At different times, two celebrated German prelates have offered radically different opinions regarding Islam’s compatibility with Western civilization.
One, the current cardinal archbishop of Cologne, has argued that Islam is as compatible with the European culture as Christianity or Judaism. The other, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has contended that the Judeo-Christian organization of society “contradicts the essence of Islam.”
This question involves more than a merely academic dispute.
With more than a million migrants entering Europe in 2015—most of them Muslim—and as many or more expected for 2016, the issue has real, on-the-ground consequences for Europe’s future. How neatly will growing numbers of Muslims assimilate into Western democracy based on a Christian-inspired vision of the person and human society?
A provocative article appearing in The Atlantic this month reminds modern readers that the very idea of Europe as a continent grew out of a Christian cultural identity in “inevitable opposition” to Islam.
“Islam had defined Europe culturally, by showing Europe what it was against,” writes Robert D. Kaplan in his article “How Islam Created Europe.”
In his acceptance speech for the prestigious Charlemagne Award on May 6, Pope Francis offered his own contribution to the migrant question. “Time is teaching us that it is not enough simply to settle individuals geographically: the challenge is that of a profound cultural integration,” he said.
The question is whether such integration can reasonably be expected and if so, how it is to come about.
In late April, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, publicly criticized leaders of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party for their statements against Islam, insisting that “whoever says ‘yes’ to church towers must also say ‘yes’ to minarets.”
The cardinal responded directly to statements made by AfD deputy leader Beatrix von Storch, who told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that “Islam is in itself a political ideology that is not compatible with the constitution.” In his response, Woelki suggested that all religions are equally well suited to German culture and law.
“The religion of Islam is compatible with the German constitution just as much as Judaism or Christianity are,” he contended.
Woelki was not speaking in a void, but also in the context of Germany’s historical narrative, noting that it is “especially our painful German history” that compels an openness to other religions.
“Never again must people in this country be marginalized or persecuted for their race, ethnicity or religion,” he said.
But this perspective does not exhaust the contribution of German prelates to the question of Islam and Western democracies. Many are familiar with Pope Benedict’s now famous “Regensburg address,” which he delivered in 2006.
But Benedict’s considerations on Islam and the West go back much further, and indicate years of research and reflection.
Over and over again, Benedict insisted that all religions are not the same, and do not integrate equally well into Western society. In his 2009 encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), Benedict argued that not all religions contribute equally to the development of individuals and societies. Some, in fact, may obstruct it.
“Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism,” he wrote, “nor does it imply that all religions are equal.”
Benedict also proposed that in order to safeguard the common good, political authorities must in some way distinguish among different religions.
“Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions,” Benedict stated, “especially on the part of those who wield political power.”
Even before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger had written extensively on the differences between religions, noting that there are “deviant, esoteric forms of religion on offer” as well as “pathological” forms of religion. He wrote of religions that are “obviously sick” and religions that are “destructive for man,” especially when they become detached from reason.
More to the point, in his critiques of Islam, Ratzinger suggested that the Muslim understanding of the human person and society has little in common with the Judeo-Christian worldview that undergirds Western society.
Ratzinger wrote that the interplay “of society, politics, and religion has a completely different structure in Islam” than it does in the West. Moreover, in their ignorance of the tenets of Islam, many in the West make erroneous assumptions because they project a Christian worldview onto Islam.
Much of today’s discussion in the West regarding Islam, he wrote, “presupposes that all religions have basically the same structure, that they all fit into a democratic system with its regulations and the possibilities provided by these regulations.”
Yet this is not consistent with the facts, Ratzinger argued, but rather, it “contradicts the essence of Islam, which simply does not have the separation of the political and the religious sphere that Christianity has had from the beginning.”
Ratzinger went on to explain in what this difference consists.
“Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything. There is a very marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal law, indeed, a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern ideas about society,” he said.
While obviously never suggesting that Muslims should not be welcomed in Europe, or that their right to religious freedom should be in any way curtailed, Ratzinger did warn that Westerners must have a clear understanding that Islam “is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.”
As Europe’s immigration crisis continues to boil, these and related questions must be debated by men and women of good will. If Western democracy is to survive as we know it, something more than a precarious cultural consensus concerning “self-evident” truths may be needed to sustain it.