Saturday, September 23, 2006

The pope's point

Today's Inquirer editorial:

Papal point

POPE BENEDICT XVI HAD INTENDED HIS SIX-DAY visit to his native Germany to be a restful but meaningful homecoming. Like his great predecessor who had been the first non-Italian in 400 years to become pope and who had made a moving homecoming to his native Poland a year after his election to the papacy in 1979, Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had wanted to make his Bavarian visit a symbolic “return of the native,” a reaffirmation of the roots of his person and the roots of the faith.

The visit turned out to be too meaningful for comfort; and it was anything but restful. By quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor on Islam—“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”—during a university address, Benedict has riled Muslims and even some Christians and sparked a global conflagration. Catholic churches and Catholics in Islamic countries have been attacked.

The Pope has said he is “deeply sorry” (some linguists say the English translation should have been “deeply saddened”) that Muslims have been offended by the quotation. He clarified that in no way does the quotation reflect his opinion. He has also explained that his university address has been misinterpreted and that he has a “deep respect” for Islam.

In hindsight, the “misinterpretation” seems a “miscontextualization.” The quote from the emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Paleologus, consists of 32 words out of a text of more than 3,000 words (at least in the English translation of the German original)!

To be sure, the overall text must balance and complement those 32 words, which everyone must be reminded is a quotation that merely served to illustrate a point. And what was the point of the address? It was about the rationality of faith, about the Hellenic or rational influence on Christianity that makes of the religion a marriage of faith and reason. Definitely the hysterical reaction in the Muslim world and some sectors of Christianity is an ironic counterpoint to what the Pope was trying to say in an eminently academic, level-headed, and, yes, rational way.

But was the Pope irresponsible in using the controversial quotation? However incendiary the import of the quotation, the Pope indicated he did not share the opinion of the emperor about the evil and inhumanity of Islam. But he indicated that the quotation from the “erudite” emperor should show that rationality plays an essential role in the faith, and this rationality is translated into peaceful resolution of differences; in short, in dialogue.

That rationality is eminently dialogical and peaceful was demonstrated by the fact that the Pope was delivering an address to his old university of Regensburg. In fact, he opened his address to the students and faculty with a fond recollection of those days in the academe when “despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.”

And the dialogical rationality of the faith was also embodied by the Pope’s quotation of the emperor that was uttered in the context of a discussion with a Persian scholar—and a Muslim at that!

The Pope, in fact, said that the remark about Islam as “evil and inhuman” was delivered with “startling brusqueness.” The severity of the remark then was merely a dramatic flourish to what the emperor was trying to point out:

“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.’”

The pre-eminent rationality of the faith, the Pope went on to expound, must be maintained amid a Europe that has lost all sense of faith because of extreme rationality and secularity. He said rational faith is needed in the discussion with the great cultures and religions of the world.

It is the tragedy of our time that a great address that exalts reason and dialogue should be drowned in the din and blare of hatred and irrationality.

They also published the pope's lecture in the Talk of the Town section here and here.

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