In just three years the Pope has made a decisive impression on world affairs, says George Weigel John Paul II arrived in Warsaw on June 2, 1979: there and then. he ignited the revolution of conscience that would give birth to the Solidarity movement, the Revolution of 1989 and the end of European Communism. Distinguished secular historians of the Cold War are now agreed that John Paul's first pilgrimage to Poland, from June 2 to June 10, 1979, was one of the pivots of 20th-century history.
What seems obvious now, however, wasn't quite so clear at the time. On the fourth day of the June 1979 papal pilgirnage, for example, the New York Times concluded its editorial, "The Polish Pope in Poland.in these striking and. as things turned out, strikingly myopic terms: "As much as the visit of John Paul II must reinvigorate and inspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. it does not threaten the political order of the [Polish] nation or of Eastern Europe."
On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI's address to the United Nations and his first pastoral visit to the United States, consider the possibility that his "June 1979" has already happened and that, just as in the real June 1979, most observers missed it. And by Benedict XVI's -June 1979 moment", I mean the most controversial event of his pontificate. his September 12, 2006, Regensburg lecture on faith and reason. Widely criticised as a papal "gaffe" because Benedict cited a robust exchange between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian Islamic scholar. the Regensburg lecture now looks a lot Eke June 1979: a moment in which a pope, cutting to the heart of a complex set of issues with global impact, rearranged the chessboard in a dramatic fashion, with historic consequences,
In June 1979, a pope challenged the ideological orthodoxies of the sclerotic Communist system in Poland and throughout the old Warsaw Pact; in September 2006, a
pope challenged the shopworn conventions of interreligious dialogue. which had decayed in many cases into an exchange of banalities with no traction in the contemporary world. In June 1979, a pope set in motion a revolution of moral conviction that eventually replaced "the political order" in east central Europe with something far more humane; in September 2006, a pope may have set in motion a process of intellecnial and spiritual awakening that
could help resolve the centuries-old question of whether Islam and pluralism can co-exist, and in such a way as to safeguard the religious freedom of all.
That all of this is somewhat disconcerting to those who had a vested interest in the old dialogue is perhaps understandable; understanding the disaffection of some Catholic scholars of Islam, however. does not mean agreeing with them. Benedict XVI understood, as some of those scholars clearly did not, that a dialogue that did not face the fact of the increasingly volatile confrontation within Islam and between Islam and "the rest" was a dialogue that, whatever its intentions, gave tacit support to Islamist radicals and to jihadists, precisely by not challenging their sundering of faith and reason. Something had to change. The Pope tried to set that change in motion at Regensburg.
Consider what has happened since then. The Pope has been the addressee of two statements from Islamic leaders throughout the world, respectfully requesting a new dialogue with the Holy See. Responding, Benedict XVI has politely but firmly insisted that any such dialogue must focus on the two issues at the heart of the chafing within Islam, and between radical Islam and the rest of the world: religious freedom (understood as a basic human right that can be known by reason) and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the 21st century state.
Those issues are precisely what the new dialogue will address, in several venues. One is a new CatholicMuslim forum that will meet biennially, once a year in Rome and once in Amman, Jordan. Another may be the new interfaith dialogue among the monotheistic religions that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who has considerable leverage in the world of Sunni Islam has recently proposed.
Benedict XVI has also urged reciprocity in relations between faiths. Thus the Pope's Easter Vigil baptism of the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who was raised in Egypt as a Muslim, was not an
act of aggression, as some Muslims quickly charged, but a public defence of religious freedom as was John Paul II's welcoming a newly built mosque in Rome. Some, it seems, have begun to get the message about reciprocity: it is no accident that negotianons between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia on building the first Catholic Church in the kingdom happened after Regensburg and quite likely because of the dynamics Regensburg set in motion.
Benedict XVI thinks in centuries. He knows that the long-term threat to the world's future (which is being previewed in Spain today) is the "dictatorship of relativism" he warned against in his preconclave sermon on April 18, 2005. And he knows that a reformed Islam an Islam safe for pluralism, an Islam that has rediscovered the link between faith and reason, an Islam that is thinking in natural law terms about the moral rules that should guide all men would be an ally in the struggle against the dictatorship of relativism and the new gnosticism it seeks to impose by coercive state power. So Benedict intervened in both the world's debate and the intra-Islamic debate with a long-term strategic goal in mind.
The Pope's courageous exercise in =beetling at Regensburg has already begun to reshape the debate within Islam and the dialogue between Islam and "the rest." That is no mean accomplishment. I hope that my colleagues in the American commentariat understand this, and that the Pope's week in the United States isn't marred by more woodenhead.ness about a papal "gaffe" at Regensburg.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the biographer of Pope John Paul 11 and the author of many books, including God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church and Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism