On Steve Bannon and St. John Paul II

An interesting New York Times story recounts that when  Steve Bannon went to Rome to cover the canonization of St. John Paul II for Breitbart News, he used the occasion to find common ground with Vatican traditionalists who also "saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values." Bannon, now President Donald Trump's chief strategist and a member of the National Security Council, has also bonded with Pope Francis's critics in the Vatican, as reporter Jason Horowitz puts it:

For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda. And in Mr. Trump, and more directly in Mr. Bannon, some self-described “Rad Trads” — or radical traditionalists — see an alternate leader who will stand up for traditional Christian values and against Muslim interlopers.

One irony here is that these "Rad Trads" would not only undermine Pope Francis, but also the legacy that St. John Paul II  left regarding Christianity's relationship with Islam. The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sums up that legacy well with 26 quotes chosen from the many occasions when John Paul spoke warmly of Islam and sought to bring Muslims and Christians together.

John Paul called constantly for dialogue; recognized common elements in the three Abrahamic religions; and urged Catholics to fast on Ramadan, among other things.  "We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection," he said in Morocco in 1985.

To the Muslim community in Belgium: “Today we are meeting in Belgium, a country with a long tradition of hospitality toward persons of diverse religious adherence, whose legislation guarantees the freedom of worship and education. We know that this does not resolve all the problems which are common to the plight of immigrants. Nevertheless, these very difficulties ought to be an incentive to all believers, Christian and Muslim, to come to know one another better, to engage in dialogue in order to find peaceful ways of living together and mutually enriching one another." 

To a gathering in Jordan: “Building a future of peace requires an ever more mature understanding and ever more practical cooperation among the peoples who acknowledge the one true, indivisible God, the Creator of all that exists. The three historical monotheistic religions count peace, goodness and respect for the human person among the highest values." 

Sometimes John Paul's gestures spoke more powerfully than words. I especially remember being at the papal Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square in 2000. Just as John Paul finished his homily, the Muslim call to prayer rang out loudly from the minaret of a mosque located on the square. The pope sat in his chair, hands clasped, listening. He seemed to be savoring the moment as the muezzin's chant mingled with the papal Mass. It turned out that the timing had been arranged in advance to accommodate the worship needs of both faiths.

Where others dwell  on the history of conflict between Catholics and Muslims, John Paul strove to highlight the elements in common. Christians and Muslims "have a long history of study, philosophical and theological reflection, literature and science, which have left their mark on Eastern and Western cultures," and "are called in one spirit of love to defend and always promote human dignity, moral values and freedom," he said in a 1999 audience.

John Paul could have pulled back on his commitment to dialogue with Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, but did not. He urged peace and opposed the war in Iraq. This legacy should not be forgotten at a time when it is much needed.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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