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Posted Monday Sept. 18, 2006 9:23 a.m. CDT

Pope apologizes: ‘Medieval text does not express my personal thought’

This crisis aside, Benedict does have a more hawkish approach to Islam than Pope John Paul II

New York

As Benedict XVI's apology on Sunday plays to mixed reviews, a consensus seems to be emerging around three conclusions about the firestorm triggered last week when the pope quoted a 14th century text asserting that Mohammed brought "things only evil and inhuman":

  • In his Sept. 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict did not intend to take a swipe at Islam. If he intended to criticize anyone, it was Western intellectuals and their tendency to separate reason from religious faith.
  • From a communications point of view, his use of language was at best risky, and arguably ill-advised.
  • This crisis aside, Benedict does have a more hawkish approach to Islam than Pope John Paul II, and that promises further delicate moments ahead.

More on this topic:

The text of Benedict's Sept. 12 talk is available here: Benedict's Address (The English translation is two-thirds the way down the page.)

Read John Allen's assessment of Pope Benedict's approach to Isalm: The Vatican and Islam

The uproar began last Tuesday during Benedict XVI's visit to Bavaria, when he delivered a 40-minute academic lecture at the University of Regensburg on the relationship between reason and faith. In it, he argued that calls for the "dehellenization" of Christianity, stripping it of its Greco-Roman encrustations and returning it to a state of "pure faith," miss the point. The decision made in favor of the rationality of God under the impact of Greek philosophy was not an accident of history, the pope said, but part of the genetic code of Christianity.

The pope went on to insist that religion and reason need one another, and included a plea against religious violence. Prior to the speech, senior Vatican officials were touting it as a "defining" address of Benedict's pontificate in terms of laying out his core concerns. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgDiscuss this topic
Two tables have opened on the NCRcafe discussing Benedict's apology and his approach to Islam. This is your invitation to join these conversations: Benedict's apology and Benedict's jihad remark
Benedict opened the speech with a reference to a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Michael II Paleologus and a "learned Persian," in which the emperor criticizes Islam.

The quote that caused the furor followed: "He turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: '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 pope said, emphasizing that he was quoting the emperor.

Benedict's main interest appeared to be a series of subsequent lines from Paleologous about the importance of reason.

That context was largely lost, however, as reports made their way around the world, sparking wide protest and a handful of acts of violence. Seven churches were attacked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while massive rallies took place in majority Muslim states such as Indonesia and Iran, where seminaries were closed in protest.

On Sunday, an Italian nun was shot to death in Somalia after a senior Somali cleric had denounced the pope's remarks, though it was not immediately clear if the slaying was connected to the controversy.

In some cases, according to experts, news agencies in Islamic nations did not indicate that the remarks came not from Benedict but a medieval text that pope had quoted. Descriptions of the lecture also reflected the hasty way the news spread; in one case, an Arabic paper said the pope had been speaking on "technology," apparently confusing the term with "theology."

Despite Vatican statements on both Sept. 14 and Sept. 16 attempting to calm the waters, anger continued to build.

"He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages. He is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world," said Salih Kapusuz, a top deputy in the governing Islamic party in Turkey.

"It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades," Kapusuz said, predicting that Benedict would go down in history with leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. Sensitivities in Turkey were particularly raw in light of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's opposition to Turkey's entry into the European Union.

In heavy rain during his Sunday Angelus address, Benedict apologized for the furor he had caused.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," he said.

"These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. … I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

In an unusual move reflecting the sensitivity of the situation, the Vatican released a translation of just this paragraph of the pope's remarks in both English and French, in addition to the original Italian.

While some Muslim leaders called the apology insufficient, others appeared satisfied. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for calm, saying, "My impression of the pope was rather an educated and patient man."

Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, regarded as one of Catholicism's leading experts on Islam, called the violent reaction "exaggerated and misplaced."

"The pope's thoughts are actually quite close to Muslim criticism of the secularized West," Samir said. "Muslims seem to be saying: 'You have technology, science, everything, except the essential, since you have marginalized spirituality and God. … [The pope] joins Muslims in criticizing the atheist view of reason whilst offering a critique from within in order to broaden it."

Other experts, however, said the pope's decision to cite Michael II Paleologus was perhaps not a good idea.

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan, rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the central point of the speech was that "if we are really going into a serious dialogue with Muslims we need to take faith seriously." But, he said of the quote from the emperor, "You clearly take a risk using an example like that."

Speaking on background, a senior Vatican official said the failure to adequately vet the pope's speech may have been due to a vacuum of key personnel. In February, Benedict sent the Vatican's top expert on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo as his ambassador, meaning he's no longer in Rome to be consulted. The Bavaria trip also fell in a moment of transition between one Secretary of State and another.

In the end, most observers cautioned that while the Regensburg comments may have been blown out of context, Benedict's generally more hawkish approach to Islam will almost certainly mean further tension ahead.

Desire for a more muscular stance towards Islam has been building in Catholicism for some time.

In part, it's driven by anti-Christian persecution in the Islamic world, such as the Feb. 5 slaying of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, Turkey. A 16-year-old Turk pumped two bullets into Santoro, shouting Allah akbar, "Allah is great." He later said he had been agitated by Danish newspaper cartoons critical of Islam.

In part, the more challenging line is driven by frustrations over reciprocity. To take the most notorious example, while the Saudis contributed $20 million to build Europe's largest mosque in Rome, Christians cannot build churches in Saudi Arabia. Priests in Saudi Arabia cannot leave oil industry compounds or embassy grounds without fear of the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop of the region recently described the situation as "reminiscent of the catacombs."

Benedict was sensitive to these concerns prior to his election. In a 1997 interview, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said of Islam, "One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a democratic society." In the same interview, he accused some Muslims of fomenting a radical "liberation theology," meaning a belief that God approves violence to achieve liberation from Israel.

He's taken a similar line as pope.

In a session with Muslims last year in Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict urged efforts to "turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace."

On March 23, Benedict summoned his 179 cardinals for a closed-doors business session. Much conversation turned on Islam, and there was agreement with a tougher stance on reciprocity.

His key advisors also reflect the new climate.

Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of Rome's Lateran University and a close papal confidante, recently said it's time to "drop the diplomatic silence" about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the United Nations to "remind societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities."

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, voiced doubts about calls to teach Islam in Italian schools.

"We'd have to ensure [it] would not give way to a socially dangerous kind of indoctrination," Ruini said.

When it comes to Islam, observers say, Benedict XVI is in a sense playing with fire. When he visits Turkey in November, the world will get a better sense of how adept he is at keeping it under control.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail is]

September 18, 2006, National Catholic Reporter

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