Thursday, November 30, 2006

Popery on a wing and a prayer

It is difficult to conceive of a foreign visit more fraught with political and theological difficulties than the Pope’s sojourn in Turkey. He has so many bridges to build, it seems rather apt that one of his titles is Pontifex Maximus. Just where is His Holiness supposed to start? With an apology for his Regensburg address? Regret at the affront to Islam? Positive noises towards Turkish accession to the European Union of Christendom? Or with his original agenda of trying to repair the millennium-old split with the Orthodox East?

In September the Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who was persuaded that Mohammed had brought nothing but evil and inhumanity to the world. Now he is quoting the 11th century Pope Gregory VII, who spoke of the charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another, which is ‘an illustration of the fraternal respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together’. Before his arrival, protesters in Istanbul carried signs saying ‘Ignorant and sneaky Pope, don't come’ and ‘Jesus is not the son of God, he is a prophet of Islam’. In order to dispel his reputation for Islamophobia, he immediately asserted that ‘Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God’, and he assured Turkey's chief Islamic cleric, Ali Bardokoglu, that he desires ‘authentic dialogue’ (ie one that is rational and critical) between Christians and Muslims based on ‘mutual esteem and respect’ (ie, stop killing us and bombing our buildings). In an apparent U-turn, he expressed support for Turkey in its quest to join the European Union. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was persuaded of Turkey’s ‘permanent contrast’ to Europe, and asserted that it was destined to remain a Middle Eastern country. Now, however, he ‘views positively and encourages the path of dialogue, of Turkey's getting closer to and entering Europe on the basis of common values and principles’.

Could it be that His Holiness was able to make such overtures because knew that the EU was about to deal a heavy if not fatal blow to Turkey’s EU aspirations? The Commission has decided to halt negotiations until Turkey opens its ports to Cyprus. Turkey will only accept customs union with Cyprus if the EU eases its embargo on the Turkish-controlled north of the Mediterranean island. Therefore eight negotiating chapters have been closed - talks on the free movement of goods, right of establishment, financial services, agriculture, fisheries, transport, external relations and customs union. With the Pope in Turkey, this is a strangely-timed pronouncement of an acutely political decision. However, St Anthony of England may be about to enter the fray. He said: ‘Just at the moment to send an adverse signal to Turkey I think would be a serious mistake for Europe long-term’. Turkey has every right to be confounded by these mixed messages.

Of course, the Pope’s original reason for visiting was to meet Patriarch Bartholomew – ‘first among equals’ of the leaders of the Orthodox Christian churches. The Catholic-Orthodox relationship has also been fraught with difficulty, even before the two churches split nearly 1,000 years ago. Catholicism was dominant in the ‘Latin’ West; Orthodoxy in the Greek-speaking East. Over the centuries, political, cultural and theological differences widened to the point where the two Churches formally split in 1054. There have been attempts at reconciliation, but significant obstacles remain. One is the status of the Pope - seen by Catholics as the final arbiter of theological and moral truth. For the Orthodox churches, such authority derives from the first Seven Councils of the Church - the last of which occurred in AD 787 - whose rulings cannot be altered. Other differences concern the filioque and the nature of the Trinity, the relationship between science and Faith, whether God can ever be fully understood, or the existence - or otherwise - of Purgatory.

His Holiness tried to resolve the Reformation divisions over a 20-minute cup of tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer thinks that three days in Turkey is just as manifestly inadequate to address any of these issues in the required depth.