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Ten years later, recognizing the prophetic message of the Regensburg address

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 12, 2016

Ten years ago today—on September 12, 2006—Pope Benedict XVI delivered his memorable address at Regensburg. The speech drew violent protests from the Islamic world, scolding rebukes from Western political leaders, and even embarrassed demurrals by other Catholic leaders (including then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires). Writing for Crux today, veteran Vatican-watcher John Allen accurately describes the Regensburg address as “perhaps the most controversial papal speech of the last half-century.”

However, Allen goes on to observe that the overwrought reactions were generally directed against arguments that Pope Benedict had not advanced in his lecture. It was not a speech intended an indictment of Islam. Allen explains:

Put as simply as possible, Benedict was arguing at Regensburg that the choice for faith is not irrational, and that currents in the West that style it as such are the real enemies of enlightenment and progress.

Yes, it’s true that in the course of making this argument, Pope Benedict made the trenchant observation that the Islamic world has also wrestled, not very successfully, with the relationship between faith and reason. But that was only a part of his overall argument, and not the main part. In Catholic World Report , James Day notes that of the sixteen paragraphs in the Pope’s text, only three touched on Islam.

Insofar as he did speak about Islam, Pope Benedict remarked that the history of Muslim violence is at odds with the Qu’ran’s prescription that: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Thus the Pontiff challenged responsible Muslim leaders to renounce religious violence and confirm the role of human reason—just as he challenged Western leaders to confirm the role of reason in the discussion of religious claims.

At the time, Pope Benedict’s challenge to Islam was interpreted by most Western commentators as a blunder. Editorial writers—apparently working on the assumption that they understood these issues much better than the Pope—lamented his undiplomatic “gaffe.” But a decade later, questions about the relationship between Islam and terrorism can no longer be dismissed so easily. John Allen writes: “Ten years later, there’s a mounting sense that perhaps the world owes Benedict an apology.”

If the mainstream media missed the point of the Regensburg address regarding the Pope’s comments on Islam, the commentators were virtually silent regarding the Pope’s challenge to Western secularism. In a way, that reaction illustrated Benedict’s point. The portions of his speech that could be wrenched out of context to whip up emotions were covered exhaustively (if not accurately); the main thrust of his remarks, with the demand for rational discussion of reasonable claims, was ignored. Pope Benedict said that the world of 2006 was not ready for a reasoned discussion of religious affairs, and his critics proved his point.

In another thoughtful reflection for the 10th anniversary of the Regensburg address, Samuel Gregg explores the Pope’s main argument: his insistence on the power of reason to illuminate religious claims. “Not only did Ratzinger reiterate the need to reject fideism, the type of faith that leads one to fly planes into buildings or cut the throat of an elderly priest, but he also underscored that reason confirms what revelation tells us to be true about God,” Gregg writes. He makes a convincing case that Benedict XVI realized the likely reaction to his speech, but thought the argument worth making despite the consequences:

To identify the pathologies of faith and reason that characterize the Muslim world and the West, he was willing to pay a high price in terms of rage from fideists and contempt from many who consider themselves enlightened.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Sep. 14, 2016 10:51 AM ET USA

    I was reading Etienne Gilson's "Why St. Thomas criticized St. Augustine". You know what I witnessed there? A discussion between Avicenna, Maimonides and St. Thomas. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. And they were discussing precisely what Benedict XVI called to be discussed, and was shut-off for being intolerant. How do I envy the openness of the "dark" ages!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Sep. 12, 2016 6:46 PM ET USA

    The Regensburg Address is a brilliant piece of work that will stand for years. It contains several key challenges to both the West and East and its observation of a fundamental contradiction in Islamic religion/behavior is not dismissible. Pope Benedict may not have been the best administrator but his prowess as a scholar is undeniable.