Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Ben Holding the Line

This caught the eye, as things are sorting out. Kate Fagan Taylor sent me the other piece, which she identified as a "non-partisan political analysis" today from British Columbia, where she has taken a new job working for the Ministry of Advanced Education as the manager of the Province's seven Universities. She writes:
I was supposed to swear an oath of fealty to the Queen last week. Quite a stretch for my red-blooded Yankee Doodle side. I ended up opting out of that and settled for an "affirmation" of my intention to faithfully serve the Crown.
A great move for her, and a prime use of her talents, I should think.

Analysis: Pope's Remarks Are Consistent
Sep 19, 2:54 PM (ET)


VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam and holy war that have angered much of the Muslim world are in line with his efforts to spare religion from violence and extremism.

During his 17-month papacy, Benedict has lectured Muslims on the need to teach their young to shun violence, suggested that violent as well as peaceful strains are part of Islam and pressed for religious freedom - part of efforts to extend rights to Christians in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

While Benedict's comments on Islam and holy war may not have been "politically correct," said former Vatican diplomat John-Peter Pham, "today much of our dialogue is fruitless because we feel constrained from saying what we really think."

The source of the Islamic anger was a speech last week in which the pontiff cited a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

While the pope later said he was "deeply sorry" over the reactions to his remarks and that they did not reflect his own opinions, top churchmen rushed to his defense.

"The violent reactions in many parts of the Islamic world justified one of Pope Benedict's main fears," said Australian Cardinal George Pell.

"They showed the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence," Pell said Monday.

In the Vatican's first response to the Muslim criticism, papal spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was clear that Benedict sought to "cultivate an attitude of respect toward other religions and cultures, including of course Islam."

But he also said it was important to the pope that there be a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation of violence."

Some Vatican analysts say Benedict is taking a harder line toward Islam then his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose efforts for closer relations included a visit to a mosque in Syria - the first by a pope to a Muslim house of worship.

They point to Benedict's decision in March to merge the Vatican's office for dialogue with Muslims with its culture office, and to send the English prelate who headed it, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, - considered a top Islamic expert - to Egypt as papal envoy.

Commenting on the move, the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit authority on the Vatican, called Fitzgerald, "the smartest guy in the Vatican on relations with Muslims. You don't exile someone like that, you listen to them."

"If the Vatican says something dumb about Muslims, people will die in parts of Africa and churches will be burned in Indonesia, let alone what happens in the Middle East," Reese said in April.

Benedict, aides said, wrote the speech himself that he delivered last week to an audience of professors at the University of Regensburg, where he previously taught theology.

It is not known whether any aide was alarmed at the possibility for trouble, although journalists who received advance copies of the text asked the Vatican spokesman for explanations hours before Benedict delivered the address. When reading the lines about Islam, Benedict did add "I quote" twice.

It is not unusual for popes to make last-minute changes or to drop material for reasons that are often never explained.

For example, when Benedict visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in May, then spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that the word "Shoah" - Hebrew for the Holocaust - would appear in the final version the pope delivered. Its omission would certainly have generated protests.

Rome bureau chief Victor Simpson has covered the Vatican for more than 25 years.

Sent: Tuesday, September 19, 2006 2:22 PM
Subject: Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report


Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope's Remarks
By George Friedman

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on "Faith, Reason and the
University" at the University of Regensburg. In his discussion (full text
available on the Vatican Web site) the pope appeared to be trying to define
a course between dogmatic faith and cultural relativism -- making his
personal contribution to the old debate about faith and reason. In the
course of the lecture, he made reference to a "part of the dialogue carried
on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite
Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the
subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both."

Benedict went on to say -- and it is important to read a long passage to
understand his point -- that:

"In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches
on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Sura 2,256
reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' According to the experts, this
is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless
and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions,
developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without
descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those
who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he addresses his interlocutor with a
startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the
central question about the relationship between religion and violence in
general, saying: '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.' The emperor, after having expressed
himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why
spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is
incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God,' he
says, 'is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to
God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead
someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly,
without violence and threats ... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not
need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening
a person with death ...'

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this:
Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The
editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 'For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped
by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim
teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.'"

The reaction of the Muslim world -- outrage -- came swift and sharp over the
passage citing Manuel II: "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." Obviously, this passage is a
quote from a previous text -- but equally obviously, the pope was making a
critical point that has little to do with this passage.

The essence of this passage is about forced conversion. It begins by
pointing out that Mohammed spoke of faith without compulsion when he lacked
political power, but that when he became strong, his perspective changed.
Benedict goes on to make the argument that violent conversion -- from the
standpoint of a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, and therefore shaped
by the priority of reason -- is unacceptable. For someone who believes that
God is absolutely transcendent and beyond reason, the argument goes, it is

Clearly, Benedict knows that Christians also practiced forced conversion in
their history. He also knows that the Aristotelian tendency is not unique to
Christianity. In fact, that same tendency exists in the Muslim tradition,
through thinkers such as al-Farabi or Avicenna. These stand in relation to
Islam as Thomas Aquinas does to Christianity or Maimonides to Judaism. And
all three religions struggle not only with the problem of God versus
science, but with the more complex and interesting tripolar relationship of
religion as revelation, reason and dogmatism. There is always that
scriptural scholar, the philosopher troubled by faith and the local
clergyman who claims to speak for God personally.

Benedict's thoughtful discussion of this problem needs to be considered.
Also to be considered is why the pope chose to throw a hand grenade into a
powder keg, and why he chose to do it at this moment in history. The other
discussion might well be more worthy of the ages, but this question -- what
did Benedict do, and why did he do it -- is of more immediate concern, for
he could have no doubt what the response, in today's politically charged
environment, was going to be.

A Deliberate Move

Let's begin with the obvious: Benedict's words were purposely chosen. The
quotation of Manuel II was not a one-liner, accidentally blurted out. The
pope was giving a prepared lecture that he may have written himself -- and
if it was written for him, it was one that he carefully read. Moreover, each
of the pope's public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and
there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was
delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about
Islam in the current climate. There is not one war going on in the world
today, but a series of wars, some of them placing Catholics at risk.

It is true that Benedict was making reference to an obscure text, but that
makes the remark all the more striking; even the pope had to work hard to
come up with this dialogue. There are many other fine examples of the
problem of reason and faith that he could have drawn from that did not
involve Muslims, let alone one involving such an incendiary quote. But he
chose this citation and, contrary to some media reports, it was not a short
passage in the speech. It was about 15 percent of the full text and was the
entry point to the rest of the lecture. Thus, this was a deliberate choice,
not a slip of the tongue.

As a deliberate choice, the effect of these remarks could be anticipated.
Even apart from the particular phrase, the text of the speech is a criticism
of the practice of conversion by violence, with a particular emphasis on
Islam. Clearly, the pope intended to make the point that Islam is currently
engaged in violence on behalf of religion, and that it is driven by a view
of God that engenders such belief. Given Muslims' protests (including some
violent reactions) over cartoons that were printed in a Danish newspaper,
the pope and his advisers certainly must have been aware that the Muslim
world would go ballistic over this. Benedict said what he said
intentionally, and he was aware of the consequences. Subsequently, he has
not apologized for what he said -- only for any offense he might have
caused. He has not retracted his statement.

So, why this, and why now?

Political Readings

Consider the fact that the pope is not only a scholar but a politician --
and a good one, or he wouldn't have become the pope. He is not only a head
of state, but the head of a global church with a billion members. The church
is no stranger to geopolitics. Muslims claim that they brought down
communism in Afghanistan. That may be true, but there certainly is something
to be said also for the efforts of the Catholic Church, which helped to
undermine the communism in Poland and to break the Soviet grip on Eastern
Europe. Popes know how to play power politics.

Thus, there are at least two ways to view Benedict's speech politically.

One view derives from the fact that the pope is watching the U.S.-jihadist
war. He can see it is going badly for the United States in both Afghanistan
and Iraq. He witnessed the recent success of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas'
political victory among the Palestinians. Islamists may not have the
fundamental strength to threaten the West at this point, but they are
certainly on a roll. Also, it should be remembered that Benedict's
predecessor, John Paul II, was clearly not happy about the U.S. decision to
invade Iraq, but it does not follow that his successor is eager to see a
U.S. defeat there.

The statement that Benedict made certainly did not hurt U.S. President
George W. Bush in American politics. Bush has been trying to portray the war
against Islamist militants as a clash of civilizations, one that will last
for generations and will determine the future of mankind. Benedict, whether
he accepts Bush's view or not, offered an intellectual foundation for Bush's
position. He drew a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity and
then tied Christianity to rationality -- a move to overcome the tension
between religion and science in the West. But he did not include Islam in
that matrix. Given that there is a war on and that the pope recognizes Bush
is on the defensive, not only in the war but also in domestic American
politics, Benedict very likely weighed the impact of his words on the scale
of war and U.S. politics. What he said certainly could be read as words of
comfort for Bush. We cannot read Benedict's mind on this, of course, but he
seemed to provide some backing for Bush's position.

It is not entirely clear that Pope Benedict intended an intellectual
intervention in the war. The church obviously did not support the invasion
of Iraq, having criticized it at the time. On the other hand, it would not
be in the church's interests to see the United States simply routed. The
Catholic Church has substantial membership throughout the region, and a wave
of Islamist self-confidence could put those members and the church at risk.
From the Vatican's perspective, the ideal outcome of the war would be for
the United States to succeed -- or at least not fail -- but for the church
to remain free to criticize Washington's policies and to serve as
conciliator and peacemaker. Given the events of the past months, Benedict
may have felt the need for a relatively gentle intervention -- in a way that
warned the Muslim world that the church's willingness to endure vilification
as a Crusader has its limits, and that he is prepared, at least
rhetorically, to strike back. Again, we cannot read his mind, but neither
can we believe that he was oblivious to events in the region and that, in
making his remarks, he was simply engaged in an academic exercise.

This perspective would explain the timing of the pope's statement, but the
general thrust of his remarks has more to do with Europe.

There is an intensifying tension in Europe over the powerful wave of Muslim
immigration. Frictions are high on both sides. Europeans fear that the
Muslim immigrants will overwhelm their native culture or form an
unassimilated and destabilizing mass. Muslims feel unwelcome, and some
extreme groups have threatened to work for the conversion of Europe. In
general, the Vatican's position has ranged from quiet to calls for
tolerance. As a result, the Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from
the church body -- particularly working and middle-class Catholics -- and
its fears.

As has been established, the pope knew that his remarks at Regensburg would
come under heavy criticism from Muslims. He also knew that this criticism
would continue despite any gestures of contrition. Thus, with his remarks,
he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe's
Muslim community -- without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments.
That move increases his political strength among these groups and could
cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not
locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own
warning to Europe's Muslims about the limits of tolerance.

It is obvious that Benedict delivered a well-thought-out statement. It is
also obvious that the Vatican had no illusions as to how the Muslim world
would respond. The statement contained a verbal blast, crafted in a way that
allowed Benedict to maintain plausible deniability. Indeed, the pope already
has taken the exit, noting that these were not his thoughts but those of
another scholar. The pope and his staff were certainly aware that this would
make no difference in the grand scheme of things, save for giving Benedict
the means for distancing himself from the statement when the inevitable
backlash occurred. Indeed, the anger in the Muslim world remained intense,
and there also have been emerging pockets of anger among Catholics over the
Muslim world's reaction to the pope, considering the history of Islamic
attacks against Christianity. Because he reads the newspapers -- not to
mention the fact that the Vatican maintains a highly capable intelligence
service of its own -- Benedict also had to have known how the war was going,
and that his statement likely would aid Bush politically, at least
indirectly. Finally, he would be aware of the political dynamics in Europe
and that the statement would strengthen his position with the church's base

The question is how far Benedict is going to go with this. His predecessor
took on the Soviet Union and then, after the collapse of communism, started
sniping at the United States over its materialism and foreign policy.
Benedict may have decided that the time has come to throw the weight of the
church against radical Islamists. In fact, there is a logic here: If the
Muslims reject Benedict's statement, they have to acknowledge the
rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden is on the Ummah to lift the
religion out of the hands of radicals and extremist scholars by
demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict's
statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base and
perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the
Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His options are
open: He now can move away from the statement and let nature take its
course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to do the same with regard
to anti-Catholic statements or extend and expand the criticism of Islam that
was implicit in the dialogue.

The pope has thrown a hand grenade and is now observing the response. We are
assuming that he knew what he was doing; in fact, we find it impossible to
imagine that he did not. He is too careful not to have known. Therefore, he
must have anticipated the response and planned his partial retreat.

It will be interesting to see if he has a next move. The answer to that may
be something he doesn't know himself yet.

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© Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.
Tags: benedict xvi, cultural, ethical, europe, faith and reason, friends-notre dame era, historical, interreligious, islam, middle east, mysticism/spirituality, papacy, philosophical, regensburg, theological notebook

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