There are so many pieces to Pope Benedict’s visit to Turkey this week that one hardly knows where to begin. In almost all the media coverage, it was quite forgotten that this was, first of all, a pastoral and ecumenical visit. There is a very small Catholic community in Turkey that is as besieged as are the other Christian communities there, constituting altogether about one half of one percent of the population. The Mass at the "House of Mary" in Ephesus was almost an intimate affair, with perhaps no more than three hundred people in attendance. It was in sharpest contrast to what we are used to on papal trips, with crowds of hundreds of thousands and even millions. There was a particular poignancy in Benedict’s words of reassurance to the "little flock." His presence, he said, should be received as a sign that these people have not been forgotten by the universal Church.
The meetings and prayers with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, will not likely be called historic. Historic was the visit of Pope Paul VI four decades ago when mutual excommunications between East and West were formally withdrawn. Benedict shares fully John Paul the Great’s yearning for the day when East and West will once again "breathe with both lungs." As for Orthodoxy, however, while Constantinople may have preeminence in tradition, Russia has the numbers and the clout, and relations with Russia continue to be prickly, at best. Yet it is noteworthy that the formal dialogue between Rome and Orthodoxy has been resumed after a hiatus of six months, and there are continuing rumblings that Benedict may yet be invited to visit Russia.
The visit to Constantinople/Istanbul was, of course, on St. Andrew’s Day. The brothers, Peter and Andrew, were, in the persons of Benedict and Bartholomew, together, both praying for the day of communion fully restored. As Benedict has said on many occasions, the hope for Christian unity is not a matter of our goals and schedules but of waiting faithfully on an unanticipated movement of the Holy Spirit that is, thank God, not under our control.
Also on the subject of unity, the week before the visit to Turkey, Benedict received Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury. Among its many ecumenical partners, Rome has vested particular hopes in Anglicanism, and the Church of England specifically. This was eloquently underscored by Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the council for Christian unity, in his address to the bishops of the CofE earlier this year. He pleaded with them not to ordain women to the episcopate, pointing out that it would be a unilateral act that violated the very meaning of episcopus as a sign of unity. He pleaded in vain. In the formal Catholic-Anglican dialogue (ARCIC), there is still a lively Anglican sense of being a branch, as it is said, of the one Church, along with Rome and Orthodoxy. But the formal dialogue is conducted at a level of theological seriousness that is far removed from what has been happening on the ground, so to speak, of the Anglican Communion.
During Dr. Williams’ visit, all the niceties were of course observed, but the mood was grim. There is a keen awareness that the Anglican Communion is in a process of breaking apart. "The proximate cause," writes Fr. Raymond deSouza over on National Review Online, "will be the debate over the morality of homosexual acts. Some argue that they are sinful; others that they are sacramental. This is an unbridgeable gap and it appears impossible for Canterbury to straddle it, try as he might. In any case, Benedict announced in Canterbury’s presence, obligatory formalities and niceties notwithstanding, that for all intents and purposes Catholic-Anglican ecumenical relations will soon come to an end."
That is, I think, an overstatement. Benedict has been as emphatic as his predecessor in underscoring that the Catholic Church’s commitment to the quest for full communion among Christians is "irrevocable." (See my essay "An Irrevocable Commitment" in First Things , October.) The Church will remain in serious engagement with all Christians, awaiting the aforementioned movement of the Spirit. But there is no doubt that Benedict’s words to Canterbury were sobering:
Recent developments, especially concerning the ordained ministry and certain moral teachings, have affected not only internal relations within the Anglican Communion but also relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. We believe that these matters, which are presently under discussion within the Anglican Communion, are of vital importance to the preaching of the Gospel in its integrity, and that your current discussions will shape the future of our relations.
Making the connection with the visit to Turkey, de Souza offers this observation: "Indeed, the last week has highlighted how it now falls to the pope to speak for global Christianity in a way that was not anticipated 40 years ago. While it was thought then that Rome would always have a certain primacy, the hope was that ecumenism would produce a stronger Christian voice, a joint voice of powerful evangelical witness. The contrary has happened; Rome has found itself increasingly the only voice on the global stage. Who else can speak for Christianity? Call it the man in white’s burden, if you will."
In the engagement with Islam, there is no doubt that the man in white is taken to be the voice of what most Muslims still view as Christendom. Since Bartholomew actually lives in Turkey, one might think that he would be a logical interlocutor with Islam. But his position is severely constricted. Again and again during his time in Turkey, Benedict spoke forthrightly about the crucial importance of religious freedom. Nobody could miss the fact that his words applied also, and with painful specificity, to the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
In a fine essay in Newsweek , George Weigel notes some of the restrictions placed on Christians in Turkey. The Orthodox Church cannot govern itself. Turkish law decides that the ecumenical patriarch must be a Turkish citizen living in Turkey. A recent memorandum from the patriarchate said, "The result of these restrictions is that in the not so distant future the Ecumenical Patriarchate may not be able to elect a Patriarch." The Turkish government closed the patriarchate’s only seminary in 1971 and has refused numerous requests to reopen it.
The government refuses to grant the patriarchate legal "personality," in defiance of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which defined the legal position of minorities in Turkey. Refusing to recognize the patriarchate as a legal entity means that it exists at the sufferance of the government and is subject to the waxing and waning of political whims and passions. In Turkey, popular passions about "Christian" and "Greek" influence are frequently paranoid in character and intensity.
The government refuses to give work permits to non-Turkish citizens who want to work at the patriarchate. So the handful of non-Turks at the Phanar, as the site of the patriarchate is called, have to leave the country every three months to renew their tourist visas. Moreover, the patriarchate is not allowed to own property. It owns none of the churches, schools, or monasteries under its jurisdiction, and the state has recently seized the thirty-six cemeteries where are buried the generations of the Orthodoxy that once was. The state decides who can teach in schools that serve the Orthodox, as well as which books may be allowed in school libraries.
Writing on the eve of the pope’s visit, Weigel said: "No Christian community in the West would tolerate such conditions, which involve violations of basic human rights. If Turkey is to be the model of a modern Islamic society, it must remove restrictions on the exercise of some of the most fundamental aspects of religious freedom: the freedom of religious communities to educate their people, perform works of charity and choose their leaders according to their own theological self-understanding. Might Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Turkey focus the world’s attention on the stranglehold the Turkish state attempts to exercise on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his people, such that that stranglehold begins to ease? If the 79-year-old pontiff managed that, Christian unity and the dialogue between the West and Islam would both be advanced."
Whether the stranglehold will be eased is to be seen, but, as I say, Benedict was relentless in pressing the question of religious freedom during his days in Turkey. This touches on another matter of considerable moment, namely, Turkey, the Vatican, and the European Union. The story was all over the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times , along with a big picture of Benedict paying a visit to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The headline read: "In Reversal, Pope Backs Turkey’s Bid to Join European Union." Even by today’s standards, this is a breathtaking instance of journalistic shoddiness, if not downright dishonesty.
Here is what happened. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met briefly with Benedict at the airport. Erdogan was under pressure from some Muslims who strongly opposed his meeting the pope, but he turned the occasion to his advantage, claiming that he had asked the pope to support Turkey’s admission to the EU. He quoted the pope as saying, "We know we don’t have a political role, but we wish for Turkey’s entry into the E.U." Erdogan added, "His wish is a positive recommendation for us."
Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had expressed definite misgivings about Turkey’s being part of Europe. The "reversal" that the Times headlined was of its own manufacture, however. The reporters and editors took at face value the boast of Erdogan after his brief meeting with Benedict. The story follows the line of the Times following the pope’s lecture in Regensburg, Germany. Editorially and in news reports (the two are easily confused), the Times criticized the pope for raising awkward questions about Islam and violence¯questions to which thousands of Muslims reacted with violence.
What the Times calls a "reversal" and "concession" by the pope is based on the uncorroborated statement of Erdogan. The Holy See issued a clarifying statement. Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the Holy See "has neither the power, nor the specific or political role of intervening in the question of Turkey’s entry into the European Union. This is outside the competence of the Holy See." He added that "the Vatican looks positively on and encourages the path of dialogue and of rapprochement in Europe on the basis of common values and principles."
In first place among those common values and principles, as Benedict made repeatedly and emphatically clear during the days in Turkey, is religious freedom, which entails the unequivocal abjuration of violence in relations between religions and cultures. In sum, the witness of Pope Benedict in Turkey perfectly exemplified the principled position he boldly ¯ or, as some would have it, controversially ¯ set forth at Regensburg. As I wrote in "The Regensburg Moment" ( First Things , November), that challenge of September 12 will likely remain a defining point of reference in the high-stakes drama of Islam and the West for years to come.