Scholars are talking of a clash of civilizations. Catholics are suddenly romanticizing the Crusades again. Anti-Christian violence perpetrated by Muslims is on the rise—it's in the headlines from Africa, India and Oceania and it's hinted in the terrorism we've suffered at home, also.
It makes you want to hit back. Or, short of that, the situation can convince Catholics that Islam and Hinduism are to be denounced, that it's mere political correctness to pretend that our religious persecutors aren't our enemies. Enough, we want to say, is enough.
But that isn't the way a Christian should respond, Pope John Paul II tld Catholics in Rome at the 375th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Urban University.
The Pope's remarks there took on an international resonance when he used them as an opportunity to explain his vision of how religious “opponents” should coexist.
He used words that, having been abused in other contexts, make some Catholics wince. Nonetheless, they apply here: Christians are to be “people of dialogue” in the face of warring factions.
“Without failing to affirm the force of the Gospel message,” he said, “in today's lacerated world it is an important task for Christians to be people of dialogue in order to resist that clash of civilizations that at times seems inevitable.”
“Violence, terrorism, war do no more than build new walls between peoples,” the Holy Father added. Christians shouldn't reinforce those walls with their own antagonistic response.
He said he longs for a school like Urban to be a “gymnasium of universality, in which one must be able to breathe that sense of profound communion that characterized the early community.”
It's easy to dismiss talk of dialogue as an easy way out, or even a suicidal response to a world in which there is so much enmity.
But, in the end, the Pope's way isn't so easy after all. It is, however, the way of Christ, who rejected the “clash of civilizations” view of the Messiah that his Apostles hoped he would champion. And which is more suicidal—agreeing with radical Muslims that we cannot coexist with them peacefully or finding a way to neutralize the conflict?
All the same, “neutralizing the conflict” is only a byproduct of the approach the Pope has in mind when he hopes that Urban will be known “among the other universities in Rome precisely for its special attention to peoples' cultures and to the great world religions, beginning with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.”
Understanding what is true and good in other religions is exactly what a university should do—so long as it keeps its “theological, Christological and ecclesiological” bearings, he added.
Catholics aren't necessarily pacifists and we aren't afraid to acknowledge legitimate disagreements with other religious or ideological world-views. Despite scandalous excesses, there really was something noble about the Crusades, which were largely defensive wars. They weren't among the abuses the Pope mentioned in his year-2000 mea culpa for past misdeeds by Catholics.
But in a culture that has gone too far in its zeal for tolerance, it's easy for us to forget that there really is a legitimate virtue of tolerance, too. How to balance appropriate commitment to the faith and appropriate tolerance for other religions?
Holiness, the Pope explained. “The Church of the third millennium needs priests, religious and laity who are holy and educated. This is not a new program,” he said. “The program already exists: It is the same as always, taken up in the Gospel and living Tradition. In the last analysis, it is centered on Christ himself, who must be known, loved, imitated, to live the Trinitarian life in him and with him in order to transform history.”