I am particularly interested in relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. With a papal visit to Britain imminent, I wish to reflect on what Pope Benedict XVI has to say — and, sometimes, on what he doesn’t say — about the relationship between Christianity and other faiths.
Even though he hasn’t yet arrived, there has been a great deal of publicity about the Pope’s response to the paedophilia scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church; discussions about the state of relations between Rome and Canterbury; coverage of the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church; as well as concerns expressed by people of other faiths about the extent to which the Bishop of Rome acknowledges (if indeed he does at all) the validity of their faith.
I doubt if the Pope will say much about any of these explicitly — however much journalists would like him to — but we can try to read the tea leaves when he makes his addresses and delivers his sermons. One thing we can be sure of is that Benedict XVI will warn us of the dangers of secularism, which, he will argue, undermines religion as well as the authority of the Church. He will emphasise Catholic Truth over and against what he will describe as the dangers of atheistic society and moral anarchy.
This is one way of seeing what has happened in western civilisation over the past 400 years, since the Enlightenment. The Pope is not a fan of the Enlightenment. At best, he suggests it is a mixed blessing and hostile to religious belief. In this, he is joined by other religious leaders.
But where would we be without the Enlightenment? As a Jew, I know where I would be: back in the ghetto.
Of course, it is not only Jews who owe a great deal to the Enlightenment. My Muslim friends and colleagues would still be known as Moors or Saracens, an epithet that the chroniclers of the Crusades applied to Muslims. In other words, without the Enlightenment, minority religious groups — let alone those of no faith — would have remained in the Middle Ages.
Without the Enlightenment, there would be no human rights nor democracy, but there would be continued Christian anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, persecution of gays and so on.
I don’t expect that the Pope will acknowledge that many of the great advances in our society that have been made in the past 400 years have come secularism and the forces of the Enlightenment, not from religion. But I do expect him to address how Catholics should live with the consequences of the Enlightenment.
Some traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church — such as members of the Society of St Pius X, home of the Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson, among others — reject all the values of the Enlightenment. They condemn the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which was a defining event for Catholicism in the 20th century and a turning point in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations as well as Catholic relations with other faiths.
Vatican II was convened for the purpose of aggiornamento or “updating”, and it was in the spirit of Enlightenment that that the council initiated Church reform in a number of areas, including interfaith relations. According to the latest surveys, most Catholics in the UK would like to see more application of the values of the Enlightenment, such as an increased role for women.
So, one thing I expect to learn in the next few days is where the Pope stands on this, the tension between religion and the Enlightenment. In the UK, he will be walking a tightrope between traditionalists who reject the consequences of the Enlightenment and the majority of Catholics, who would like to see Enlightenment values more deeply embedded in the Church.
This will have implications for the role of women in the Church, relations with fellow Christians, fellow believers and fellow humans. Yes, all of us.