George Weigel, Catholic thinker and biographer of Pope John Paul II, delivered a lecture on Thursday on religion and world politics in which he argued that Pope Benedict XVI has provided a unique model for global understanding between Christianity, Western secularism and Islam.
In the lecture, Weigel also called on Muslim leaders engaged in inter-religious dialogue to acknowledge and vigorously condemn the specific abuses of human rights and religious freedom found among some Muslim nations.
During the lecture at the University of Colorado at Boulder, sponsored by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, Weigel said that Pope Benedict XVI was uniquely suited to addressing world conflicts grounded in religious differences. Weigel believes that the Pope, especially in his 2006 Regensberg lecture, provides a “grammar” to world leaders that could help them understand and reform both the relativism of the secular West and the violence of Islamic extremism.
At his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensberg, the Pope said that religious violence and compulsion are rooted in the idea that God is pure will instead of a rational, loving being. He said that Christianity’s belief in a loving, reasonable God has helped Christians reconcile themselves to Enlightenment values of religious freedom and human rights, while aspects of Islamic theology have hindered such reform among Muslims.
Weigel countered the media portrayal of the speech as a “gaffe” for its perceived insult of Mohammed. Far from being a gaffe, he argued, the Regensberg address was an important reflection that considered questions important to world policy today. These questions included:
“Can Islam be self-critical? Can its leaders condemn and marginalize its extremists, or are Muslims condemned to be held hostage to the passions of those who consider the murder of innocents to be pleasing to God? Can the West recover its commitment to reason, and thus help support Islamic reform?”
Weigel argued that no one other than Pope Benedict could have framed the discussion in such a way. “No president, prime minister, king, queen, or secretary general could put these questions in play at this level of sophistication before a world audience,” Weigel said.
Pope Benedict’s lecture has given the world political community “a grammar for addressing these questions, a genuinely transcultural grammar of rationality and irrationality.”
“Far from being an exercise in theological abstraction, the Regensberg lecture was a courageous attempt to create a new public grammar capable of disciplining and directing the world discussion of what is arguably the world’s greatest problem,” Weigel continued.
Weigel also criticized some of the reactions to the Regensberg lecture. Though acknowledging that Muslim critiques of the West are often “not without merit,” Weigel argued that the October 2007 letter from the 138 Muslim leaders “sidestepped” the questions raised by the Pope’s lecture.
Muslim scholars addressed the letter, titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to global Christian leaders in pursuit of inter-religious dialogue. Many observers considered the letter an important breakthrough.
Weigel said the letter had spoken at length about the “Two Great Commandments” to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. However, Weigel claimed, the letter said nothing applicable to relevant issues of “faith, freedom, and the governance of society,” such as death threats against Muslims who convert to Christianity or the prohibition of Christian worship in Saudi Arabia.
He challenged the Muslim leaders to be more specific in future dialogue:
“Do these 138 Muslim leaders agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between spiritual and political authority are the issues at the heart of the tension between Islam and the West, indeed between Islam and ‘the rest,’ and even more within Islam itself. Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of classical reason, which bear on the organization of 21st century society, than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the Two Great Commandments, which risk leading to an exchange of banalities?
“Why not get down to cases?” Weigel asked. He further asserted that authentic dialogue requires a “precise focus” and a commitment to “condemn by name the members of their communities who murder in the Name of God.”
Weigel also criticized the “secularization thesis,” which claims that countries become less religious as time advances. He argued that in fact the secularization of the West was the exception, rather than the rule. The secularization thesis, he said, has clouded the analysis of Western thinkers and politicians who cannot understand the religious basis of many world movements, including Islamic extremism.
The centuries-long Catholic encounter with the positive Enlightenment values of religious freedom and human rights, Weigel thought, could be a model for Christian-Muslim dialogue. While not compromising with what Weigel called the “chaff” of Enlightenment scientific atheism, past Catholic mistakes and successes could help Muslims navigate reforms of their own religion.
Weigel cited Pope Benedict’s 2006 Christmas address as evidence the Pope approved of a similar strategy. In that speech the Pope said:
“In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and through which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church.”
Weigel’s lecture drew its content from his recent book, “Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society of Colorado.