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Western secularism, not Islam, is pope's real enemy By Nicholas Rigillo

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Tuesday December 19, 2006

By Nicholas Rigillo, Vatican City (dpa) - Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in which he appeared to equate Islam with violence, made him an enemy in the eyes of many Muslims. Protesters took to the streets, extremists burned effigies of the pope and al-Qaeda's Iraqi cell likened his late November visit to Turkey to a modern-day crusade.

In fact, a closer look at the Regensburg speech, as well as statements made throughout his 20-month long pontificate, show that Benedict's real concern is with Western secularism. In this context, Islam could even turn out to be a useful ally of the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedict's trip to Turkey, his first to a predominantly Muslim country, effectively buried the Regensburg controversy, with Islamists hailing his "historic" visit to Istanbul's Blue Mosque as providing Catholic-Muslim relations with a fresh start.

"Like a Muslim!", read the main headline in Turkey's Milliyet newspaper above a photograph of Benedict, his eyes closed while facing the mihrab - a niche in the mosque's wall that indicates the direction of Mecca.

Earlier, on day one of his visit, the pope had told Turkey's most senior Muslim figure about the need for "authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better".

But Benedict didn't travel to Turkey just to bury the hatchet with Muslims, he also sought to improve relations with Orthodox Christians.

And after a meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the two leaders signed a Common Declaration that called for the defence of Europe's Christian values and traditions.

"The process of secularization has weakened (Christian tradition); indeed, it is being called into question and even rejected," the pope said.

"We are called ... to renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality," he added.

On December 14, during a visit to the Vatican by the head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Benedict made his intentions even more explicit, saying, "It is necessary to develop cooperation between Christians in each country of the European Union, so as to face the new risks that confront the Christian faith, which is to say growing secularism, relativism and nihilism."

On the surface, the pope's call for a Christian alliance in defence of Europe's Christian roots appears to fly in the face of his eagerness to establish brotherly relations with Islam.

Indeed, Benedict had even opposed Turkey's entry into the EU while he was still a cardinal, only to backtrack in Ankara.

In fact, as Vatican expert John Allen recently noted, the two objectives are not contradictory.

"When Benedict talks about the 'Christian tradition' of Europe, the alternative he has in mind is not so much Islam as the Socialist government in Spain of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero which, in fairly short order, has moved towards liberalized positions on gay marriage, abortion and divorce," Allen wrote in the December 1 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

"Though it may seem surprising, Benedict's conviction seems to be that Muslims ought to be encouraged, rather than threatened, by his call to defend Europe's Christian roots. Ultimately, what it implies is the right of religious believers to shape culture, and the importance of moral and spiritual wisdom - values which, the pope believes, serious Muslims ought to share," Allen explained.

According to the pope, Allen argues, the real clash of civilizations "is not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief".

Allen's observations lead back to Regensburg.

Though international attention focused on its three paragraphs on Islam, the pope's lecture "on faith and reason" was in fact a high- brow and detailed critique of modern Western thought.

In his scholarly address, Joseph Ratzinger argued that the philosophical foundations of modern-day Europe - from Kant to positivism - by insisting that only "the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific," have ended up marginalizing religion and God.

"In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid," the pope said in Germany.

Moreover, the pope argued, this view of science ends up relegating ethical questions about man's origin and destiny "to the realm of the subjective."

In this way, ethics and religion "become a completely personal matter" while "attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology end up being simply inadequate".

A reason "which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures", the pope concluded, "is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures".

Enlightened Muslims would surely agree.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency