Monday, September 18, 2006

Why did he say it?

I'll say it out loud: I love this Pope. I have long had enormous respect for his intellect, his literacy, his lyrical writing (or, perhaps. that of his translators). And I expect good things on the ecumenical front from him.

That's why I am stunned and confounded by the furor he created with his remarks in the "Aula Magna" of the University of Regensburg. What on earth was the point of his scandalous repeat of a scurrilous claim by a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that nothing good came from Mohammed? Oh, I recognize that somewhere in there is his desire to discountenance "forced conversion" or "spreading the faith through violence" (Benedict's words) because it is "unreasonable." But why the quote? Why this most inflammatory quote? Why this quote that does injustice to the good that has been fostered by and under Muslim rule in various lands?

He knew what he was doing: Benedict is way too smart to include something this harsh "by accident." And he must have known that it would cause incredible offense -- and, I add, not just to Muslims, because it is slanderous. And if it is, as he has suggested in his follow-up statements and semi-apology, a surprise that anyone would take take personal umbrage from his remarks in the context of an academic lecture, then I am forced to wonder whether he is way too naive to serve as the voice and spiritual head of a huge block of Christians.

And I think his advisers (and here I am, advising the Pope's legions!) had better look to the effects of his example. Already, the Catholic blogs -- including the Pontificator's usually admirable blog -- are filling with vile anti-Muslim and anti-Arab vituperation. Here's a sample from a response to one blog that echoed the ancient emperor's claim that Muslims have contributed anything to society:

Well, as a (formerly) non-extremist Catholic I can honestly tell you, the
over-reaction to the Pope's WORDS, following on from the treatment of that
Danish cartoonist, has left me feeling extremely hostile toward Muslims
everywhere and hoping that my church rises up to use it's far superior firepower
to wipe this ugly blemish of a religion from the face of the planet! Yes, that's
right, I, a non-hostile Catholic, has become so angered by these animals that I
now hope they DO bring their f***ing Jihad here and get wiped out once and for
all by my God-fearing, peaceful church.

(This was copied directly from the blog; the errors in grammar are original and the cute stars are, too.) Lamentably, Pontificator linked to the originial blog that inspired this reaction (the point of which was to agree with the orginal post), and that's how I came to read it.

I have heard (thanks to Vatican commentators in print and on TV) that this pope does not favor interreligious dialogue. I have no idea what that means. And I know that he intends to distinguish his approach vis-a-vis Islam from his predecessor's (which, apparently, he considered too lenient). And I can understand the need for honest confrontation with the thorny issues involving the interweaving of Koran and terrorism. (I think, too, that there is plenty of room for self-examination on the same issue regarding the Bible. There's a certain matter of Crusades, for example.)

But none of that requires or justifies the insertion into an otherwise rather rational paper (I think he'd appreciate the pun there) of a gratutitous and alarmingly simplistic (that is to say, unreasonable) slam against an enormously popular religion.

I hope someone can help me to see the reason -- which the Pope was touting in his lecture -- in all of this!


Jim said...

I agree with you Dwight, that it was insensitive; however he used it to make a point. In context, it reads just fine. Out of context, it is outrageous.

Muriel said...

"Out of context, it is outrageous."

And that is exactly how the average Muslim will read it - he won't read the darn thing except for that one comment. Get real, why should he?

I couldn't care less why the Pope said it. He shouldn't have said it period. With just one lousy comment Benedict XVI just undid the life work of his predecessor. As a Catholic I find this terribly upsetting.

But I am absolutely aghast with the Catholic reaction in the Blogsphere. It’s simply disgusting. I have been searching for sane Catholic analysis, but there is none. Each and every one of them is using this “stand by your pope” excuse to pursue a particular political agenda.

Anonymous said...


Chip Frontz said...

As I read the lecture, the point that he appears to be making is that it was reason, as imported from the Greek way of thinking, that allowed the Byzantine Emperor to make the claim that violence to spread religion is not of God. And that led to his main point that Hellenistic thinking is not anti-Gospel, or even a regrettable accretion to the Gospel, but is a necessary part of understanding faith. He thinks that the idea of the "logos" (translatable as 'word' or 'reason') is key to Christian self-understanding and can't be dropped as a non-essential.

What I continue to be concerned about is the idea that there is no "insider" speech any more. To wit - you and I, if we met, would probably say stuff that we would never say on this blog. Moreover, a pope speaking to a European theological faculty on an academic topic would not have had to, in the past, take the reaction of the uneducated and already radicalized Arab street into consideration. I almost said "should not have had to," but I realize that we have gone beyond that. But the notion that there is no private speech where ideas can be entertained, that all speech is necessarily "hate-speech," is quite frankly, scary, and it is technology and our instant means of communication that have brought us to this point.

I would speak differently if it appeared that the pope had stated the views of a medieval Byzantine Emperor as his own. But he did not. He began with a statement that could not have been reasonably made unless the original speaker had held a world-view that Benedict believes is being threatened. That's it.

Muriel said...

Much hate does pass with the excuse of free speech. Would it not make more sense to learn to restrain our egos instead of bemoaning the loss of freedom from having to curb our speech?

Lee said...

I think Chip makes a good point. The pope seemed to be speaking as an academic to academics. And it's clear that he didn't endorse the characterization of Islam offered.

But, this needs to be counterbalanced by the fact that the pope is, well, the pope and everything he says that is available for public consumption is likely to be broadcast far beyond it's original context. Though, the press isn't without blame here either, what with headlines like "POPE SLAMS ISLAM."

The danger, to pick up on Chip's point again, is that with the globalization of communication free speech can become hostage to the most unreasonable elements. Is any vigorous criticism of Islam to be disallowed because some crazies will take it as an opportunity to firebomb churches and shoot nuns? Certainly "hate speech" should be restrained (by self-censorship, not by laws, IMO), but nothing the pope said could reasonably be construed as "hateful."

Dwight said...

Thank you, so far, for the insights. Critical to the situation are a couple of points. First, as Lee points out, the pope is the Pope, for heavens' sake. As such, he doesn't enjoy the luxury of musing in any but the most sensitive way. Regardless of the situation with respect to the "publicity" of "insider speech," it remains the case that Roman Catholics have dogma-ed themselves into this corner with their, shall we say, elevation of the Pope's authority and prestige, and no Pope dare forget it.

Second, I don't think -- with all respect, Jim -- that the quote "reads just fine," even in context. Benedict never disavows the emperor's claim that that Islam has nothing to contribute to the world's culture or the epistemology of faith. Further, Benedict quotes the emperor to that effect, even though that's not the point he claims to be making. The point he is trying to drive home (apparently) is that violence is no way to spread religion. The two don't necessary follow -- nor are they even necessarily related.

I lament, Muriel, that among the Catholics blogging and bloviating on this, George Weigel (certainly no hero of this blog) contends that the Pope knew exactly what he was doing and that it was deliberate. If that is conceivable, then my reaction is even stronger: It is an un-Christ-like approach to the problem of the violence that is supported by SOME, not all, Muslims.

This incident pains me: As I have indicated, I love this guy. And I know that he is way too careful a scholar to pull gaffes. So that makes me wonder about a kind of latent racism in the approach. It seems wrong to me to lump all Muslims together as irrational and prone to violence.

Lord, have mercy.

*Christopher said...


I'm still mulling the thoughts of folks who consider he may have done this deliberately. He is a very careful academic, one whose liturgical theological thinking I respect immensely even as I disagree with him on other matters. What is clear from this and absent from his discussion on reason to my mind are three things: 1) if we are to criticize violence and faith, begin with one's own to open the conversation rather than "disappear" our own complicity while pointing the finger at others, 2) our own passions and prejudices can distort our reasoning no matter how careful we think it to be (what careful thinkers on Original Sin, such as James Alison, are nuanced enough to point out) and therefore I would suggest that it is possible to see this problematic quote and other comments the Pope makes in this light, 3) conversation cannot be opened through an approach that lectures or pontificates or begins from an academic setting that can presume to do so without challenge from those whom one is presuming to be in conversation.

Here was my response thus far.

Here is another worth considering.

Muriel said...

All western support for the Holy Father’s pointless analysis is politically motivated.

Nothing will come of it; at best it will be forgotten by the west and added to the list of Muslim injuries elsewhere. Time and history will tell the real story, but much will go off without recognition; it is not so easy to rise above political bias, especially when it is intermingled with economic, religious, and in some cases racial prejudice. Most people will remember having stood by their Pope, and wasn’t it just grand that the Pope told the Muslims off. At the end of the day what really counts is whatever brings people self affirmation. But just wait, good fruit; there will be not be any; not from this event; certainly not in this way. I wonder how the Pope feels; was it worth making the contentious comment for the sake of academia and to stroke the western psyche? Only the Pope knows.

Anonymous said...

The highest value of our Euro-Atlantic(or Western Civilization) is to live a comfort ,queiet live without problems.
Are Copts murdered in their country Egypt?Be queit!Don't mention even Copts!
Are Chechens murdered by Russians?Be quiet!Russia is to big.
Are Tibetans and Mongols jailed and murdered in China?
Be quiet!China is too big. Don't make Chinese angry!
Are Kurds and Assyrians murdered in Turkey.Be quiet!Don't make Turks angry!
Are free joournalists murdered in Russia.Be queit again!Russia is too big.Don't make Russians angry!
Christian genocide in Turkey(Armenians,Pontiac Greeks,Arameans).Again don't make Turks angry.They are a very nervous nation.
In the past we have heard the same:don't make Soviets angry(5 milions starved to death?Oh-I am so sorry..,milions thrown to Siberia-too far away.Chinese Cultural Revolution-o my God
Hitler ?Give him Tchekoslovakia-Europe will be live in peace.
We i Europe remember these fact very good.