Catholic World News News Feature
The Pope's challenge to Islam and the West (analysis) September 27, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI wanted to start a conversation. Well, he certainly accomplished that.
Unfortunately, the heated discussion of the brilliant speech that the Holy Father delivered at the University of Regensburg has centered primarily on one aspect of that speech: the Pope's comments on Islam. Still, the resulting furor has persuaded an extraordinary number of people to read the full address. (One week after the speech was delivered, nearly 150,000 people had read the full text as it appeared in preliminary form here on the CWN site-- just one of the many places where the text could be found online. The Vatican has subsequently issued an "official" translation which softens the passage that had provoked Muslims.) The media focus may still be on the reactions in the Islamic world, but thoughtful readers are digesting the Pope's full treatment of his subject: the relationship between reason and faith.
The angry Muslim protests that began last week were based on a superficial and inaccurate reading of his text. In fact, as Father Samir Khalil Samir pointed out in a penetrating analysis for the AsiaNews service, the protestors could not possibly have read the Pope's speech before the rioting began, since for several days it was available only in German and English translations.
Still, the fact that these "spontaneous" protests have obviously been orchestrated does not make them any less dangerous. We know, from the example of the Danish-cartoon protests earlier this year, that Islamic radicals can continue to whip up emotions for weeks after an incident occurs. And the death of Sister Leonella Sgorbita in Somalia, in a murder quite possibly committed by Islamic militants, underlines the gravity of the situation.
Certainly the Vatican has taken the protests seriously, making a concerted effort to soothe Muslim sensibilities. First the head of the Vatican press office reminded reporters that the Pope had not been speaking about Islam, and did not intend to show disrespect for that faith. Then the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, added his more authoritative statement that the Pope's message had been "interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions." The Vatican's "foreign minister" announced that dialogue with Islam is still a top priority for the Holy See. And L'Osservatore Romano took the highly unusual step of printing a papal clarification in Arabic on the front page.
Yes, the Vatican has taken the matter seriously, recognizing that the Pope's speech has triggered an international uproar with potentially huge consequences. One official at the Holy See judged that the uproar could build into "the biggest international crisis we have seen in the last 25 years."
Still it is important to notice what the Vatican has not done. There has been no apology for the Pope's speech.
Pope Benedict himself told a Sunday audience that he was "deeply sorry" about "the reactions in some countries" after his speech; he did not say that he regretted making the speech. On the contrary, the Pontiff said that the uproar was based on a misreading of his address, which "was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."
More recently, in a public audience on September 20, the Pope added that he still hoped that the speech would furnish the basis for "positive, even self-critical dialogue both among religions and between modern reason and Christian faith."
In other words, when he addressed the academic faculty at Regensburg, Pope Benedict hoped to stimulate a discussion of faith and reason. He still believes that discussion is both necessary and possible.
Has the angry response from the Islamic world been nothing more than a distraction, then? Was it simply by accident that the Pontiff inflamed Muslim sensibilities? Not quite.
Pope Benedict is a gentleman, who would never intentionally give offense. He was clearly caught off guard by the burst of Islamic outrage, and frustrated to see how that outrage was based on a misinterpretation of his words. Still, in his Regensburg speech the Holy Father clearly did intend to issue a challenge to the Islamic world.
In the passage that prompted all the protests, Pope Benedict was not speaking in his own voice; he was quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor. As a matter of fact the Pope was two steps removed from the inflammatory words; he was quoting from a Lebanese scholar, who in turn quoted Emperor Manuel II Paleologus. As he introduced the quote, the Pontiff characterized it as "brusque" (in his public audience a week later he would call it "incomprehensibly brusque"). And in another clear bid to distance himself from the statement, as he delivered the speech the Pope said "I quote" before reading the crucial words, then repeated those words: "I quote."
Nevertheless, the words of the Byzantine emperor carry a punch:
Show me just what Mohammed 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.
Is it likely that a scholar as careful as Pope Benedict would drop such a provocative quotation into a speech delivered to an academic audience-- a speech that showed all the signs of careful preparation? No. The Pope did not intend to insult Muslims, but he did hope to capture their attention, and issue a clear challenge.
The content of that challenge was clear enough: The Pope was telling the world of Islam that dialogue between religious faiths is possible only if both sides respect the rule of reason. As he went on, developing that theme, the Pope issued a much stronger challenge to the modern secular world, arguing that a form of reason that excludes religious faith is as dangerous as a faith that denies reason.
The secular world risks alienating religious believers, the Pope warned the Regensburg faculty. "Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions," he said. "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."
When he spoke of "the world's profoundly religious cultures," Cardinal Paul Poupard has noted, the Holy Father was probably thinking of the Islamic world. Taken as a whole, his speech was not unfriendly to their demands for respect; in fact, he was speaking as their ally in the confrontation with secularism!
In Regensburg the Pope reminded an academic audience that the Christian world worships a rational God: a God who is identified with the Word. In his first encyclical, Benedict XVI told the world that God is love. Now-- as his former student Father Joseph Fessio observes-- the Holy Father is adding another insight from the Gospel of St. John: God is Logos: God is reason. To act in defiance of reason is to offend against the nature of God.
To identify God with human reason is to challenge the modern secular world, which thinks of reason as a mathematical process thoroughly divorced from religious faith. But that is precisely the thrust of the Pope's Regensburg lecture. And from all available evidence, it is a challenge that will become a main theme of this pontificate.
Pope Benedict may not have used a proper diplomatic formula in issuing his challenge to the Islamic world. But diplomacy is not his top priority-- as he demonstrated by appointing a non-diplomat to become his Secretary of State. The main mission of Benedict XVI is to evangelize: to coax the world into a fresh consideration of Christian truths.
In November the Pope is scheduled to visit Turkey, a country with an overwhelming Muslim population and a deep antipathy toward the Catholic faith. In the immediate aftermath of his Regensburg speech, the Turkish government's minister of religious affairs said that the papal visit should be cancelled because the Pope had "hatred in his heart. " Even the apostolic vicar of Anatolia admitted, "I don't know if public opinion is ready for this visit." But the scheduled trip is still "on," the Vatican has announced. Despite the obvious dangers, Cardinal Bertone says, "For the moment, there is no reason not to go."
Assuming that the trip takes place on schedule, one thing is certain: the stage has been set. The Pope's challenge to the Islamic world has been heard. Now Muslim leaders must respond. Are they ready for inter-religious dialogue based on reason? Will they renounce the use of violence?
Maybe the world's most powerful Islamic leaders will refuse to answer the Pope's call. Maybe the secular powers of the West, too, will ignore the challenge issued in Regensburg. But-- thanks in part to the furor of the past week-- everyone knows that a challenge has been issued. And anyone who knows Benedict XVI realizes that he will issue the same challenge again. And again.