Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.
Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).
I wrote at the time:
“ Pope Gets it Wrong on Islam
Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg University, which mentioned Islam and jihad, has provoked a firestorm of controversy.
The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.
He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.
His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
See my comments On the Quran and peace.
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.
But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.
In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.
But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).
As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)
Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.
Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . .
Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”
Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.
I wrote at that time:
“Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own
Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“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 . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope 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 mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . .
Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:
“The Guardian reports on wikileaks cables regarding the position of the Catholic Church on Europe’s Christian character and its unease with Turkey joining the EU. (the cable is here.)
The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.
In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”
Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.
Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.
That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.
On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.
Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.
I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).
That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”
On the other hand, most Muslims should appreciate that the pope opposed the Bush administration’s attack on and occupation of Iraq.
Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:
” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. 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.”
I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.