Coincidence or Strategy?

Has the Pope adopted a distinctive new rhetorical style that attempts to combine dialogue with confrontation? If so, is it likely to be successful? I found myself asking these questions after I read this news report of a sermon at a general audience. The quote from Jude Thaddeus, which criticizes "those who use the grace of God as a pretext to excuse their debauchery and to lead their brothers astray with unacceptable teachings," is jarringly harsh. Yet it is in the context of a very reasonable-sounding speech calling for dialogue and reason. This seems to me to be the general pattern of the Regensburg speech, where the harsh quote from Manuel II Paleologus was jarringly inconsistent with the rhetoric of the rest of his speech.

Now two events can make a pattern for purposes of waiver under the Uniform Commercial Code. They cannot make a pattern of engagement for a pope. Still, it's worth asking:

1. Why repeatedly combine quotes that undermine the likelihood of dialogue with a call for dialogue. (If you don't think that the quote undermines the likelihood of dialogue dialogue, well switch things around: Suppose a prominent liberal Protestant leader were to call for dialogue with Catholicism in a publc speech to his followers, and included a quote from an earlier Reformation figure that harshly criticzed "those who use the purity of reason as a pretext to excuse their sexual repression and to lead their brothers away with superstitions" (my attempt to flip the Jude quote around while preserving the rhetoric). No matter what else they said in the speech, I doubt very much that too many Catholics would feel like talking--or would feel like the other party really wanted to talk.

2. The pope is a brilliant man--I doubt very much the rhetorical implications of both speeches escaped him. So, then, what's he trying to do?

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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