Historians may look back at the second decade of the 21st century and pinpoint the Arab Spring and the resignation of Pope Benedict VXI as two of the era’s most influential events. The former freed some countries in the Middle East from the ironclad grip of dictators and ushered in a new wave of Islamist governments; the latter presents the Catholic Church with a unique opportunity to rebrand itself (a majority of Catholics said in a recent CBS/New York Times poll that the church is “out of touch”) and embrace a more broadened approach.
Both are revolutionary events that represent a sea change in the way we view religion and politics, tradition and modernity. They can redefine what is possible in a world where rigid political and religious orthodoxy present increasing challenges. The election of a new pope and the rise of new Arab governments present an important occasion for cooperation and improved Muslim-Catholic relations. Both parties should jump at the chance to forge such a positive path.
The relationship between Muslims and Catholics over the years is a story of both confrontation and dialogue. Byzantine Christendom in the 7th and 8th centuries produced several early flashpoints of conflict. Muslim armies in the Arabian Peninsula hoped to expand their territory westward. The conquests of centers such as Jerusalem and Damascus, strategic fortresses in the quest of Muslim expansionism, resulted in the subjugation of Christian communities who fell under the rule of Muslim leaders. The arrival of Islam was met with ardent opposition from some Christian theologians who believed that it was not another faith but rather a religious fabrication — the 101st “heresy” according to St. John of Damascus who characterized Islam as “the forerunner of the Antichrist.” That language shaped the theological tenor of the Crusades, which began in November of 1095 when Pope Urban II issued a papal edict calling for a “holy war” against the Turks (the leading Muslim empire). Scholars not that they were, for him, “an accursed race,” and one that he hoped to “exterminate from our lands.”
Fortunately, the story does not end there. The Second Vatican Council, in its 1965 promulgation, endorsed interfaith dialogue with “non-Christian religions” including Islam. Muslims and Catholics answered the call with enthusiasm. Speaking in Turkey in 1979, the late Pope John Paul II referred to the “spiritual bonds that unite us,” echoing the words of his 11th-century predecessor, Pope Gregory VII, in a letter he once wrote to Sultan al-Nasir of Bejaya (Algeria).
Despite significant bumps in the road, such as Pope Benedict VXI’s insensitive description of Muhammad during the Regensburg lecture in 2006, moments of conflict have often been met with glimpses of hope. The denigration prompted renewed interest in Catholic-Muslim dialogue and a summit in Rome that year where faith leaders worked to heal past wounds and nurture empathy. Strikingly, in 2011, amidst raucous protests that rapt the Arab world, 48 Catholic and Muslim religious leaders (24 from each faith) met quietly along the Jordan River as part of a faith forum that sought solutions to abiding tension and misunderstanding.
Anxieties may stem from legitimate concerns over faith differences. But today, the Muslim community is plagued with unbridled suspicion and skepticism. Anti-Muslim prejudice persists at high levels, despite the fact that a North Carolina research group has found that terrorism by Muslim Americans poses a “minuscule threat to public safety.” While polls show that followers of the Islamic faith are economically, socially and politically integrated into the fabric of America, detractors warn that the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law are silently gaining influence. In the United States and Europe, alarmists interpret Muslim immigration and the erection of mosques as indications of a monstrous presence lying in wait. The election of Islamist parties abroad has only heightened those fears.
Catholics, if anyone, know the pain caused by such mis-characterizations. It’s a tragic part of their history in this country. In the 1800s and 1900s, many believed that Catholics could not be loyal Americans. New England was the epicenter of conspiracies about a secret Catholic plot to take over the country and install papal rule. A boom of Catholic immigrants from Europe, and their subsequent construction of churches and dioceses, led one writer to conclude that the Catholic “serpent” had “commenced its coil about [America’s] limbs and the lethargy of his poison is creeping over us.” The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 re-birthed the conspiracy theories of earlier years. Dr. Norman Vincent Peal, possibly the nation’s most prominent Protestant minister of the time, said that the election of Kennedy, a Catholic, would “bring American foreign policy into line with Vatican objectives.”
The changes taking place in world right now are significant ones. With them, comes a time of uncertainty and unease; Catholics wait to discover who their new Holy Father will be and Muslims throughout Middle East face the reality of new governments where religion and politics form a sharp new intersection. Out of a shared desire to re imagine a future free from corruption, abuses of power, religious discrimination and failed institutions, Catholic and Muslim leaders alike must use this transitional period to find a common way forward — a way that heals the wounds of history and sets a positive tone for histories that are not yet written.
This piece first appeared in The Washington Post on March 6, 2013.