Pope Benedict will not have left his mark on history quite as decisively as his predecessor, John Paul II. The latter’s name will live after him as an exemplar of openness, of service to humanity and of dialogue with the world’s spiritual and religious traditions. When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope eight years ago, it was expected that he would reaffirm the central position of dogma, of the principles and the laws of the Roman Catholic Church. He brought with him a reputation for theological rigour, strictness in matters of doctrine and practice, and an inflexible attitude toward other Christian traditions and other religions. The Church was Truth, and must reaffirm that truth with clarity and courage. This reaffirmation was the foundation stone of his conception of the papal function.
The outgoing pope’s great knowledge of theology must of course be recognised, as must his genuine and sincere meditative intelligence. He was above all fundamentally Catholic, a man of profound conviction, driven by an ongoing fixation with consistency. The first years of his papacy quickly revealed his deficiencies as well as his qualities, as he learned to interact with the world of media and communication. Benedict XVI emerged as inward-turning, expressing himself as a theologian immersed in texts and traditions; more than a few of his public statements demonstrated a mixture of Catholic consistency and media awkwardness. He, and his advisors and representatives, were often forced to rephrase, explain or clarify a statement, a formula, a speech. He was by no means a media pope, but a pope of holy writ, more faithful to norms to be respected than guided by the imperative of responding to contemporary challenges.
This same scrupulous consistency led him to positions that proved difficult for the broader Christian family to accept. For him, after all was said and done, the truth, and the only true salvation, could not be envisaged outside the Catholic church.
Dialogue with the Protestants, the Orthodox or other Christian churches were, of course, both necessary and positive but he could never forget that one imperative. It came as no surprise that he approached dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim monotheistic traditions, and beyond them, Hinduism and Buddhism, with the same consistency: as spiritual traditions, and as religions, they might well contain an element of truth, but they could never represent a pathway to the salvation of souls.
Dialogue might well focus on shared ethical principles, respective practices and social realities, but under no circumstances could any doubt be cast upon the truth that in his eyes the Catholic church alone possessed and incarnated: a position that seemed logical enough to those within, but logically—and dogmatically—exclusivist when seen from without. So it was that the pope came to stand for the fraught and close-minded consistency of the dogmatist. It came as no surprise that interfaith dialogue was biased, diluted, all but useless except as an adjunct to missionary competition or the comparison of positive and negative practices.
It is in this light that his lecture at Ravensburg University in 2006 should be understood. His reading of European history was charged with fears about the modern era. For him, two threats loomed over the continent: secularisation that drives religion — as faith, rules and hopes — to the margins of society, and the arrival of Muslims whose numbers, practices and growing visibility represented, for him, a major challenge for the Catholic church.
Forcefully, rather clumsily and with historical inaccuracy, Pope Benedict XVI asserted Europe’s Greek and Christian roots. His insistence on rereading the past, on reducing the cultural origins of Europe to the Hellenic rationalist tradition and the Christian faith, were designed to reaffirm European identity. While millions of Muslim citizens live in Europe they remain foreign to Europe’s deep identity, which must be affirmed, defended and protected.
Historical truth is another matter, of course. Islam, like Judaism, is part and parcel of the European soul, a soul shaped by their thinkers, philosophers, architects and authors, their artists and merchants. Islam is, historically and contemporaneously, a European religion; the pope’s remarks must be viewed through the prism of fear, fear of the Muslim presence, and driven by the urge to revitalise missionary activity in the very heart of Europe.
Benedict XVI viewed interfaith dialogue through the same prism. In the course of our encounters, the last one in Rome in 2009, it proved impossible to broach theological fundamentals and principles: the discussion quickly turned to our respective practices, and to the treatment of Christian minorities in the Orient.
Of course we could point to shared values, but even then, dialogue rapidly veered off into comparisons, reciprocity, and even competition. Debate on the treatment of Eastern Christians cannot and must not be avoided; discrimination is a fact and Muslims must respond in full candour, but this cannot become a pretext for shirking fundamental theological questions, or, more generally, the obligation to place things in their proper historical and political context.
The fact that the rights of Muslims are often better protected in the secular West has very little to do with Christianity, just as occasional discrimination in Muslim-majority societies cannot be attributed to certain interpretations of Islam alone. It is impossible to disregard the political and historical factors that go well beyond strict interfaith dialogue. To confine dialogue—with other religions in general and with Islam in particular — to missionary posturing (against the “threat” of Islam in the West) and systematic criticism (underlining the contradictions of Muslim majority societies) can only deprive it of its value and limit its potential for improving mutual awareness and promoting fruitful, respectful, pro-active and harmonious co-existence.
The church must face facts: it has a serious youth problem. The final years of Pope John Paul II and the retirement, at 85, of Benedict XVI symbolise an era: the church today seems frail, on the defensive, far from the common people, stubbornly fixated on principles that millions hear and few apply. The churches of Europe, and more generally in the West, are emptying; those who remain are increasingly old.
It can only be hoped that the next pope will possess youthfulness of spirit combined with seriousness and theological competence, that he will be better fitted to grasp the great issues of the day, both within the Church and at the heart of contemporary society. It can only be hoped that he will be capable of articulating a less abrasive message, one more open to other traditions; one that, even though the faithful quite naturally understand it as the “truth,” never neglects dialogue and mutual respect, all the while standing firmly for a pluralist and inclusive West as the embodiment of the Catholic message.
To the recognition of diversity within (the presence of other Christian traditions) and without (the world’s other spiritual traditions and religions) must be added full and open debate within the church on rules and practices. The celibacy of priests, the exclusion of women from the clerical hierarchy, the acceptance of divorce, the use of contraception, or the ethical response of the Catholic church to contemporary scientific and technological issues are only a few of the questions to which the incoming pope will be called upon to respond: not against Catholic principles, but with the triple exigency of fidelity to those principles, to the critical re-examination of the sources, and to the acceptance of responsibility for the state of our world.
Every religious and spiritual tradition must submit itself to the process of criticism and self-criticism. Such a process will demand the full support of a Pope, of priests and competent, self-assured, courageous and qualified representatives (rabbis and ulama) of other faiths who will reject defensive attitudes and accept that their first responsibility is to awaken minds and hearts to the meaning of life and death, to the dignity of beings in their diversity, and the affirmation of overarching (universal and shared) goals that any society would neglect at its risk. The church today awaits this message and pastoral guidance, as do all of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.