Of Benedict, Islam, and Regrets

So as Pope Benedict's quotations from Manuel II Palaeologus are circulating around the world and causing deep unrest in many Muslim countries, it's time to talk about what Benedict's up to. That's right. Not "accidentally did," but is up to.

It is conceivable, as John Allen and even Rocco seem to suggest, that this is a reminder of how non-PC and/or slightly naive with regard to public relations Benedict might be; in the mainstream media, this is being presented as the "goofy ivory-tower professor quoted something interesting he read in his study and was foolish enough to say it out loud" trope. And it is possible that Benedict expected everyone to read his text in full and not draw the conclusions that they are currently drawing in the Muslim world. (One might point out that he is apologizing that his remarks were misunderstood and/or taken out of context, not that he made them.)

But this is a pope who is nothing if not careful and deliberate in what he chooses to say and when he chooses to say it. And the fact that this is one of his earliest forays into the world of international politics after the end of the summer vacations and just a few days before his new Secretary of State took on the job seems a little too well-timed to be simply coincidental. Tarcisio Bertone and Ratzinger were close colleagues for many years at the CDF, and, by all accounts, are substantially of one mind on many theological and political issues. So while I may be wrong, I have to think that this is the beginning of a larger shift within the Vatican, rather than a simple media gaffe. (They say that studying the Vatican's tea leaves is a good preparation for a career in Sinology...)

What I'm far less sure about is what the nature of such a shift, or what Benedict's plan in doing all of this. Was this a test balloon to see how blunt he could be in dialogue with the Muslim world? An attempt to push towards confrontation, at some intellectual level at least, between Christianity and Islam? An intentional provocation designed to confirm the pope's own notions (prejudices?) vis-a-vis Islam? Another aspect that we Americans often forget is the European angle; with Benedict's longtime concerns over the deChristianization of Europe, is this directed primarily at the European community, an attempt to induce Europeans to "choose sides" in some way with regard to their large Muslim populations?

I honestly can't see the rationale clearly yet, and there are more possibilites I no doubt haven't thought of. But having been a student of Ratzinger's theology and practice for a while before he became pope, the one thing I'd be willing to bet on is that this is the start of a program, not a flash in the pan.


Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

My dear friend ... Just one question: do you think that the reaction that happened in the Muslim world is justified? And, related question, that the fault is entirely with the Pope?

[Oh, on my grand tour of the northest, I'll be in Boston ... we should meet up! Even if it seems our paths seem to have lead us down very divergent paths. Or rather, the way we think. Whateva ... :)]

BaptizedPagan said...

Oh, I don't think the reaction in the Muslim world is justified in any way, let me be clear. I think that the violence of the response supports the point that, as far I can tell, the pope was trying to make: that there's a need for a dialogue that's both frank and non-violent. I think he may be trying to carve out a space for a "third way" (apologies to my Anglican sisters and brothers): we have lots of dialogues, religious and otherwise, that are frank and violent, and lots that are wishy-washy and non-violent...what's difficult is finding one which is frank and non-violent...this would be good not just for Christian-Muslim dialogue, but for, say, American political discourse or intraCatholic dialogue...

Fault with the Pope...hmm, tougher. Obviously, it's not the pope's fault that people are reacting so violently to his words. But one has to wonder how he thought this would be a good way to begin such a dialogue, and how much he could have reasonably expected a reaction like this to occur. So there's some responsibility which is his, arising from what seems like a misjudgment, a lack of prudence...

BaptizedPagan said...

Religion of Pieces, I initially considered deleted your comment entirely, but I'm going to leave it there as a witness that violence and ignorance isn't a problem only within the Muslim world.

This misrepresents Islam in a number of (sociologically fascinating) ways, and seems less rooted in a rational investigation of Islam and a willingness to let Muslims tell non-Muslims who they are and what they believe, and more in an attempt to justify an anti-Muslim attitude than to seriously respond to the claims and theology of Muslims.

Referring to Allah as a "demon" is particularly insipid, since my Arabic-speaking Christian sisters and brothers also pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus as Allah.

As a Roman Catholic Christian, my hopes that Christianity and Islam might enter into fruitful dialogue are rooted in the teachings of the bishops of my church. The bishops of Vatican II in the declaration Nostra Aetate said this on the question:
"The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom."

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from Lumen Gentium 16, states, "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."

Further resources for Catholic-Muslim relations are available from the U.S. Bishops at www.usccb.org.

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