Pope: Violence in name of Christian faith a `great shame'

[caption id="attachment_15696" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="St. Francis and the sultan of Egypt. Sculpture by Arnaldo Zocchi (1909), in downtown Cairo."]St. Francis and the sultan of Egypt. Sculpture by Arnaldo Zocchi, 1909, outside St. Anthony Church, Cairo[/caption]At a gathering of religious leaders in Assisi today, Pope Benedict XVI confronted the question of whether religion is cause for violence or a force for peace. In doing so, he looked back on the history of his own church:

As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.

This blanket disavowal of all violence perpetrated in the name of the Christian faith seems to me very significant, given the efforts among conservative Catholic apologists to justify the Crusades. (Some might think that Pope John Paul II resolved the issue, but it's not clear that he apologized for the Crusades.)It's appropriate that the pope's remarks were made in the home town of St. Francis, who quietly opposed the Crusade (as Benedict has written) and befriended the enemy's commander, Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade.Benedict offered a carefully reasoned argument that religiously motivated terrorism plays into the hands of enemies of religion:

The post-Enlightenment critique of religion has repeatedly maintained that religion is a cause of violence and in this way it has fuelled hostility towards religions. The fact that, in the case we are considering here, religion really does motivate violence should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons. In a way that is more subtle but no less cruel, we also see religion as the cause of violence when force is used by the defenders of one religion against others. The religious delegates who were assembled in Assisi in 1986 wanted to say, and we now repeat it emphatically and firmly: this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.

One hopes that this finds a broad and receptive audience.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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