A Question of Freedom; When Benedict XVI Goes to Turkey, the Media Talk Will Be of Islam, but the Pope's Visit Could Advance Religious Liberty for Orthodox Christians
Byline: George Weigel (Weigel is senior fellow at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author, most recently, of "God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.")
Rome and Constantinople formally parted ways via mutual excommunications in 1054, after centuries of controversy in which geography and language played perhaps as large a role as controverted questions of theology and liturgical practice. However we understand the reasons for the split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, those mutual excommunications opened up a religious and psychological fault line that would have profound historical consequences throughout the second millennium of Christian history. Ever since the historic 1964 meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, Catholic theologians and Orthodox scholars have worked to close the breach formalized almost a thousand years ago so that the church could once again "breathe with both lungs," as the late Pope John Paul II liked to put it. So when Pope Benedict XVI, successor of the apostle Peter, goes to Istanbul on Nov. 28 to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, successor of the apostle Andrew, the pontiff's primary concerns will be ecumenical: how might he and Bartholomew (who did some of his doctoral work in Rome) advance the dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, so that Peter and Andrew and the churches they embody might, one day, find themselves again in full communion with each other?
In the days when the world knew him as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI expressed reservations about Turkey's accession to the European Union, which he believed would mark the end of the EU as the political expression of a common culture. Instead, Ratzinger suggested, Turkey should be associated with the European Union in such a way that it would enjoy the economic benefits of EU membership without becoming a member, with full voice and vote, of the EU's political deliberations. Perhaps Ratzinger has reconsidered his position as pope; but in any case, his questions about Turkey's EU ambitions, plus his September lecture in Regensburg, Germany, in which he raised hard questions about the ways in which certain Islamic conceptions of God led to lethal worldly consequences, have conspired, in the global media's mind, to cast Pope Benedict's impending visit to Turkey in a light that both he and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew dislike: as far as most of the world is concerned, the pope is going to Islamic Turkey, not to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the real issue being engaged in Istanbul from Nov. 28 through Dec. 1 involves Catholicism and Islam, not Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Given the ecumenical priorities that both pope and patriarch assign to this historic encounter, however, it is very unlikely that the papal pilgrimage will see Regensburg II, a major statement from Benedict XVI on Christianity and Islam. That is not because the pope is retreating from what he said at Regensburg; it is because this pilgrimage has a different purpose.
There is, however, a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he's doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world's expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate's path by the Turkish government--restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey's ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the "Orthodox Vatican," much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey's practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved--and so, in consequence, would Turkey's chances of a closer relationship to the EU. …