Keeping the Faith

Most critics of Pope Benedict XVI’s University of Regenburg speech draw attention to his misrepresentation of Islam; these criticisms overlook his more passionate dismissal of European secularism–an area ironically in which he and many Muslims may find common ground. Muslims in Europe have brought to the surface the anti-religious nature of European secularism. Both struggle against the hostility of European secularism; there is a sense in which Christians and Muslims in Europe see themselves as being in the same boat. Many Catholics act sympathetically toward Islam. The Vatican, as protector of the weak, supports churches which have provided refuge to Muslim asylum-seekers. Ratzinger’s positions on Islam are mixed: on one hand, he scathingly compared contemporary Europe with resurgent Islam as examples of extremism; on the other, he seems to admire the omnipresence of Islam in the lives of most Muslims. Islam today is capable of offering a valid spiritual basis for the life of the peoples, a basis that seems to have slipped out of the hands of old [declining] Europe.” The pope’s eurocentric vision involves faith and reason coming together; the Catholic Church, as a tradition filtered through the Enlightenment, will be a bridge between “godless rationalism and religious fundamentalism.” In this vision, the Church sits between rabidly secular Europe and violent, zealous Islam. This seeming jealousy may reflect sensitivities of a Catholic Church in decline that is increasingly upstaged by the prominence of European Muslims. Many are looking to the Catholic Church as the only Institution to restore the credibility of religion in Europe; sexual abuse scandals of the past decade and the tension between Church hierarchy and modern individualism have created a crisis of authority. Sexual abuse scandals, high divorce rates, and the social acceptability of homosexuality and birth control are indications of a church having long lost its grip. The pope’s efforts to revitalize European society by integrating faith and rationality may be compromised by his assertion of the absolute authority of Rome. The suppression of discussion and debate and anxiety about orthodoxy and loyalty make his end goals that much more difficult to achieve.