As both a libertarian and an atheist, I rarely find myself in agreement with Pope Benedict XVI, who tends to be socially conservative and economically statist. Benedict also suffers by comparison with his predecessor John Paul II, who played a key role in the fall of Communism and did much to combat anti-Semitism and improve Catholic-Jewish relations. As John Allen shows, however, Benedict seems to have gotten at least one important issue right that John Paul did not. An excerpt:
There is, however, one intriguing area of contrast [between Benedict and John Paul]: Islam. To put it bluntly, Benedict is more of a hawk, pursuing a kind of interaction with Muslims one might call "tough love." ......
In his March 23 session with cardinals, much conversation turned on Islam, and there was general agreement with Benedict's policy of a more muscular challenge on what Catholics call "reciprocity." In essence, it means that if Muslim immigrants can claim the benefit of religious liberty in the West, then Christian minorities ought to get the same treatment in majority Muslim nations.
To take the most notorious example, if the Saudis can spend $65 million to build the largest mosque in Europe in Rome, in the shadows of the Vatican, then Christians ought to be able to build churches in Saudi Arabia. Or, if that's not possible, Christians should at least be able to import Bibles, and the Capuchin priests who serve the Arabian peninsula ought to be able to set foot off the oil industry compounds or embassy grounds in Saudi Arabia without fear of harassment by the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop in charge of the Catholic church in that part of the world recently described the situation in Saudi Arabia as "reminiscent of the catacombs."
It's the kind of imbalance that has long stuck in the craw of many senior figures in the Catholic Church, but these complaints were largely suppressed in the John Paul years as part of the pope's Islamic Ostpolitik. John Paul, who met with Muslims more than 60 times over the course of his papacy, and who during a 2001 trip to Damascus became the first pope to enter a mosque, believed in reaching out to Islamic moderates and avoiding confrontational talk.
Benedict XVI clearly wants good relations with Islam, and chose to meet with a group of Muslim leaders during his August trip to Cologne, Germany. Yet he will not purse that relationship at the expense of what he considers to be the truth.
The rest of the Allen article contains a lot of interesting information about Benedict's policies and a critique of the conventional wisdom that he is a heavy-handed conservative. I don't know enough about the issues involved to know if Allen is right or not, but it's certainly an interesting take on the Pope.
UPDATE: I think that some commenters have been confused by the article's reference to "reciprocity," which they interpret as implying that the Pope believes that Muslims in Europe should only have freedom of religion contingent on the granting of similar rights to Christian minorities in the Muslim world. I highly doubt that this is Benedict's position. At least since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has consistently taken the view that adherents of all religions should have freedom of conscience (even if it has often failed to speak up actively against religious repression in the Muslim world). I am not aware that Benedict has done anything to change the Church's position on this, though I admit that I haven't followed his policies closely.