|22 September, 2006
The pope: out of context, out of touch
With his intelligence and experience, Pope Benedict should have known
what his now infamous reference to a quote concerning Islam would bring.
Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (22/09/06)
Supporters of Pope Benedict XVI say that
the pontiff was taken out of context when
he sparked world-wide protests by
quoting a 615-year-old letter that called
the influence of the prophet Mohammed
"evil and inhuman" and opining that he
"spread by the sword the faith he
preached" - and they are no doubt correct.
But what nobody has explained is why
as intelligent and learned a figure as
Pope Benedict would choose a context
with so much potential to inflame.
The original comments, made on 12 September, triggered a series of events that
included scores of official diplomatic protests, the recall of the Holy See's
ambassadors from Morocco and Egypt, hundreds of street protests around the world,
and even the shooting death of a Somalia-based nun and her bodyguard.
But it was the pope's decision to stop short of a full apology during his Angelus
blessing on 17 September and again at his weekly audience on 20 September that
exacerbated the situation.
In the latter of those two addresses - to a crowd of 40,000 faithful gathered in St
Peter's Square on Wednesday - Benedict said his original intention had been to
encourage interfaith dialogue.
"To an attentive reader of my text it is clear that in no way did I wish to make my own
the negative words pronounced by the medieval emperor, and that their polemical
content does not express my personal convictions," the pontiff said. He added that his
intention had been "to explain that not religion and violence, but rather religion and
reason, go together."
The "attentive reader" Pope Benedict spoke about would have indeed noticed that the
quoted part of the letter - a 1391 missive from newly-crowned Byzantine Emperor
Manuel II Palaiologos, written while Constantinople was under siege by Turkish Muslims
- went on to make the very point the pope said he had meant to stress.
"God is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature,"
Pope Benedict quoted the emperor as writing. "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."
What is not clear is why the now infamous preamble - “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" - was necessary to make the
point made by the less quoted second part of the discourse. Or even why a pontiff
regarded as having one of the finest minds of his generation would choose to make a
point he had made dozens of times before by quoting an obscure medieval emperor, a
leader who was not even Christian.
In short, should not Pope Benedict have known better? Is his being technically correct
a consolation when his comments have incited hundreds of riots, at least two deaths,
and set the interfaith relations the Vatican says are one of the pope's priorities back
years if not decades?
Not to excuse the absurd notion of some Muslims around the world rioting to protest
being called violent, but, to any observer of current events, was not the reaction
The most common explanation given by the faithful is that on 12 September Pope
Benedict was playing the professorial role he has played for most of his life, wearing
his teacher's hat rather than the papal mitre.
Given the setting that day, that argument does - at least at first glance - stand to
reason. The pope was speaking at Bavaria's highly regarded Regensburg University to
a smallish crowd of students, clerics, academics and other intellectuals, many of
whom he had known for a generation. In that context, debate and the free exchange of
ideas are essential, the pontiff's allies argue.
But being the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics is not a job that allows time for
the odd project on the side. When the College of Cardinals voted then-Cardinal
Ratzinger to his current position as the most visible religious leader in the world last
year, he should have left his teacher's hat - like all his old headwear - behind.
Editor's note: A pdf transcript of Pope Benedict XVI's address can be downloaded from
ISN's PRIA section.
Eric J Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).