Catholic Church into a one-man show.
Surely you remember. Writers such as Malcolm Moore, John Cornwell, and much of the liberal press reported the scandal day in and day out, year in and year out. But now the story line has turned on a dime. After the imbroglio over the Regensburg lecture, we are told that "the authoritarian nature of Pope Benedict’s papacy" [he means pontificate] can be attributed to the fact that he, unlike John Paul, is surrounded by people who are not "brave enough to tell the pope that he has made a mistake." That’s Malcolm Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph . He helpfully reminds us that , as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was known as "God’s Rottweiler."
This stubborn and isolated pope, Moore tells us, has "recast the Vatican’s top order in his image." Unlike that wisely collaborative John Paul who knew his deficiencies and accepted guidance from cooler heads, Benedict is turning the pontificate into a one-man show. "The weakness of [Secretary of State] Cardinal Bertone, who has publicly stated that his job is simply to ‘carry out the pope’s will’ was cited by another Vatican source as a cause of the pope’s troubles," Moore writes. Never mind that the entire Curia in Rome is in the service of the pope and solemnly pledged to carry out his will.
There is some amusement in watching those who railed against the alleged authoritarianism of John Paul now contrasting him favorably with the alleged authoritarianism of Benedict. They live in the hope that some day they will get a John XXIV who will demonstrate that he is not isolated and authoritarian by following their advice.
Less amusing is Fr. Daniel Madigan, a Jesuit who directs the study of religions and cultures at the Gregorian University in Rome. Lavishly quoted in the media since Regensburg, Fr. Madigan is pleased to point out, in terms condescending and patronizing, that the poor pope doesn’t know what he is talking about. "He is not really au fait with the material," says Madigan. "He says the second Sura was handed to Mohammed when he did not have political power, but almost every Muslim scholar believes it was handed to him later, in Medina, when he did have political power."
There is scholarly debate over when the sura cited by Benedict was supposedly dictated to Mohammed, but there is no question that Muslims of a jihadist bent believe that the "suras of the sword" trump¯or "abrogate," as they say¯earlier "suras of peace," and there is no question that, when he had the power to do so, Mohammed took up the sword in leading his followers in a campaign of conversion by military conquest.
Apart from his insulting condescension to the pope he presumably serves, one must wonder how trustworthy an authority is Fr. Madigan. He says of Benedict’s lecture: "The second mistake is one he makes continually. He spells Ibn Hazm with an ‘n’ at the end. It is the kind of thing I see in students’ writing." Well, there you have it. It may be a bit on the pedantic side, but it decisively demonstrates that Benedict doesn’t know anything about Islam.
I went to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and also scanned scholarly papers on Google and Wikipedia. They all spell it "Ibn Hazm." As do such distinguished scholars of Islam as Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis. Presumably, the authoritative Fr. Madigan would give all of them the failing grade that he so sneeringly has given the pope. (To be fair, and hopeful, perhaps Fr. Madigan has been misquoted. A reader suggests that the reference may be to the published text of the pope’s lecture, which has "Hazn" rather than "Hazm." Perhaps so. My point is the pedantry.)
Fr. Madigan says that the lesson of Regensburg is that "it is time to bring back Michael Fitzgerald." His friend Archbishop Fitzgerald was some while back transferred by Benedict from his post in the now defunct council for interreligious dialogue. Rightly or wrongly, Fitzgerald was perceived as belonging to the "Islam is a religion of peace" school of thought in response to Muslim jihadism.
Another Jesuit, Fr. Tom Michel, served as a staffer under Archbishop Fitzgerald in the council for interreligious dialogue. He is an expert on Islam and, writing in the Turkish political journal Yeni Asya , explained to Muslims why they should cut the pope some slack. The problem is that the pope is really not up to speed on these delicate questions. “With Archbishop Fitzgerald’s departure, there remains no one in the Vatican who is properly trained in Islamic faith practice and tradition, and the lack becomes glaringly evident on occasions like that of the Regensburg address,” Fr. Michel wrote. “Had the Pope’s talk been reviewed and controlled by any competent staff person"¯presumably somebody like Father Michel ¯ the entire unpleasantness might have been avoided. Jesuits still take that famous fourth vow of absolute support for the pope, although it is generally acknowledged that it has been creatively reinterpreted in recent decades.
On a brighter note, John Allen has a clarifying op-ed in the New York Times . Regensburg, he points out, is on a continuum with the Vatican’s insistence under Benedict that relations with Islam be marked by "reciprocity." It is difficult to have honest and mutually respectful dialogue with people who kill people who raise critical questions about Islam. Allen writes:
Desire for a more muscular stance, however, has been building among Catholics around the world for some time. In part, it has been driven by persecution of Christians in the Islamic world, like the murder of an Italian missionary, the Rev. Andrea Santoro, in Trabzon, Turkey, in February. A 16-year-old Turk fired two bullets into Father Santoro, shouting "God is great." But perhaps the greatest driving force has been the frustrations over reciprocity. To take one oft-cited example, while Saudis contributed tens of millions of dollars to build Europe’s largest mosque in Rome, Christians cannot build churches in Saudi Arabia. Priests in Saudi Arabia cannot leave oil-industry compounds or embassy grounds without fear of reprisals from the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop of the region recently described the situation as "reminiscent of the catacombs."
The pope is sympathetic to these concerns, as several developments at the Vatican have made clear.
At a meeting with Muslims in Cologne, Germany, last summer, Benedict urged joint efforts to "turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress toward world peace."
On Feb. 15, he removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who had been John Paul’s expert on Islam, as the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, sending him to a diplomatic post in Egypt. Archbishop Fitzgerald was seen as the Vatican’s leading dove in its relationship with Muslims.
That same month, Bishop Rino Fisichella, the rector of Rome’s Lateran University and a close papal confidant, announced it was time to "drop the diplomatic silence" about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the United Nations to "remind the societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities."
In March, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for Rome, voiced doubts about calls to teach Islam in Italian schools, saying he wanted assurance that doing so "would not give way to a socially dangerous kind of indoctrination."
And on March 23, Benedict summoned his 179 cardinals for a closed-doors business session. Much conversation turned on Islam, according to participants, and there was agreement over taking a tougher stance on reciprocity.
Through his statements and those of his proxies, Benedict clearly hopes to stimulate Islamic leaders to express their faith effectively in a pluralistic world. The big question is whether it will be received that way, or whether it simply reinforces the conviction of jihadists about eternal struggle with the Christian West.
That is the big question. Moving all of us toward an answer to that question is one of the great gifts of what might be called the "Regensburg moment." It is quite possible that ten years from now people will look back at the Regensburg lecture and the responses to it as a turning point in the West’s understanding of Islam and its relationship to the jihadist ideology that is devoted to world conquest by any means necessary.
Your prayers are requested for the Rev. William Lazareth, who is in declining health in Bar Harbor, Maine. Bill is one of the outstanding Lutheran and ecumenical leaders of the past century, and I am pleased to call him a friend, although we haven’t seen much of one another in recent years. He was my bishop here in the New York Metropolitan Synod of the ELCA at the time I was led to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. He strongly disagreed with my decision, but I am grateful for his counsel and support.
For many years, he taught theology at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, and then directed the office of Church in Society for the old Lutheran Church in America (LCA) before it merged into the ELCA. He wrote some thirteen books and set forth a still-interesting formula for church-state relations described as "institutional separation and functional interaction." It didn’t gain much traction at the time but still has the potential of framing a distinctively Lutheran contribution to the questions surrounding religion and public life.
From 1976 to 1980, he was director of Faith and Order for the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, and strove valiantly, if unsuccessfully, in resisting the WCC’s trading of its theological-ecumenical heritage for a mess of political pottage. After that, he was pastor of Holy Trinity here in New York and taught theology at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and finally at Carthage College in Wisconsin. His nine years as bishop here in New York brought him into a cordial relationship with my dear friend the late John Cardinal O’Connor, who admired him greatly. That added interesting dimensions to my becoming Catholic but did not, I think, put a strain on their friendship.
Bill is among the last of those figures of theological stature who made it possible to believe for a time, if one tried very hard, that Lutheranism is the Church of the Augsburg Confession destined to fulfill its mission in ecclesial reconciliation with uppercase Catholicism. As an "evangelical catholic," he has borne bold witness to a hope for Lutheranism that, please God, may yet be vindicated.