Why the Pope Should Have Known Better
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 24, 2006
On Tuesday, September 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an academic lecture at the University of Regensburg in southern Germany, returning to one of the German colleges at which he had taught theology during the 1960s. His topic was to be on the relationship of faith and reason: Is Christian faith required to be “reasonable”, or are faith and reason entirely separate components of the human mind and psyche? A fair enough topic for a pope to address, especially a pope with academic credentials as impressive as Pope Benedict, who in a former life as Joseph Ratzinger, is often credited as one of the most noteworthy and intellectually astute Catholic theologians of the past century.
But very early in his lecture of September 12—indeed, right after the obligatory paragraphs on “how nice it is to be back in Regensburg” that one might expect on such an occasion—Benedict uttered the words that seem to have caused such international consternation, which, indeed, seem to have turned much of the Muslim world against him.
He had been reminded of the relationship of faith and reason recently, the Pope said, by a book he had read by another modern German theologian (Professor Theodore Khoury of the University of Munster) which chronicles the dialogue carried out by the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of the relationship of Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, that’s just the sort of book you would expect a pope to be reading; especially a pope in this day and age where the relationship of Christianity and Islam has again taken on such import; especially a pope as erudite as this one; who seems to consider so carefully the words he speaks and their relationship to the tradition he represents; who has expressed his desire to further the dialogue of Christianity and Islam begun by his great predecessor, John Paul II.)
The relationship of Christianity and Islam would seem a topic of great import and relevance, indeed, in our own day no less than in the late 14th century. The relationship of Christianity and Islam is certainly a topic on which the peace and well-being of millions of people the world over might well depend. So, we might think, it is good that the Pope was turning his attention to this topic.
“The emperor [Manuel II] must have known,” Benedict said in his lecture at Regensburg, that one of the early surahs, or verses, of the Qur’an (Koran) reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Religion is not to be forced, Mohammed has written (on a direct pipeline from Allah, God Himself, in the Islamic view, remember). “There is to be no compulsion in religion,” the teachings of Islam state.
But then, the Pope went on, this is one of the suras of Mohammed’s “early period”—from that time in history “when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat”. Mohammed wrote these words about “no compulsion in religion” before he had a huge army of his own; before he marched on Mecca and seized state power; he said them when he was weak and under attack himself—when he couldn’t force anyone to accept his radically monotheistic religion even if he wanted to-- when he was more concerned about being forced to accept what someone else was forcing on him. It is at this point in history that Mohammed wrote (or Allah told him): “There is to be no compulsion in religion.”
But then, we know what happened next, the Pope continued: “The emperor [Manuel II] also knew the instructions, developed later and [also] recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war.” (These are from a later period in Mohammed’s life, after 630, when Mohammed had seized power in Mecca and unified Arabia under Islam.) It is in this context, Benedict says, with Muslim expansionism continuing unabated from the seventh century into 14th, into the emperor’s own time—with the forces of Islam breathing down the neck of Constantinople (the city was constantly under siege by and would finally fall to Islam in 1453)—that Mohammed changed his tune, as it were, and turned his back on (or, at least, great modified) the idea that “There is to be no compulsion in religion.” Now, in these latter days of Mohammed, jihad, holy war to spread the faith of Allah, became the order of the day.
In this context, Benedict continued at Regensburg, Manuel II “turns to his [Persian] interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question [in their ongoing discussion] of the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words:”
[And these are the words—not of Benedict XVI himself—but of Benedict quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor—that have resulted in such scorn and rage from Muslims around the world:]
“Show me what Mohammed brought that was new,” Manuel II Paleologus wrote, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
What an odd quote for the Pope to have chosen.
Why did the Pope, in criticizing the idea that faith should be spread through violence, zero in on the Islamic tradition? Certainly, there were many examples closer to home that he could have picked:
Throughout Western history, popes and bishops competed with kings and princes for power, influence, prestige, and wealth. Spanish conquistadores slaughtered native peoples in droves in order to "Christianize" the lands of the New World. As Matthew Fox related in this morning’s reading, when Columbus came to the shores of the Americas in 1492, there were approximately 80 million native inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. About 50 years later, only about 10 million remained...
This trend continued down through the centuries. "Christian" slavetraders plundered Africa and stole away millions for a life of slavery and despair in America. In the Thirty Years War, hundreds of thousands were killed acorss Europe in what amounted to a civil war within Christian ranks. Then there were the battles of the Reformation, the Calvinist theocracy in Geneva, witch-burnings left (at least) 300,000 women dead across Europe (and that's the conservative estimate; other scholars put the figure of those killed during the "burning times" in the millions.
Suppose Benedict had chosen just one of these examples from Christian history to make his point about how it is wrong to spread one’s faith through violence and force of arms? Imagine what a different lecture his Regensburg speech would have been then—and how different the reaction.
But instead, the Pope chose to talk about Islam’s historical failures. And so, the damage was done.
But “I was just quoting an historical source,” the Pope protested later when the vehemence of Muslim anger at his remarks became apparent. They weren’t my views. “They were only the views of Manuel II Peleologus. I didn’t say I agreed with them,” Pope Benedict (more or less) said. But nowhere in entire text of the Regensburg lecture can I find anyplace where Benedict disavows the words of Peleologus—or disagrees with them—or takes umbrage with his characterization of the teachings of the prophet Mohammed as “things evil and inhuman”.
In other places and at other times, of course, the current pontiff has said he “respects” the Islamic faith, and wants to engage in “dialogue” with the Muslim world. Maybe his remarks in Regensburg were a full throttle attempt to initiate such a “dialogue”. (Which seems to me, at least, sort of like unleashing the rottweilers to greet your Thanksgiving guests as they walk up the path to your house.) Unfortunately, the intended recipients of his “respect” didn’t quite warm to his overtures.
Overlooked in the brouhaha about the quotation from Manuel II was the explicit topic of Benedict’s lecture, which was the relationship of faith and reason. He introduces the quote in question as a means of approaching the emperor’s argument that spreading faith through force of arms is something unreasonable—because “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
After hurling his invective against the “evil and inhuman” teachings of Mohammed, Manuel II had continued:
“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not of the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”
Spreading one’s faith is unreasonable, Benedict is saying, because it goes against the nature of God—which is truth, which is enlightenment, which is love—which is, in the essence of both Islamic and Christian teachings, compassion and peace.
“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.”
That would seem a statement of a life-affirming, positive faith with which men and women of goodwill the world over could agree.
That our present world has strayed from that ideal would seem self-evident.
That much of what passes for “religious fervor” in our world today is unreasonable and irrational—and thus, not of God-- would seem obvious.
And that much of this irrationality and mindless fervor emerges out of extreme Islam also cannot be denied.
One need only look at the reaction to the Pope’s remarks to see firsthand this lack of reason and utter foolishness among the followers of extreme Islam. Mobs of Muslims extremists set fire to three Christian churches in the Palestinian West Bank—none of them Roman Catholic churches, and thus aligned with the Pope. (Tthe churches were Greek Orthodox, Anglican, and Coptic Christian.) In Somalia, Muslim extremists shot an Italian aid worker, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, three times in the back, in retribution for the Pope’s remarks. What did Sister Leonella’s work feeding and clothing the children of Mogadishu have to do with anything the Pope—or some 14th Century emperor—or Mohammed—or whoever—said?
No, there is plenty of religious fanaticism in this world of ours, and a good proportion of it comes from radical proponents of Islam. We live in a dangerous world, certainly, and Islamo-fascist leaders from Pakistan to Gaza seem intent on fanning the fires of Muslim rage. This is nothing new, and this incident with the Pope is just the latest example.
Which is all the more reason, I think, that the Pope should have known better.
Benedict is hardly a political neophyte. He spent almost two decades at the right hand of John Paul II, the most widely traveled world leader of his day. It was John Paul II who prayed with Muslim mullahs at Assisi; who was the first pope to enter a mosque. The Vatican State Department is made up of career diplomats, who would never have allowed the paragraph in question in Benedict’s Regensburg remarks to remain, had they been consulted about it beforehand. (They weren’t consulted.)
It was hardly “reasonable” for Benedict to believe that such a blatantly anti-Muslim statement, aimed directly at the person and teachings of the most-esteemed and highly-venerated Prophet Mohammed, would go unchallenged—and “challenge” in Muslim extremist parlay today means you burn churches and execute innocent bystanders.
No doubt, the Holy Father sees his Faith and his Church today challenged on many fronts—maybe even under siege—just as Manuel II Paleologus felt about Constantinople in 1391. He has the growing tide of radical Islam to deal with, along with world terrorism. And he also has the rising tide of Western secularism and materialism, throughout Europe and the West, and the changing morals and mores that engenders, too. (It was with Western secularization that the bulk of the Regensburg lecture actually dealt.)
In this context of the growing secularism of modern life, a call for dialogue with moderate forces within Islam (and within Judaism, and within all of the world major religions) would seem in order—even inspired, maybe even prophetic. It is time, perhaps, to call the three great Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—back to their original values—back to the divine impetus which brought them to birth in the first place: the command to do justice; the light again in this world the fires of compassion, and love, and peace.
Now, dialogue requires two things, it seems to me. It requires that the participants be clear about who they are—about where they stand and what they believe—about what they bring to the discussion table. In this regard, Benedict may be a perfect pope to engage in dialogue with other faiths. He is clear, in his own mind at least, about what the Catholic Church (and, by implication, the Christian faith) represents. He knows where the boundaries of his faith lie.
But dialogue also requires humility. It requires not just eloquence in speech or erudition in learning, but also a depth of listening, and an ability to be with others, even those (especially those) far different from who you are. Dialogue founded on humility requires an openness not only to changing others, but to being changed by them.
It is said that Albino Cardinal Luciani, back when he was Patricarch of Venice, in the years before he became Pope John Paul I, would sit at his kitchen table every Friday afternoon with his housekeeper and a few other members of the household staff. Every Friday. Luciani would read to them the sermon he planned to deliver that Sunday at the cathedral in Venice. He would then ask these simple people for their comments; he would ask them if they understood what he’d said; if it was helpful to them. When other priests asked him why he “bothered” to read his sermon to his employees like that, Luciani replied that unless these simple, ordinary people understood what he was saying, then what use were all the sermons in the world?
Such would be a wonderful technique for any member of the clergy, much less for a cardinal, much less for a pope. Patricarch Luciani knew that real dialogue begins in humility, in offering oneself to others, and in being willing to be changed by them. This doesn’t require abandoning one’s faith. But it does require listening to others, and attempting to see things from their vantage.
If Benedict had only emulated his too-often-overlooked predecessor John Paul I, and read his remarks on Islam to a group of Roman Muslims—a cab driver, a housekeeper, a push cart operator, perhaps. If he had had some sense of how his intellectual and scholarly comments had sounded to them, maybe he could have saved himself some heartache, and the world a little more mayhem, and Sister Leonella might still be alive, and a small bridgehead of real, face-to-face, people-to-people dialogue might have been established. A bridgehead from which a true invasion of a world overrun by fanaticism and secularism and narrow materialism and irrationalism in all its forms, might yet be launched.
But he didn’t. And if the Pope proved himself no less fallible than any of us in reaching out to others, then at least, perhaps, we, too, can draw a lesson about listening, about paying attention, and about humility from this whole fiasco.
Italy’s top Muslim official said on Thursday that he considered Pope Benedict XVI's apology to Islam as a "chapter closed" which had reopened a path to dialogue between the two religions.
"We consider the chapter closed and we believe the way to dialogue has been reopened," said Abdallah Redouane, the moderate head of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Italy.
Mr. Redouane was speaking at an inter-faith meeting with Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders hosted by Rome city hall in an effort to help quell worldwide Muslim anger over the Pope's recent speech in which he linked Islam and violence.
"We welcomed with satisfaction Benedict's appeal [for dialogue] and we will spare no effort to bring dialogue forward," Redouane said. "There is no alternative. If there is no dialogue, there is confrontation," the Italian Muslim leader said.
If there is more confrontation, then there will be just more violence and bloodshed and destruction. The only choice is dialogue.
Perhaps Imam Redouane is just a voice of reason calling out of this irrational wilderness in which we now find ourselves. But he shows us that we have countless Muslim neighbors, around the world, who want peace and long for mutual understand as much as we do. May such genuine voices of reason, from whichever household of faith they emerge, reverberate in our own souls. May they inspire us to take up the work of making peace, in all our relations, with everyone we meet, with men and women of all faiths, the whole world over.