WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Benedict’s faux pas – what to make of it

The pope and the prophet

Rationalists should be roused but Muslims reassured by the pontiff’s words …

It seems almost medieval when even a discussion today of Middle Ages theology can provoke a global storm of protest and denunciation. The pope, however, can hardly have expected that his scholarly lecture on faith and reason to the University of Regensburg would have led to the uproar that has broken out in sections of the Muslim world, to demands for an apology and to comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini. Yet a close reading of the speech shows that if any group was openly criticised or ‘insulted’, it was Western materialists.

At issue is a single sentence in a lengthy survey of theologians and their understanding of reason: the pope quoted a discussion between one of the last emperors of Byzantium, the erudite Manuel II Paleologus, and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and noted the emperor’s ‘startling brusqueness’ in saying: ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The pope did not endorse the sentiment. He made it clear that he was quoting from the historical record. And he went on to compare the Byzantine belief in reason with the Muslim teaching on God’s transcendence.

Yet his quotation has now been wrenched out of context, denounced as ‘derogatory’ and held up as an example of Western Islamophobia. Islamic websites are calling for mass protests. The pontiff has been accused of falling into the trap of ‘bigots and racists’.

The Vatican insists that no offence was intended but those who are looking for offence will never be easily appeased. Already links are being made with supposed Western hostility to Islam. Like the Danish cartoons, the pope’s words provide a golden opportunity for Islamist militants to inflame the millions who have no access to his full speech with a distorted interpretation of his words and his intentions.

Given current sensitivities, however, all this is scarcely surprising. Too many extremists are ready to over-interpret any comment or perceived slight and that reaction is magnified by the technological wonder that is the internet. The Vatican should know this. It might have been wiser if the pope has excised from his speech any remark, especially a quotation about the prophet Muhammad, that could be taken out of context by those for whom ecumenism is anathema.

Yet it would be wrong to censor a pope who has pondered the future of faith and reserves disdain for rationalists whom he confronts in his conclusion: ‘In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.’

Both Christianity and Islam aspire to the divine and they share a theology that is contemptuous of mindless materialism and crass consumerism. This pope is not ‘relegating religion’ and he is tweaking the tail of the rationalists, which provides no excuse, no justification, no cause for the spiritual to be irrational. Christianity and Islam have rarely sat easily together; but tolerance must not be deliberately destroyed by the intolerant.

What the pope should have said to the Muslim world

Rosemary Radford Ruether

On 12 September Pope Benedict XVI aroused the fury of the Islamic world with a speech given at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in which he assailed the Muslim concept of holy war as a violation of God’s will and nature.

The pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who derided Islam and the Prophet Muhammad for introducing ‘things only inhuman and evil’, such as spreading the faith by the sword. The pope held up Catholic Christianity, by contrast, as a model religion that promoted a ‘profound encounter of faith and reason’.

From many parts of the Islamic world there were angry reactions to the pope’s words, reminding the pope of the evil history of Christian crusades. Although Western Christians may think the crusades are ancient history, these medieval wars in which Christian crusaders slaughtered Muslims and established crusader states in Palestine are vivid memories for Muslims.

Current western threats against Islam and invasions of Islamic countries, such as Iraq, are seen as a continuation of the crusades. The United States and other western nations who promote such wars are regularly referred to as ‘crusaders’ in the Muslim press.

The pope’s words condemning Islam and the prophet for holy war while holding up Christianity as innocent of any such warlike tendencies have infuriated Muslims and deeply damaged Catholic-Muslim relations. In using a Byzantine emperor to assail Islam, the pope also failed to reckon with the fact that the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204), called by Pope Innocent III, was diverted into an assault on the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. The crusaders pillaged and occupied the city, leading to a weakening of the Byzantine world and its eventual fall to the Muslims.

Although the Vatican has not invited me to be a papal speechwriter, I would like to suggest what the pope should have said about holy war that would have won Muslim goodwill and opened up new dialogue between these embattled worlds. The pope might have opened with some generalities deploring the current state of war and violence in the world. Then he would remark that such tendencies to war are deeply aggravated when religion and the name of God are wrongly used to foment violence and hatred between peoples. God desires peace and love, not war, he might have said.

The pope would then turn to the history of the crusades and acknowledge with sorrow that Christianity has often been wrongly used to promote hatred and violence against others, perhaps quoting some pithy statements of popes who called for crusades against Islam. He would then declare that Christians must repent of such religiously inspired war-making. He would ask for forgiveness from ‘our Muslim brothers and sisters’ for having wronged them in the past by calling for crusades against them. He would end with a call for all peoples to unite to overcome war and violence and to reject any use of religion to promote violence.

This speech, I suggest, would have won the hearts of Muslims around the world and would have made the pope welcome in Turkey for his planned visit there on 28 November rather than putting this trip into jeopardy. Catholic-Muslim dialogue would have been put on a new and positive footing by having the ‘leading cleric’ of the western world publicly repent of the errors of the crusades. It would also have put Christians in the United States and elsewhere on notice that the language of promoting Western ‘antiterrorist’ wars against the Muslim world in the name of a ‘crusade’ (the term George W Bush actually proposed for his wars against Iraq and Afghanistan) is not acceptable.

Some more historically aware advisers of the Bush administration realised the volatile nature of this term and warned him against his use of it. But Christians need to do more than not use the term ‘crusade’, while continuing the reality of such wars and warlike God-talk. We need to confront the questionable history of such wars against the Muslim world and the use of Christianity to promote such wars.

Is it too late? Although my influence in Vatican circles is limited, there is no reason why other Christian bodies, Catholic and Protestant, might not come together to publicly issue an apology to the Muslim world for the crusades and to call for a rejection of militarist responses to terrorism and the use of religious language to justify such militarism.