John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Islam

Throughout the recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on faith and reason at Regensburg University, attempts have been made to drive a wedge between Benedict and his papal predecessor.

The Arabic satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, for example, ran a series of cartoons featuring a John Paul-figure releasing peaceful doves; the doves are then shot down by Benedict from the roof of the Bernini colonnades surrounding St. Peter’s. The last images in the series have John Paul weeping, head in hands, while Benedict, holding a smoking shotgun, smirks. All of which is silly and vulgar, of course. But it isn’t that far from the views expressed by some Catholics, lamenting what they allege to be the drastic difference between Wojtyla’s and Ratzinger’s views of Islam.

The 1994 international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope was John Paul II’s most personal statement, a summary of his convictions about faith, prayer, the papal mission, other world religions, and the human future. As such, it has a special claim on our attention as an expression of Karol Wojtyla’s views, which were honed by an acute intelligence and a long experience of the world. One section of Threshold is devoted to Islam; in it, John Paul expressed his respect for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer.” As the late pope put it, “The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.”

But do these expressions of respect suggest, as NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli did, that, unlike Benedict XVI, John Paul II put Islam “on the same plane” as Catholicism? Hardly. Here, again, is the authentic voice of John Paul II, from Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

“Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

“Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”

In other words, there isn’t a millimeter of difference between John Paul II’s substantive evaluation of Islam and Benedict XVI’s. John Paul II was a master of the public gesture; but to read from his public gestures of respect for Islamic piety an agreement with Islam’s understanding of God, man, and moral obligation is to make a grave mistake. John Paul II would have completely agreed with Benedict XVI’s critique, at Regensburg, of a theology that reduces God to pure will, a remote dictator who can command the irrational (like the murder of innocents) if he chooses. And, like Benedict XVI, John Paul II knew that such misconceptions can have lethal public consequences, because all the great questions of the human condition, including political questions, are ultimately theological.

Benedict XVI bears the burden of the papacy at a historical moment in which religiously-warranted irrationality is a lethal threat to the future of civilization. He and his predecessor have the same view of the sources of that irrationality.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.