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Theological Notebook: Sandro Magister's Essay and a Few Observations from the Crazy Weekend

Here's a strikingly-provocative essay by Italy's Sandro Magister insisting that it is time for Islam to step up to the plate and embrace reasonableness and peace.

I notice a few things in all the hoopla of people writing on these events:

It's a profound shame that the real news-worthy item – the actual content of Benedict's address – was lost to whoever thought isolating those historical quotations would stir things up interestingly. The challenge of the document is actually in the ongoing defense of Reason that the Church has been engaged in for some years. The thinkers of the Enlightenment would be amazed to discover that the very faith they thought they were burying with their celebration of Reason is now the very entity that – in a less extreme form than that of the Enlightenment – is defending its legacy. Secular Western thought has given up on reason, largely. The average person, it is true, isn't so aware of this, as the philosophy you tend to learn from popular culture is often a century or two "behind the times," as it were. So most people untrained or under-read in these areas still tend to think in terms of 19th century thought, like Marx, Freud and Feuerbach on religious matters. But the 20th century was a huge rally for the intellectual self-confidence of the faith, particularly in the explosion of fruits from historical and archaeological inquiry. So here's a Pope, amid a spiritually-demolished German intellectual culture, forging a new vision of Faith and Reason as one reality, and preserving the best of the very forces meant to dismantle the faith. This is why I see an ever-increasing interplay and respect between theology and the hard sciences: they both teach the reasonableness of reality, against contemporary philosophy.

Also, although there's no end of people who will keep yammering about either the Crusades (a mixed bag, historically, although one wonders if people who keep mentioning them would never consider defending themselves in the face of invasion), or at what the Spanish did with the office of the Inquisition, it seems to me that that's pretty much beside the point by now. (I am amazed when I hear such criticisms – it always seems to be those two events – if the person actually knows the least thing about them. Yet this has had some kind of popular rhetorical force my whole intellectual life. Usually asking "Which Crusade?" is enough to confuse righteous protestors of this sort.) If Christians have managed not to do anything so egregious in the last 500 years that it can't be cited as a systemic flaw in the faith, it seems pretty clear that Christianity has lead the way to a more full actualization of spiritual insight, even though there's still always further to go.

Islam’s Unreasonable War Against Benedict XVI
In Regensburg, the pope offered as terrain for dialogue between Christians and Muslims 
“acting according to reason.” But the Islamic world has attacked him, distorting his thought, confirming by this that the rejection of reason brings intolerance and violence along with it. The uncertainties about the trip to Turkey

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, September 18, 2006 – As soon as he returned from his trip to Bavaria, Benedict XVI, as had been planned, installed cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as head of the secretariat of state and promoted archbishop Dominique Mamberti as the Holy See’s new foreign minister.

At the same time, he found himself facing a wave of unprecedented protest on the part of the Muslim world – on account of things he had said at the University of Regensburg on September 12.

The two facts are not disconnected from each other. Bertone is not a career diplomat, but a man of doctrine and a pastor of souls. More than secretary of state – he has said – he wants to be secretary “of Church.” By installing him, the pope has confirmed that what is expected from the secretariat of state and the pontifical representatives is, above all, collaboration in the task that belongs to him as successor of Peter: “strengthening the brethren in the faith.”

This, and nothing else, is what Benedict XVI went to do in Bavaria, as he emphasized at the end of the trip:

“I came to Germany, to Bavaria, to re-propose the eternal truths of the Gospel as present-day truths and strength, and to strengthen believers in their adherence to Christ, the Son of God who became man for our salvation. I am convinced in the faith that in Him, in his word, is found the way not only to attain eternal happiness, but also to build already a future worthy of man upon this earth.”

Less diplomacy and more Gospel: this is the course that Joseph Ratzinger is setting for the Church’s central governance. Even in the choice of archbishop Mamberti as foreign minister, what the pope kept in mind even more than his diplomatic competency was his direct familiarity with the Muslim world and with the related questions of faith and civilization. Born in Marakesh, with French citizenship via Corsica, Mamberti was a pontifical representative in Chile and to the United Nations, but also in Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and most recently in Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.

And it was again this criterion – less diplomacy and more Gospel – that led the pope, in the course of his trip to Germany, to say such politically incorrect, and such potentially explosive, words.

Anyone who is an expert in the art of diplomacy and a proponent of “realism” in international relations would certainly have censured as inopportune and dangerous many passages of the homilies and speeches delivered by Benedict XVI in Germany.

But this is not a pope who submits himself to such censorship or self-censorship, which he sees as being inopportune and dangerous indeed when it concerns the pillars of his preaching. His goal on his trip to Germany was to illuminate before modern man – whether Christian, agnostic, or of another faith; from Europe, Africa, or Asia – that simple and supreme truth that is the other side of the truth to which he dedicated the encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.” God is love, but he is also reason, he is the “Logos.” And so when reason separates itself from God, it closes in upon itself. And likewise, faith in an “irrational” God, an absolute, unbridled will, can become the seed of violence. Every religion, culture, and civilization is exposed to this twofold error – not only Islam, but also Christianity, toward which the pope directed almost the entirety of his preaching.

Two days before the lecture at the University of Regensburg against which Muslim government officials and opinion makers launched their protests, Benedict XVI had exposed this truth in the homily for the Mass on Sunday, September 10 in Munich, with connotations that had even let him pass as pro-Islamic in some media commentaries.

The pope had said:

“People in Africa and Asia admire, indeed, the scientific and technical prowess of the West, but they are frightened by a form of rationality which totally excludes God from man's vision, as if this were the highest form of reason, and one to be taught to their cultures too. They do not see the real threat to their identity in the Christian faith, but in the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom and that holds up utility as the supreme criterion for the future of scientific research. Dear friends, this cynicism is not the kind of tolerance and cultural openness that the world's peoples are looking for and that all of us want! The tolerance which we urgently need includes the fear of God – respect for what others hold sacred. This respect for what others hold sacred demands that we ourselves learn once more the fear of God. But this sense of respect can be reborn in the Western world only if faith in God is reborn, if God become once more present to us and in us. We don't impose our faith on anyone...”

But then came the lecture in Regensburg, and the interpretation of it made by the leaders of the Muslim world – muftis, preachers, opinionists, government officials, with a propagation and exaggeration of the offensive similar to what was seen a few months ago against the blasphemous cartoons – was the diametrical opposite. The accusations sprang from an outrageous distortion of the theses expounded by Benedict XVI, and sidestepped precisely that exercise of reason invoked by the pope as the proper terrain for a true dialogue among the religions and civilizations.

So the new Vatican foreign minister, Mamberti, acted well when he replied not by announcing unthinkable retractions on the part of the pope, but by appealing simply for a “direct” and complete reading of the lecture he gave in Regensburg.

On September 16, the new secretary of state, Bertone, released an official note reaffirming the “unmistakable” positions of the pope, his dismay over interpretations of his thought wrongly thought to be offensive, and the hope that “those who profess Islam may be aided to understand his words in their right meaning.”

And at the Angelus on Sunday the 17th, Benedict XVI himself made this clarification:

“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought. Yesterday, the cardinal secretary of state published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words. I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.”

* * *

This does not alter the fact that the lecture by Benedict XVI in Regensburg – reissued in its entirety by www.chiesa, in Italian and English, an hour after it was delivered – was truly and audaciously impolitic.

The pope took as his point of departure a dialogue that took place in 1391 between the emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Muslim scholar from Persia on the irrationality of spreading the faith through violence.

The dialogue was not a mere academic exercise. What little remained of the Eastern Roman Empire was under its final attack from the Ottoman armies. Around sixty years later, in 1453, Constantinople would fall under Muslim dominion, and the basilica of Hagia Sophia would be turned into a mosque.

So then, the next trip that Benedict XVI has planned, at the end of November, is to Istanbul, the current name for Constantinople. It includes an arrival at Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and a stop in Ephesus, at what is traditionally called the “House of Our Lady.”

It was the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Barthlomew I, who invited the pope in mid-2005. Benedict XVI immediately accepted the invitation, without waiting for it to be confirmed by a similar invitation from the Turkish authorities. And this alone was enough to irritate the Ankara government, which does not recognize Bartholomew I’s role as a patriarch, but treats him as an ordinary citizen. In today’s Turkey, there are a few tens of thousands of Christians, mostly belonging to the Armenian Church. The faithful of the patriarchate of Constantinople are 3-4 thousand. And there are also a few thousand Catholics.

The Turkish government formally invited the pope last February. But shortly before this, on the 5th of the same month, there was the killing of an Italian priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, in a church in Trabzon, on the Black Sea. After this, other priests were the targets of threats and attacks. For a few months, a number of the representatives of the Catholic Church in Turkey have been living under the protection of unarmed, plainclothes police officials. Their telephone conversations are monitored, and their mail is often already open when it is delivered. More than being protected, they have the feeling of being watched.

Last June, another important Church leader, the “Catholicos” of the Armenians, Karekin II, visited Turkey. A reference that he made to the massacre of Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Empire during its final phase earned him a penal trial for offenses against Turkey, brought against him by the magistrate of Istanbul.

Religious liberty is largely lacking in Turkey: this is also true for the non-Sunni Muslims, the Alevi. The president of the office that oversees Turkish Islam on behalf of the government, Ali Bardakoglu, is inflexible in rejecting the request of the Alevi to be recognized as a distinct Muslim community. Their places of worship are still downgraded as “cultural centers.”

And Ali Bardakoglu was the first among the Turkish authorities to react to the lecture by Benedict XVI in Regensburg. Here is what he said:

“His was a very provocative, hostile, and prejudicial address. I hope that it does not reflect an indwelling hostility in the pope’s interior world that reveals the presumptuous, indulgent, and arrogant attitude of those who know they have the economic power of the West behind them. If a man of religion or a scientist criticizes the history of a religion or the members of that religion, we can talk about it. But when one speaks about holy things, about the holy Book and its Prophet, it is a sign of arrogance, of hostility, and gives way to slander that incites religious fighting. The Muslim world must look with concern at Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Turkey. We are waiting for him to take back his words and to apologize to the world of Islam.”

If this is the welcome Benedict XVI receives from those who oversee Islam in Turkey, the prospects are not encouraging.

It should be noted that the agency taking care of the pope’s trip – as also of the affairs of the Christian religious minorities, considered as foreigners in terms of civil law – is the Turkish foreign ministry, of the most pronounced secularist tendency, which is controlled by the “invisible government” that is heir to the anti-Islamist revolution of Kemal Atatürk. But this current is weaker today than in the past.

The currents favorable toward the entry of Turkey into the European Union also seem to be on the decline. The preliminary negotiations with the EU are stalling over two unresolved questions: Turkey’s recognition of the state of Cyprus with its capital of Nicosia, and religious freedom.

One the other hand, there is growing hostility in the Turkish media toward everything that is Western, European, and Christian. Secular opinion is outstripped by opinion with an Islamist imprint, which is increasingly more combative. An extremely mediocre book of political fiction published in Turkey at the end of August and written by a journalist who specializes in intrigues, Yücel Kaya, has had spectacular commercial success. The title says it all: “Attack on the Pope: Who Will Kill Benedict XVI in Istanbul?”

The Turkish chapter is the first one against which the new Vatican foreign minister, Mamberti, must test himself.

As for Benedict XVI, he knows that he hasn’t made his trip to Turkey any easier. But it is the pope’s firm conviction that a visit prepared and carried out only under the shield of reticence, silence, purely ceremonial dialogue, and submission would have done more harm than good – both to the Church and to the Muslim world.

But if everyone takes seriously in hand, and reads from beginning to end, the hymn to reason that he raised in Regensburg... Because at bottom, in the view of Benedict XVI, the heart of the question is always the same one that the emperor of Constantinople and his learned Persian counterpart discussed in 1391: “Not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God.”
Tags: benedict xvi, cultural, ethical, europe, faith and reason, historical, interreligious, islam, magisterium, mysticism/spirituality, papacy, philosophical, regensburg, secularism/modernity, theological notebook
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