The New York Times
The Pope’s Words
There is more than enough religious anger in the world. So it is particularly disturbing that Pope Benedict XVI has insulted Muslims, quoting a 14th-century description of Islam as “evil and inhuman.”
In the most provocative part of a speech this week on “faith and reason,” the pontiff recounted a conversation between an “erudite” Byzantine Christian emperor and a “learned” Muslim Persian circa 1391. The pope quoted the emperor 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.”
Muslim leaders the world over have demanded apologies and threatened to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican, warning that the pope’s words dangerously reinforce a false and biased view of Islam. For many Muslims, holy war — jihad — is a spiritual struggle, and not a call to violence. And they denounce its perversion by extremists, who use jihad to justify murder and terrorism.
The Vatican issued a statement saying that Benedict meant no offense and in fact desired dialogue. But this is not the first time the pope has fomented discord between Christians and Muslims.
In 2004 when he was still the Vatican’s top theologian, he spoke out against Turkey’s joining the European Union, because Turkey, as a Muslim country was “in permanent contrast to Europe.”
A doctrinal conservative, his greatest fear appears to be the loss of a uniform Catholic identity, not exactly the best jumping-off point for tolerance or interfaith dialogue.
The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly. He needs to offer a deep and persuasive apology, demonstrating that words can also heal.
It is not unexpected for the Times to read the matter of the Pope’s words in terms of having offended “tolerance.” They also fear that the Pope, as a doctrinal “conservative” who is interested in maintaining Catholic identity, is thereby intolerant and a poor initiator of dialogue.
Just the opposite.
If we bother to read the Pope’s entire text, we find only a call to reasonable dialogue between two different faiths. Christianity and Islam disagree about certain facts. Christianity in the West is more free to express that disagreement, however shocking that may appear in a culture used to a different system.
True tolerance is not attained by pretending that we do not disagree about fundamental facts, still less by erasing such differences. True tolerance is attained by honest acceptance of our disagreements, and the courage to love despite them. That is what Benedict offered, if not what he received.
Michael Anthony Novak
Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow
Department of Theology
Milwaukee, WI 53201