Our lesson today is a most unusual one, the first of its kind in the five years since Supply-Side University was founded at this website. I’ve never before offered a lecture on the intersection of religion and politics, although church and state have been discussed tangentially from time to time. The expanding conflict in the Middle East prompted me to ask my colleague at Polyconomics, Peter Signorelli, to take the class today for a discussion of the recent trip of Pope John Paul II to Athens and Damascus. (Today, May 18, by the way, is the Pope’s 81st birthday.)
Peter’s avocation the last 20 years has been a study of religion and politics, not only in our time, but in all time. I have several wise old friends, but my wife Patricia insists Peter is the wisest of them all, and I do not argue with her. As an active member of the Roman Catholic Church joined with others who seek to advance spiritual goals in the secular world without a clash of church and state, Peter has come to have a profound respect for the work this pope has accomplished in that regard. It’s been my belief for some time that the political leaders of the Middle East are never going to be able to resolve the differences that confront them -- without the deep involvement of the region’s religious leaders. It’s a controversial topic that I hope inspires some lively discussion here. Here is “Professor” Signorelli:
How does one evaluate the role of religious leadership in the workings of global political economy? Some would assert that it plays no serious role or even that it ought have no serious role on the world stage. That point of view, however, constantly is being overturned in most dramatic ways as we enter the third millennium.
Jude Wanniski noted in a recent Supply-Side University lesson that on the cusp of a forthcoming post-Cold War era he had proposed a vision of the U.S. in which the world’s only superpower might become a Good Shepherd to the world, a benign imperium, a kindly father, helping manage the global family with a maximum of diplomacy and minimum of force. He still promotes that vision, but it continues to run up against those who prefer to see the U.S. as something akin to “a God of Wrath, throwing thunderbolts from the mountaintop at any signs of misbehavior by foreigners, especially Arabs, Muslims and Chinese.” In “An American Empire,” which he penned in late August 1995, Jude asked “[h]ow shall we go about determining the limitations on our powers and the extent of our responsibilities?” and noted that “[t]he questions are different than any we have ever encountered, requiring that our people think about the world differently than we ever have before. There is no historic guidebook to help us at this frontier of boundless opportunity. All the rules have been written for a world of adversarial divisions.”
I would put forward the Roman Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, as a leader whose international accomplishments help illuminate for us the contours of global political economy in the newly unfolding millennium. He is one of those singular individuals whose absence at this particular time would have completely altered the course of history. He is one of the few world leaders who has been able to accomplish major advances on behalf of the human family precisely by not playing according to the rules of a world full of adversarial divisions.
John Paul II does not deny those divisions. He acknowledges that going into the new millennium “humanity is beginning this new chapter of its history with still open wounds,” but he refuses to let those divisions and wounds bind him. In one sense this pope may appear to be a quintessentially consummate politician, a shrewd and skillful diplomat, and a master of strategic international relations. It is a mistake, though, to characterize his leadership in those terms. First and foremost, Pope John Paul II is a Good Shepherd.
The Pontiff’s great “political” accomplishments flow from the fact that he does not employ any of the traditional modalities of politics. He does not think politically. His tasks are not political, nor are his goals, yet his great “political” successes have set in motion historic transformations. His most recent trip abroad, to Greece and Syria, provides powerful testimony to his essential role as a global leader who can act and think outside the confining bounds of a world shaped by strife and conflict, division and adversarial relations, recrimination and bitterness, fear and despair. Here is a non-state actor who is fundamentally shaping history in our time. As his biographer George Weigel describes him, “he is the most politically consequential pope in centuries....the man arguably with the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead.”
In his international trips (some 93 thus far in his pontificate) John Paul II steadily has been challenging a world view advanced, for example, by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Restructuring of the World Order, a view subscribed to by William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a cabal of old cold warriors in and around the Bush administration. The latter identify China as the major threat, with Russia not far behind, while Huntington sees Islam as the primary threat to the West. Embracing Asia and Africa, though, the pope is promoting a new era of dialogue and peace to a world heading into a clash of civilizations. He rejects the prevailing notion that politics or economics runs history or that mankind is locked in the grip of some inexorable force. As he demonstrated in Poland in 1979, and has continued to demonstrate throughout his pontificate, an overwhelming material force can be resisted successfully through the resources of the human spirit.
Many in the West may not appreciate the enormity of what he accomplished in his most recent pilgrimages. Mistrust and bitter hostility have kept the Catholic West and Orthodox East bitterly divided for nearly a thousand years. As recently as 1999, a visit by the Pope was opposed by the Orthodox hierarchy who railed against “the imperial tendencies shown by the Pope toward other Christians.” At one time the Orthodox Synod had declared that a visit by the Pope would “contaminate Greek soil.” Even on the eve of his trip to Greece, the feeling was that he was unwelcome, and the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, rejected common prayer with John Paul II. Upon arrival he was subjected to a dressing down by Christodoulos, who harshly reproached John Paul II for the faults of the Roman Catholics over the centuries -- from the 11th century schism, to the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, to the failure to publicly condemn the division of Cyprus following Turkey’s invasion. “Traumatic experiences remain as open wounds in the vigorous body” of the Greeks, he declared, noting that for nearly one thousand years “not even one single petition for forgiveness has been heard.”
John Paul II’s response was that reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholics is possible and he clarified the purpose of his visit, stating that “your Beatitude, clearly, there is a need for a liberating process of purification of memory.” He proceeded then to cite sins committed by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church by action or omission against the Orthodox – specifically the sacking of Constantinople -- and asking for God’s forgiveness. The humility and sincerity in which he made his case for reconciliation and forgiveness moved not just Archbishop Christodoulos but the highest leaders of the Orthodox Synod. By the time of the Pope’s departure, Christodoulos did join him in common prayer, and declared afterward his happiness with how kindly the pope had treated the Orthodox. The fact that he asked God’s forgiveness for Catholics who sinned against Orthodox brothers was a turning point. Now a common conviction exists that differences and problems can be solved. Immediately after the Pope’s departure for Syria, Christodoulos was off to Moscow to meet with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy, to whom a report and assessment of the papal visit surely will be given. As the Greek newspaper Kathimerini put it: “The ice of 12 centuries has cracked.” And Etnos ran the headline “John Paul II Changes History.”
In his review this Wednesday of his pilgrimage, the Pope called special attention to the advances made in Syria for dialogue and a new relationship between Christians and Muslims. Rather that seeing Islam as a great threat, he reaffirmed “the sincere openness with which the Church turns to the believers of Islam, to whom we are united in adoration of the one God.” He considers the interreligious dialogue with Islam as especially important and necessary now, and proposed a new era of relations between Christian and Muslim so there will be no misuse of religion “to promote or justify hatred and violence.” Again reconciliation was at the top of agenda as he stated “for all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness.” In his address in the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, “in this renowned place of prayer [which] reminds us that man is a spiritual being, called to acknowledge and respect the absolute priority of God in all things....Christians and Muslims...bear witness to what unites them, without disguising or denying the things that separate them.” He then called upon religious leaders and teachers to present the Christian and Muslim communities in “respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict.”
Speaking also to the Middle East conflict, the Pontiff affirmed “that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions.” Keenly aware of how religion in this region so easily can be manipulated by exasperated nationalism he called upon Muslims, Christians and Jews to engage their religious belief in a more profound sense....Christians, Muslims and Jews,” he preached, “are called upon to work together, with confidence and boldness” to bring about the day when all can live in peace and mutual understanding.
Some media have criticized the Pope for not denouncing as anti-Semitic the highly political remarks of Syrian President, suggesting that John Paul was manipulated by Bashir Assad. (More ugly commentary has suggested that perhaps the Catholic Church really has not changed and that anti-Semitism is a congenital condition.) The Pope, however, made clear the significance of his visit to Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights: “I went up to the Golan Heights to the Church of Quneitra, semi-destroyed by the war, and raised my supplication there. In a certain sense my spirit remained there, and my prayer continues and will not end until the vendetta gives way to reconciliation and the recognition of reciprocal rights.”
In his “Message to the World” at the beginning of this year Pope John Paul II declared that “dialogue between cultures [is] a means for building the civilization of love and peace,” for re-affirming a common destiny for man. He continues to foster an awareness of shared values, which are so necessary to develop and expand a universal environment for fruitful and constructive dialogue. He lifts up the model of forgiveness and reconciliation. While such an approach may be dismissed as naive or utopian by some, it remains the best path today to the goal of peace.