Two images, both unexpected, dominated the year for Pope Benedict XVI.
The first was iconic in a malevolent sense, with
fanatical Muslims burning him in effigy after his
The papal year began with the release of the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love ) and much of what happened afterward would test the limits of papal charity.
The Holy Father’s decision, only a few months after
his election, to request a special meeting with Muslim leaders in
That meeting was full of warm exchanges and respect,
a notable achievement in a Europe where there are often social tensions with
the large Muslim minorities in
Those tensions dominated the early part of 2006, when the Danish cartoon controversy erupted, with Muslim mobs throughout the world resorting to violence to protest caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
No doubt the Holy Father took note as governments and
newspapers across Europe and North America — including influential
Against this background, with his usual careful preparation, the Holy Father returned to Germany in September and addressed himself at Regensburg to a dominant theme of his entire theological career, namely that reason and faith are both necessary to know the truth.
And then he addressed head-on a central question of our time: Is it reasonable to commit violence in the name of faith? He said No, and asked whether contemporary Islam could give as emphatic a rejection of violence.
It is a question oft-discussed but never formally raised in polite circles. The settled routine after an Islamist terrorist act is for the president/prime minister/Prince of Wales to rush to a mosque to proclaim Islam a religion of peace. Benedict was bold enough to ask the question that has been discussed at kitchen tables the world over since 9/11: Is there something in contemporary Islamic thought that encourages such violence?
Benedict does not raise questions to indulge idle curiosity.
The theologian in him asks questions because he thinks good questions can lead to good answers. His own, implied, answer to the question of Islam and violence is that there are bad religious ideas afoot in the Islamic world — as has also been the case at times in Christian history — that do justify violence, and therefore need to be answered by good religious ideas.
The central geopolitical question of the post-9/11 period is how to counter the malevolence of Islamist terror.
Benedict thinks that is also a spiritual question.
One option is to propose democracy and economic liberty in the Islamic world; another is to propose secularism to reduce religious extremism. Benedict understands better than anyone that bad religious ideas cannot be overcome by non-religious ideas or even worse, anti-religious ideas. Bad religious ideas need to be confronted by good religious ideas, which is simply to say that religious errors need to be corrected by religious truths, not political non-sequiturs or anti-religious errors.
This was why he raised the whole matter in
The tone was different, but Benedict did not pretend
to overlook the Turkish denial of religious liberty, and he mentioned the
murdered Father Santoro by name. What
That was captured by the moment of prayer in the Blue Mosque. Silent prayer is the antithesis of violence, and it is something shared by Christians and Muslims alike. That it created such a stir — was the Pope capitulating to the Mohammedans, asked some — indicated how off-track the discussion had wandered. The Pope was praying, alongside Muslims, and Muslims who can pray alongside Christians might serve to dissuade their fellow believers from blowing them up.
In retrospect, 2006 was the year in which the Holy Father asked difficult questions in a lecture hall, and he prayed in a place dedicated to prayer.
That both take courage today is an indication of how delicate and complicated the Islamist problem has become.
In daring to do both, Benedict succeeded in clarifying what the problem is, and where solutions might be found. It has been an important year in Christian-Muslim relations, and has established that relationship as a central element of Benedict’s pontificate. Call it Benedict’s “year of the Muslims” as it were; its consequences will be long-lasting.
Father Raymond J.
De Souza served as the Register’s