In Turkey, Benedict Confounded His Critics

Was Pope Benedict XVI’s overture to Turkey vis a vis the country’s pursuit of entrance in the European Union — as expressed in his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Chapter 1 in the book of reconciliation between the leader of the Catholic Church and the Muslim world?

If so, the Holy Father’s visit to the famed Blue Mosque of Istanbul sealed the deal.

The criticism of this bold move, ironically, has come from certain sectors of his Christian flock.

My inbox is full of angry letters from Christians who saw the Pope’s gesture as a shameless act of idolatry.

“Islam is a false religion, Muhammad is a false prophet, and the Koran is anything but sacred,” wrote one person. “How dare the Pope lend credence to such heresy!”

It is understandable that people would ask whether the Pope succumbed to political correctness or “religious relativism” — the idea that all religions are equally true — against which he has preached for so long. After all, the theological line between interreligious dialogue and idolatry is rather fine and, in the opinion and theological record of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, many good people have crossed it. To a few he sent letters declaring that their teaching was not compatible with the Catholic faith.

We are accustomed to thinking in terms of public perception and asking how far is too far when it comes to questions of dialogue with Islam. Meanwhile, the Pope instinctively reverts to principles.

Benedict recognizes that religious expression is man’s imperfect attempt to respond to God. In these various attempts, we find differing degrees of truth. We can discover some goodness in all of them.

Promoting the positive elements in other religious traditions is not the same as sanctioning their creeds or whitewashing differences. It is to encourage all people of good will to seek and follow the truth in as much as God reveals it to them, in his own timing and mysterious ways.

The goodness Pope Benedict promoted here in Istanbul is not the Quran or the prophet Muhammad; it is the honest piety of many Muslim believers. He believes that, when they pray, if they do so sincerely, the same God who listens to him in papal robes and to the homeless man with no robes at all also listens to them — and will at some point and in some way allow them to choose for or against the Triune God.

Pope Benedict would be the first to defend biblical revelation that says all salvation comes through Jesus Christ. But he equally defends the notion that we don’t know how God will work out the details of redemption for all of his creatures, some of whom have never heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

Having one’s name penned in the registrar of the local parish or synagogue, typed into the database of the evangelical mega-church or scribbled on the wall of a store-front congregation may, in fact, each be a significant sign of an individual’s pro-active response to God’s voice. But Pope Benedict believes the real deal is if our names are etched in the heavenly scrolls of the book of life, a book open to all people of all times and places.

Some unscrupulous journalists have painted Pope Benedict as a hardliner on interreligious dialogue and tried to set him up in stark contrast to his predecessor. They saw his decision to forgo attendance at another interreligious day of prayer at Assisi, made famous by Pope John Paul II, as closed-mindedness and rigidity. These same journalists were with me in Turkey and could only shake their heads in wonderment as Pope Benedict toured the Blue Mosque and paused for a moment of meditation with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici.

All of this from a Pope who had been written off by the media as a quiet, media-shy, German intellectual, concerned primarily with streamlining Vatican bureaucracy and restricting theological runaways. We remember from the conclave how some novice pope-watchers went so far as to say Benedict’s would be a necessarily dull papacy.

They theorized that “Pope Ratzinger” would serve as a simple transition from John Paul II, the media star, to a Latin American or African pope, who could then, without fear of comparisons to the JPII glory days, revitalize the Church.

This papacy may be transitional and relatively short (Pope Benedict is 79 years old), but it sure isn’t dull. The explosive speech in Regensburg has become his unwitting media debut. It has served to take the cameras off of him and aim them on his ideas about the Church and the world.

The image of Pope Benedict in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul gives context to his Regensburg message. Faith and reason are not the exclusive property of the Catholic Church.

Legionary Father Jonathan Morris,

a commentator for

the Fox News Channel, blogs at