If you’re wondering why I’d add another opinion, analysis or virtual eulogy to the many thousands already published about the death of Pope Benedict, I understand. Especially since I’m woefully ignorant of this man, his thoughts and writings. Of over 200 published books, I’ve read one. Of Pope Benedict’s many thousands of speeches, articles and essays, I’ve read only a few encyclicals.
So why then add to the plethora of words that have been published about Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict?
Because of my surprise, actually astonishment, at the controversy attached to his name, writings and speeches. How and why would such a distinguished, seemingly reclusive individual evoke such invective upon his death? Upon seeing the magnitude of adjectives like divisive, contentious, islamophobic and controversial while searching for one of St. Benedict’s speeches, I asked my friend, a priest, to help me understand.
When my friend explained that this antipathy stemmed from Pope Benedict’s early attempts to dialogue with Muslim leaders, I felt the smirk and cynicism seep out. A Catholic leader’s attempts to dialogue with other religious leaders about the nature of the one God, the God of Abraham, Issaac and Jacob would naturally be vilified.
Of course. Anyone who steps outside of their box gets stomped on. And a Catholic Pope initiating religious conversation with Islam isn’t just stepping out of the box, he’s leaping into space without a parachute.
More than a little intrigued, I started to dig, to see what I could find. As I worked on this piece last week I remembered another Pope who had stepped out of the box. Pope John Paul’s invitation to leaders of all faiths to meet and pray for peace at Assissi caused similar consternation. And still does, three decades later.
It’s nothing new, is it? The loss of context: Pope Benedict and Islamophobia
A year into his papacy, in 2006, Pope Benedict began meeting and talking with Muslim leaders. Then, invited to the University of Regensberg when he evidently once taught, he gave an “infamous” talk called, “Faith, Reason and the University.” In doing so, the Pope ignited many of the opinion shapers in liberal, conservative, secular and religious circles. This Pope is a dissident, Islamophobe, racist…
Although his speech isn’t long, it’s work to read it because it’s dense with philosophical explanations of our descent into theological liberalism. It’s not unlike unpacking the prose of St. John Henry Newman.
But also because his grip of language is so searing and soaring. We want to take very good care when reading prose like this:
…, making possible a genuine experience of universitas -something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned – the experience, in other words, of the fact that 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 – this reality became a lived experience.
The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.” [italicized portions are mine.]Faith, Reason and the University
Via a thirteenth-century-dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus and a Persian intellectual about the truth of both islam and Christianity, Pope Benedict exposes a rarely discussed fact about Islam. Quoting from a text by theologian and historian Theodore Khoury, the Pope says, “In the dialogue which extends for several suras (chapters) in the Quran, the Emperor declares there is no compulsion in religion. Pope Benedict adds that this sura was likely written while “Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.”
Continuing on, the Pope reads from the text, “And then the Emperor brusquely demands that the Persian, “”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 (σὺν λόγω) 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.
Many stopped listening or reading here. And few note the Pope’s notation [page 7 of the document] at the end of his remarks where he states clearly that these are not his own words but are quoted. In including the remarks, his intention was to show the essential relationship between faith and reason.
But some listeners were open, maybe even searching for truth…
the most difficult undertaking on earth.”
One of the men whose work and writings I treasure, Norman Cousins, once wrote that. And so it’s surely no surprise that Pope Benedict’s address caused such a frenzied outcry. After reading, then rereading then studying this speech, the measured weight of the prose and orderliness of the logic, it’s clear he knew what he was about, the risk he was taking.
A man with “the mind of twelve professors,” and spoke or understood nine languages knew that a dialogue couldn’t occur in the absence of truth.
It’s not all that difficult to imagine ourselves in Pope Benedict’s shoes. After all, many of us have had to address audiences on one or another controversial subject in our past—or present.
And we’ve known full well that there will be listeners who will disagree to the point of outrage. Maybe even at great cost to our reputation or even livelihood.
Hence, we have opportunity.
Do we state what we know to be fact—truth?
Or do we dilute, compromise truth for fear of giving offense: axiomatic of this twenty-first-century?
We can’t know the effect of speaking truth to listeners who seem closed, even outraged at our words if we risk it.
I well recall when my mind was closed to anything that smacked of religion, the Bible or Jesus as the Son of God. And yet, I spent two years working my way through an undergraduate degree at a Catholic private women’s college. It was during the era when nuns, at least Dominican nuns, wore a starched habit so restrictive that only their cheeks and part of their foreheads could be seen.
And yet I was undeniably drawn to the Thomistic philosophy they taught. And yearned for the joy and wsdom with which the head of the English department taught. Allegories just rolled off her lips and into my mind and heart.
All these years later, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at the education I received from those Dominican nuns and priests. Even though I thought I disagreed with everything they represented, I had a tenuous grasp of this fact:
The Loss of Context: Pope Benedict and Islamophobia