Pope Benedict XVI has had a bad month.

The fury in many Muslim quarters to his academic lecture on religion and violence during a homecoming tour to Bavaria continued to spread, and he was twice left publicly explaining – “apologizing” would be too strong a word – that he didn’t mean to insult Islam, that he regretted the “reaction” his words caused, and that he does in fact have great respect for Muslims.

Meanwhile, many Catholics chose to ignore the pope’s explanations and argue that the Islamic reactions to the initial remarks, which the pope later disavowed, showed that Benedict was right in the first place and that Islam is inherently violent.

Benedict’s original comments themselves were puzzling in that they were from an obscure source that was used as an anecdote to introduce a characteristically erudite lecture on faith and reason delivered at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught theology.

The pope began by citing a dialogue between Manuel II Paleologus, a 14th-century Christian emperor of Byzantium, and a Persian scholar over the concept of violence in Islam. “Show me just what Muhammad 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,” Benedict quoted the emperor as saying.

The pontiff went on to critique the West and secularism and “liberal” Christians – just as sharply as he held out, as the ideal of religious belief, the Catholic balance of faith and reason as set forth in Greek philosophy. But none of these other groups burned the pontiff in effigy.

The Muslim furor, or at least the resentment and suspicion of the pope, seem likely to endure, and may threaten Benedict’s visit, still in the works as of now, to Turkey in late November.

But even as the focus remains on the indefensible reaction by many Muslims, other crucial questions are being overlooked, chief among them: Why did the pope make such statements in the first place?

If Benedict’s words were just poorly chosen, one might say that perhaps he is indeed a different man as pope than he was as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Panzerkardinal who was the Vatican’s longtime doctrinal watchdog before he became pope in April 2005. When it comes to Pope Benedict, however, there are no coincidences. While he surely did not intend to spark such a terrible response, when viewed in the context of Ratzinger’s career and personality, this episode begins to look like a natural extension of his past record rather than the diplomatic faux pas of a freshman pope.

Consider first that long before he was elected pope, Ratzinger made it crystal clear that he took a much more critical view of Islam than did Pope John Paul II. Whereas John Paul always stressed points of commonality between the Catholic Church and Islam, addressed 80,000 Muslim youths in a packed stadium in Morocco, and was the first pontiff ever to visit a mosque, Ratzinger was far more skeptical. He forcefully voiced doubts about Islam’s capacity for self-examination and reform, and in 2004 he sparked controversy by declaring that Turkey could never be part of the European Union because its Muslim identity placed it “in permanent contrast” to Europe’s Christian culture.

Ratzinger’s willingness to challenge Islam was in fact considered a factor in his surprising election as pope during the April 2005 conclave, and as pope he did not disappoint. For example, one of Benedict’s early private audiences was with the crusading Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who saw in the new pope a fellow traveler in her increasingly strident campaign against Islam. (Fallaci died a few days after Benedict’s Regensburg lecture.)

Moreover, one of Benedict’s first major administrative moves was to downgrade the Vatican’s office for interfaith dialogue and ship its longtime chief, an archbishop who was considered Rome’s leading authority on Islam, off to a diplomatic posting. Diplomacy itself appears to take a back seat to theology in this pontificate, and Joseph Ratzinger was never one to sugarcoat his opinions, no matter who they offended.

While Ratzinger was labeled with fearsome epithets like “Cardinal No” and “God’s Rottweiller,” his reputation was a result not of loud and bully pronouncements but rather his clinical-sounding diagnoses of what he saw as the inherent faults of others. To Ratzinger, Buddhism, for example, was “an auto-erotic spirituality,” non-Christian religions were “gravely deficient,” and Protestant churches were not churches at all but “ecclesial communities.” And there are his views of homosexuals (“objectively disordered”) and rock ‘n’ roll (“a vehicle of anti-religion”).

To those who objected to his verdicts, Ratzinger simply responded that “The truth has always bothered people and is never comfortable.” But the principal factor behind the latest, and perhaps most serious contretemps of Benedict’s career is not so much his attitude to Islam as his inherent resistance to anything that could be considered an inward-looking critique of the Catholic Church itself.

This is also one of the sharpest contrasts between Benedict and his predecessor. From the very start of his pontificate, John Paul developed what might be called a “theology of apology” that aimed to shine a light on the “dark pages” of the church’s history. He apologized for the church’s condemnation of Galileo, for the “errors and excesses” of the Inquisition, and for Catholicism’s role in the wars of religion that scarred Christendom. He issued mea culpas for the Crusades, and specifically to Muslims and Jews for sins committed against them by Catholics. By the time John Paul died, he had issued more than 100 formal apologies for some past action of the church and its legacy in the present.

For many church leaders, this campaign of penance was simply too much. Chief among the critics, albeit usually sotto voce, was Cardinal Ratzinger, who once publicly criticized “a kind of masochism” in the church “and a somewhat perverse need to declare itself guilty for all the catastrophes of past history.”

To Ratzinger the great danger is that such criticisms, while perhaps engendering good will with others, could foster the risky perception that since the Catholic Church had been in error in the past it therefore could be wrong today, and, just as perilously, could be open to change and reform. Thus Benedict’s invocation of the sins of another religion – in this case Islam – is a natural extension of his effort to tamp down calls for reform by presenting Catholicism as an immutable exemplar of the religious ideal.

If Benedict did not possess such a blinkered view of history, however, he might have easily spared himself and the church – especially Catholics who have and will suffer directly for his scholarly presentation – great difficulty, while advancing rather than impeding dialogue with Islam.

Ironically, Benedict’s lecture in Germany focused on the indispensability of both faith and reason to a complete religious vision, and the genius of Christianity in incorporating Hellenistic philosophy. Rather than citing a 14th-century dialogue that cast Islam in a poor light, Benedict could have gone back another century or two, to the Iberian peninsula, where Christian conquerors of Islamic cities rediscovered the great works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. That Aristotelian corpus had been considered “lost” by the Christian world. Its preservation – thanks to Muslim scholars – prompted a renaissance in Christian thought and Western civilization, led by Saint Thomas Aquinas, in which reason was deployed in the search for religious truth.

It was Aquinas, in fact, who coined the maxim that “grace does not destroy nature.” In other words, Christian faith builds on a person’s innate character. Pope Benedict is no devotee of Aquinas; he prefers the more pessimistic views of human nature enunciated by Saint Augustine almost a millennium earlier.

Yet nothing might better prove the reasonableness of that Thomist dictum than the events of the past week.

Editor’s note: David Gibson is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World’


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