The Pope in a Mosque — Dialogue or Idolatry?

Editor’s note: As Pope Benedict XVI heads back to Rome, Father Jonathan will be providing television and web analysis of his recent four-day trip to Turkey.

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Istanbul, Turkey — If Pope Benedict XVI's overture to Turkey's pursuit of entrance into the European Union, as expressed in his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was chapter one in the book of reconciliation between the leader of the Catholic Church and the Muslim world, his visit today to the famed Blue Mosque of Istanbul is likely to seal the deal.

The problem now, ironically, may be with certain sectors of his Christian flock.

My inbox is full of angry letters, like the one below, from Christians who foresee the Pope's slipper-clad romp in a mosque as a shameless act of idolatry.

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

It is understandable to ask whether the Pope is succumbing 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 inter-religious dialogue and idolatry is rather fine, and in the opinion and theological record of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, many good people have crossed it. To a few, he sent letters of excommunication.

Here's getting into Pope Benedict's mind: while we are accustomed to thinking in terms of public perception and asking how far is too far — in questions of dialogue with Islam — the Pope instinctively reverts to principles. Benedict believes religion is man's imperfect attempt to respond to God. In these various attempts we find differing degrees of truth, but in all of them we can discover some goodness. 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 will be promoting today here in Istanbul is not the Quran or the prophet Mohammad; 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.

Pope Benedict would be the first to defend the Christian Biblical tradition that affirms 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 giving equal opportunity to all of his creatures, some of whom have never heard of the man.

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 be a significant sign of an individual's pro-active response to God's voice. Yet, 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.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. Dialogue or Idolatry? I am eager to hear your thoughts on this topic. Send me an e-mail.

P.P.S. I promised yesterday I would write to you about my sit-down interview with the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Demetrios. Instead, I will edit and post the video here on the blog, hopefully by tomorrow. He spoke of what it is like for a Christian minority to live in a 99 percent Muslim country like Turkey.

P.P.P.S. Some members of the media have reported that Pope Benedict offered “support” for Turkey's entrance into the European Union. In my opinion, this is imprecise. What we know is this: after the Pope's 20-minute airport meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister quoted the Pope as having said, "Turkey should take its place in Europe.” The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, was quick to clarify that while the Vatican does not have a political role in deciding on Turkey's EU candidacy, it does "view positively" the process of dialogue and drawing closer together what Turkey's EU aspirations represent. That is a circular way of saying the Vatican WILL NOT OPPOSE Turkey's entrance. While this reflects a marked contrast with the then-Cardinal Ratzinger's negative attitude to Turkey's EU aspirations, it is not a promise of support. In fact, the “process of drawing together” may be understood more perfectly as the Vatican's insistence that Turkey comply with the European Union's values, especially the respect for women and religious liberty.

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