There are only two great religions which seek to convert the entire world. One is Christianity, the other is Islam. Perhaps Islam is now alone in having the vital energy to dedicate itself to such an improbable mission; perhaps Christianity is fully occupied with mere defence of its existing spiritual territories. Even so, one thing is clear: there is a fundamental doctrinal incompatibility between the two faiths, and Pope Benedict XVI is serving the truth by pointing it out.
Despite his previous role as the Vatican's ideologist-in-chief, Josef Ratzinger did not approve of the extent of Pope John Paul II's "dialogue with Islam". The German cardinal had come to believe that the absolutism of Islam made any meaningful theological discussion impossible; all that remained was at best insipid statements of "shared values" and at worst political obfuscation which covered up the oppression of Christians in Muslim lands.
It was not by accident that one of Pope Benedict's first acts was to remove Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from the presidency of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith dialogue, and then radically reduce the role of that council.
The ecumenists are absolutely right when they point out that Islam and the Catholic Church - and, obviously, the Jews - worship the God of Abraham. The three religions have many prophets in common, and as a result, have indeed "shared values" that have shaped societies over the past two millennia. But Christianity exists only on the basis that Jesus Christ is the son of God; Islam exists only on the basis that God dictated his laws to Mohamed, and that the Koran contains the actual words of God.
Christians, however, do not believe that the Koran is the unintermediated word of God. They can therefore only think that Mohamed was deluded, if not a liar. Of course, the vast majority of Christians are far too polite - or possibly too cowardly - to say such a thing.
Muslims, too, are surprisingly reluctant to express the logic of their faith to Christians. They rarely refer to Jesus without adding the venerating phrase "Peace be upon him". And yet, if you look at the Koran, there is no obfuscation: "Those who say 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son' preach a monstrous falsehood, at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder and the mountains crumble to dust. That they should ascribe a son to the Merciful when it does not become the God of Mercy to beget one!"
Despite Pope Benedict's strictures about the lack of reason within Islam, I suspect that it is the notion of the Trinity which rationalists find the most implausible aspect of Christianity. For all the respect which Muslims have, or say they have, for the figure of Jesus, it is a respect which could hardly console any thinking Christian. If Jesus was not the Son of God then he too was deluded, or a liar. And if he - as opposed to He - was either of those things, then the Resurrection is also a lie and Christianity, as a faith rather than as a philosophy, is utterly null and void.
Pope Benedict is better equipped than anyone to understand this point - and like most intellectuals is deeply unwilling to evade an argument. He is not a politician. So when newspaper editorials primly suggest - as one did yesterday - that "The Pope should display greater awareness of the sensitive political context into which remarks about other faiths are made", they entirely misunderstand what the man is about, and what he is trying to do.
He really does want to express the battle of ideas. He really doesn't want deep ideological differences to be buried under well-meaning political fudge. Josef Ratzinger can be - has been - criticised for some of his utterances, but one thing of which he can never be accused is a lack of clarity: I rather liked Tariq Ali's description of him as "a razor-sharp reactionary".
He is also a man of cast-iron consistency. While many commentators seem to have been taken aback by his recent disobliging reference to Islam, Ratzinger has for years made his concerns startlingly clear. The most detailed exposition of his views appeared 10 years ago in a lengthy interview with Peter Seewald published as part of a book called The Salt of the Earth.
The then Cardinal declared in it that "Islam simply does not have the separation of the political and religious spheres which Christianity had from the very beginning. The Koran ... insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia can expect such freedom as our [European] constitutions give, but it can't be its final goal to say: Yes, now we have rights just like the Catholics and Protestants. That would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself... It is opposed to our modern idea of society. One must understand Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society."
These are devastating criticisms, which are as clear an exposition as have been made of the view that true Muslims cannot accept either the separation of powers or the freedom under the law which are the hallmarks of western civilisation. To repeat, those remarks were made a decade ago, some time before the politicians of Europe began to panic about the assimilation of their Muslim immigrants.
One writer who took up Ratzinger's call was Oriana Fallaci, perhaps the most famous journalist in Italy, who died of cancer last week. By the time of her death Fallaci had become notorious for her fulminations against Islam, having declared, among other things, that "Europe is no longer Europe, it is a province of Islam; it has more than 16 million Muslim immigrants and teems with mullahs, imams, mosques, burqas and chadors. It lodges thousands of Islamic terrorists whom our governments don't know how to identify or control."
Fallaci also wrote: "I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger." The sentiment was reciprocated. Soon after becoming Pope, Ratzinger invited Fallaci to a rare private audience at the Castel Gandolfo.
It is true that Islam is not alone in being run through by Ratzinger's rhetorical rapier. A few years ago, he appalled those seeking rapprochement between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church by declaring "the nullity of Anglican ordinations is a truth to be held definitively". As for Buddhism, Ratzinger said it proposed "the possibility of attaining true happiness without any concrete religious obligations - a sort of spiritual auto-eroticism".
I suspect, however, it was not the Church of England or the Buddhists he was thinking of in his inaugural Papal homily, when he said: "Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."Reuse content