Pope Benedict XVI has issued a series of apologies for the ill-conceived remarks made in an academic lecture in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who called Islam “evil and inhuman.” At least in one sense, then, the pope appears to agree with those who charged him with misrepresenting the teachings of Islam and offending its adherents.

It is hard to make sense of this incident, especially given Benedict’s reputation for intellectual clarity and forthrightness. “I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together,” Benedict said in trying to calm the uproar. Some Catholic commentators, eager to align this pontificate with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the tendentious contention that the world is now embroiled in a apocalyptic “clash of civilizations,” rushed to the pope’s defense. According to these pundits, Benedict was right and brave—“hard-headed” and “serious”—in criticizing Islam’s encouragement of religious violence. To be sure, Benedict has rightly condemned Islamic radicalism in the past and challenged the suppression of religious freedom for Christians in Islamic countries.

That many Islamic radicals turn to the Qur’an to justify violence cannot be disputed. The burning of Christian churches and death threats against the pope following the lecture only confirm that ugly fact. Islamic leaders must unequivocally reject such reactions. But if, as some argue, Benedict’s purpose was to forcefully engage Islamists, why did he then apologize for his remarks?

A more benign explanation for the pope’s gaffe is that he is still new to the papacy and has not yet come to terms with how his every word will be scrutinized. Assuming the role of political and pastoral head of a church that is also a state is an adjustment. Benedict is now a diplomat and leader of the Catholic Church as well as a theologian, and the sorts of careful distinctions an academic theologian makes can cause confusion when issued by a head of state.

Anyone who reads the pope’s lecture will be reminded that he is a formidable thinker. His erudite paper on the connection between reason and faith was not intended for general consumption. By not carefully distinguishing his own thinking from the inflammatory quotation he employed, he provoked unnecessary suspicion among his Islamic listeners. Moreover, in seeming to point to a propensity for violence within Islam while conspicuously failing to mention Christianity’s own historical failures in this regard, he appeared to be making an accusation rather than a philosophical argument. This aversion to grappling with the church’s own violent history seems characteristic of Benedict’s deeply eschatological understanding of the church and his often ahistorical approach to theology. For example, during his visit to Auschwitz in the spring, the pope avoided any reference to the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. He subsequently apologized for that curious omission. Benedict has written eloquently and incisively about the dangers “historicism” poses to theology, but a refusal to come to terms with the church’s past sins and errors poses just as great a danger to its integrity and mission. While Benedict is eager to defend the church’s metaphysical claims and transcendent reality, he has a tendency to slight its messier incarnational character.

To be honest, the pope fudges a bit in distancing himself from the quotation he used to criticize Islam. His lecture endorses the emperor’s assessment at several points. Still, a fair-minded reading of the pope’s remarks shows him to be more concerned about the threat posed by “radical skepticism” and Western secularism than by Islam. Yes, he made several dubious allusions to Islam’s notion of God as “absolutely transcendent,” and therefore “not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Many Islamic scholars take issue with such a characterization. The pope’s larger point, however, was to call attention once again to the West’s own cramped notion of rationality, one that increasingly deprecates religious belief, and makes contact and communication with Islam and other religious cultures extremely difficult. Benedict is keen to defend the rationality of religious faith, and to remind his secular readers that the modern scientific ethos itself is based on a leap of faith that asserts a correspondence between what reason reveals and the ultimate nature of reality. “The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism,” he said in the lecture’s most persuasive section, “but of broadening our concept of reason and its application....We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.”

Disclosing those horizons is what a pope is called to do, and the idea that there might be a “new way” to reconcile reason and faith, one that is not just a reassertion of traditional Catholic certainties, is most welcome. Let’s hear more about it.     

September 26, 2006


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Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: View Contents
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