JG - Pope Benedict fuels the fire
Pope Benedict fuels the fire
published: Thursday September 21, 2006
As a piece of philosophy, it was dense, erudite and original. As a speech by a world leader, it was terrible. It would seem that Benedict hasn't yet grown into his papal shoes. He will now have to learn the ropes in a hurry.
It is true that the quotation of a medieval emperor that decried Islam for bringing nothing new into the world but violence was buried deep in a lecture that had nothing to do with Islam. The talk was a detailed analysis of what Benedict considers an inextricable bond between classical Greek thought and Christianity. If it was intended to provoke anybody, it would most likely have been humanists and, perhaps, the odd Protestant theologian.
But I rather doubt that any of those two sorts will be burning effigies of the pontiff this week. And many will decry Muslims for issuing death threats and declaring war on Christianity over what were, after all, just words. But a little context can help.
For starters, it's good to note that the most radical statements against the Pope have come from relatively marginal groups. It would be no more fair to call their views typical of Islam than it would be to call some Utah polygamist typical of Christianity.
The Pope, on the other hand, is hardly a marginal character. He leads the largest of the Christian churches. He is the sovereign leader of a state. His words command greater global attention than any other Christian leader. Indeed, probably any other religious leader. What he says, matters.
And his choice of words in this speech could - to put it mildly - have been a little more careful. As a nice point in a philosophical lecture, the quotation may have made eminent sense. As a sound bite in the media age, a less salutary choice of words could hardly have been made.
This Pope, after all, is still fresh in his position. While known to favour inter-faith dialogue, he has also made the odd statement about Islam which has given some pause for thought about his intentions. For instance, as a Christian intellectual on a post-Christian continent, Benedict has been known to hold views on European identity that have caused him to wade into the controversy over Turkey's entrance into the European Union.
Moreover, given that the times are already fraught with tension, the context is sensitive. The pity is that the Vatican has been, on issues like Iraq and Palestine, quite sensitive to Muslims. But most people will overlook the details of policy positions for the drama of an inflammatory statement, as indeed most of us have done.
No doubt the Vatican has learned a hard lesson in public relations. No doubt the Pope's speeches will come in for closer review than he was accustomed to in his previous role as the Vatican's 'watchdog,' when he had more liberty to touch upon controversies. That is to be expected: he is, after all, now a head of state.
Nonetheless, after all the hand-wringing and apologies, there remains a thorny issue that the Pope has raised. The previous pontiff invested a good deal of energy in inter-religious dialogue. But dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Islam has not advanced as far as some other dialogues have. At the heart of this appears to be some deep-rooted differences the Pope addressed in his lecture (such as the question of whether a transcendant god can act contrary to reason).
But in a post-9/11 world, it would be nice if these incendiary issues were treated in seminar rooms by scholars. The world could do with fewer speeches like this.
John Rapley is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona.