Chicago Tribune: Pope's remarks tear at fragile relations

The pontiff’s comments and the fiery protests that followed strain the tenuous dialogue between Muslims and Christians worldwide

Despite a rare expression of regret and deep sorrow from Pope Benedict XVI over his use of an inflammatory 14th Century quote on Islam and violence, Roman Catholics and Muslims alike said they fear the incident may damage the increasingly important dialogue between the two world faiths.

Outrage in the Islamic world over the remarks represents the first crisis of Benedict’s 17-month-old papacy, and the Vatican expanded efforts to defuse the situation Monday by ordering representatives to discuss the matter with leaders of Muslim countries. Catholic bishops meeting in Istanbul said the pope would visit Turkey in November as scheduled, though several Turkish leaders continued to object.

Even as Al Qaeda in Iraq vowed war on Christianity and violent protests continued in Syria and Indonesia, some Muslim leaders said the remarks demonstrated the crucial need for more dialogue between Catholics and Muslims, and many vowed they would continue such interfaith efforts.

On Sunday, Benedict issued a carefully worded apology for his remarks, saying he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address … which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”

Many Muslim leaders worldwide, as well as some in Chicago, said the apology was inadequate because it was directed toward the “reactions” of Muslims and not an actual admission that he had done wrong. Other Muslim leaders called for further clarification about the point the pope had intended to make in his speech.

“Pope Benedict’s apology is incomplete because it expresses remorse for Muslim anger to his questionable selection of quotations, rather than his own poor judgment in choosing them. Yet, we welcome it as a step in the right direction,” said Ahmed M. Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Muslims are still waiting for this pope to reclaim the reconciliatory path of Muslim-Catholic dialogue Pope John Paul mastered; when he does, he’ll find many willing Muslim partners just as Pope John Paul did.”

Visiting a German university on Sept. 12, Benedict delivered a speech that focused on the separation of faith and reason in Western society. The pope quoted from a conversation between a 14th Century Byzantine emperor–a Christian–and a “learned Persian” about the two faiths.

The emperor said: “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.” The emperor then argued that conversion by violence is unreasonable and therefore “contrary to God’s nature.”

Aminah McCloud, professor of religious studies at DePaul University and director of the school’s Islamic World Studies program, said the pope’s comments seem to suggest a lack of awareness of Islam’s diversity. McCloud said the pope could rectify the situation by clarifying why he selected the citation and what light he believes it sheds on Muslim-Catholic relations.

“It shows a lack of understanding of Islamic thought, in general, today. But also, he is doing that thing that we hope people never do, which is lump all Muslims in one basket by making sweeping general comments, to imply that those who follow Islam are unreasonable and therefore prone to violence,” McCloud said. “I think this did a lot of harm. I can’t say whether or not that harm is irreparable. But it did a great deal of harm.”

Catholic observers were equally divided as to the meaning and impact of the fallout.

Chester Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University’s theology department and an expert on the U.S. Catholic Church, said the remarks reveal the first public signs of the pope’s tougher stance in the church’s dealings with the Islamic world.

Overtures of that stance came earlier this year when he shut down the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and transferred its head, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Vatican’s leading expert on the Islamic world, to Cairo. Vatican observers viewed the move as a snub to Fitzgerald, who was widely viewed by his critics as being too soft on Muslims.

“I believe this does reveal a tougher side of Benedict,” Gillis said. “His talk was about faith and reason and the need for rationality in religion. And his feeling is that violence is not a rational way to act.”

Benedict has also been clear in distinguishing himself from Pope John Paul II by stating that any dialogue between Muslims and Christians should involve “reciprocity.” That principle implies that if Muslims want to enjoy religious freedom in the West, then Christians should also be allowed to practice their religion in Muslim states without fear of being persecuted.

Even so, the pope’s remarks don’t represent any significant shift in church policy. Instead, they illustrate a theologian who underestimated the reaction that a fiery medieval quote could provoke in a post 9/11 world, Gillis said.

“Will leaders in the Islamic community refuse to sit with Catholics in dialogue? I don’t think that’s going to happen. The dialogue is just too important right now.”

Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said a thorough study of the pope’s entire speech finds that he was actually using the quote to explain certain reflections on the relationship between religion and rationality or faith and reason. At the end of the speech, he refers to the controversial quote again and says this is why we need dialogue and understanding.

Senior also notes that in the original German text, Benedict refers to the quotation as “crude.” To take the quote out of context from the entire message of the speech is to mischaracterize Benedict, Senior said.

“The pope has spoken about Islam before. He has met with Muslim leaders in his first visit outside of Rome in Cologne (Germany.) He’s concerned about the violence, as I think all thoughtful religious leaders of all traditions are. But he certainly has more of a track record than a quotation that he described himself as crude,” Senior said.

“I think his concern was how far reason and intelligence can probe into the meaning of God’s revelation. It has its limits, but it also has its validity. So, I think he was trying to start with a vivid example of an exchange about this. But unfortunately, it was seen as reflective of his own views.”


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Pope Benedict XVI’s speech, delivered Sept. 12 at the University of Regensburg in Germany, argued that the West has erred in attempting to wall off faith from reason. After some introductory remarks on the topic, the pope continued:

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury of part of the dialogue carried on–perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara–by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran … [but] here I would like to discuss only one point–itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole–which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason,” I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” According to the experts, this is one of the surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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.” 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. … 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. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. … At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

The pope concluded the speech by arguing that the separation of faith and reason complicates communication between the secular West and other, more religious cultures:

This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. … The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. … “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God,” said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.

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