Pope spoke his mind - and heart
Unlike predecessor, Benedict isn't quick to accommodate
09:47 AM CDT on Saturday, October 14, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI has had a bad few weeks, really the first of his relatively young and surprisingly uncontroversial pontificate.
The fury in Muslim quarters in response to his academic lecture on religion and violence continues to spread. He has thrice been compelled to publicly explain – "apologize" is too strong a word – that he didn't mean to insult Islam, that he regrets the "reaction" his words caused, and that he respects Muslims.
Meanwhile, many Catholics chose to ignore the pope's explanations and argued that the Islamic reactions to the initial remarks showed Benedict was right in the first place – Islam is inherently violent.
The pope's original comments were puzzling, in that they were from an obscure source that was used as an anecdote to introduce a characteristically erudite lecture on faith and reason delivered at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, where he once taught theology.
He began by citing a dialogue between a Persian scholar and a 14th-century Christian emperor of Byzantium. The two were discussing the concept of violence in Islam. "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," Benedict quoted the Christian emperor as saying.
The pontiff went on to critique the West and secularism and "liberal" Christians just as sharply. But none of these other groups burned him in effigy.
The Muslim furor, or at least resentment and suspicion of the pope, seem likely to endure and may threaten Benedict's visit next month to Turkey.
But even as the focus remains on the indefensible reaction by many Muslims, other crucial questions are being overlooked, chief among them: Why did the pope make such statements in the first place?
If Benedict's words were just poorly chosen, one might say that perhaps he is indeed a different man as pope than he was as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Panzerkardinal who was the Vatican's longtime doctrinal watchdog before he became pope in April 2005.
When it comes to Pope Benedict, however, there are no coincidences. While he surely did not intend to spark such a terrible response, when viewed in the context of his career and personality, this episode begins to look like a natural extension of his past record rather than the diplomatic faux pas of a freshman pope.
Long before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger made it crystal clear that he took a much more critical view of Islam than did Pope John Paul II. Whereas John Paul stressed points of commonality between the Catholic Church and Islam – he was the first pope to visit a mosque – Cardinal Ratzinger was more skeptical. He forcefully voiced doubts about Islam's capacity for self-examination and reform. In 2004 he opined that Turkey could never be part of the European Union because its Muslim identity placed it "in permanent contrast" to Europe's Christian culture.
His willingness to challenge Islam may in fact have been a factor in his surprisingly swift election as pope, and in this regard he has not disappointed. One of his first major administrative moves was to downgrade the Vatican's office for interfaith dialogue and ship its longtime chief, an archbishop who was considered Rome's leading authority on Islam, off to a diplomatic posting.
Joseph Ratzinger was never one to sugarcoat his opinions, no matter whom they offended. But while he was labeled with fearsome epithets like "Cardinal No" and "God's Rottweiler," his reputation was a result not of loud and bully pronouncements but rather his clinical-sounding diagnoses of what he saw as the inherent faults of others.
To him, Buddhism was "an auto-erotic spirituality," non-Christian religions were "gravely deficient," and Protestant churches were not churches at all but "ecclesial communities." And there are his views of homosexuals ("objectively disordered") and rock 'n' roll ("a vehicle of anti-religion").
To those who objected to his verdicts, the cardinal simply responded that the truth is never comfortable.
But the principal factor behind the latest, and perhaps most serious, contretemps is not so much his attitude toward Islam as his inherent resistance to anything that could be considered an inward-looking critique of the Catholic Church.
This is also one of the sharpest contrasts between Benedict and his predecessor. From the start of his pontificate, John Paul developed what might be called a "theology of apology" intended to shine a light on the "dark pages" of the church's history.
He apologized for the condemnation of Galileo, for the "errors and excesses" of the Inquisition, and for Catholicism's role in the wars of religion that scarred Christendom. He issued mea culpas to Muslims and Jews for sins committed against them by Catholics. By the time he died, he had made more than 100 formal apologies.
For many church leaders, this campaign of penance was simply too much. Chief among the critics, albeit usually sotto voce, was Cardinal Ratzinger, who once publicly criticized "a kind of masochism" in the church "and a somewhat perverse need to declare itself guilty for all the catastrophes of past history."
To Cardinal Ratzinger the great danger is that such criticisms, while perhaps engendering goodwill with others, could foster the risky perception that since the Catholic Church had erred in the past it could be wrong today – and, just as perilously, could therefore be in need of change. Thus, his invocation of the sins of another religion – in this case, Islam – is a natural extension of his effort to tamp down calls for reform by presenting Catholicism as an immutable exemplar of the religious ideal.
If Benedict did not possess such a blinkered view of history, he might have easily spared himself and the church – especially Catholics who have suffered directly for his scholarly presentation – great difficulty, while advancing rather than impeding dialogue with Islam.
Ironically, his lecture in Germany focused on the indispensability of both faith and reason to a complete religious vision, and the genius of Christianity in incorporating Hellenistic philosophy. Rather than citing a 14th-century dialogue that cast Islam in a poor light, Benedict could have gone back another century or two, to the Iberian Peninsula, where Christian conquerors of Islamic cities rediscovered the great works of Aristotle.
That Aristotelian corpus had been considered "lost" by the Christian world. Its preservation thanks to Muslim scholars prompted a renaissance in Christian thought and Western civilization, led by Saint Thomas Aquinas, in which reason was deployed in the search for religious truth.
It was Aquinas, in fact, who coined the maxim that "grace does not destroy nature." In other words, Christian faith builds on a person's innate character.
Pope Benedict is no devotee of Aquinas; he prefers the more pessimistic views of human nature enunciated by Saint Augustine almost a millennium earlier.
Yet nothing might better prove the reasonableness of that Thomist dictum than the events of the past week.
David Gibson is the author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World, published last month by HarperSanFrancisco. He wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
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