Monday, September 18, 2006

The Papacy and Willie Horton (Pope Benedict at Regensburg)

I’m all for nostalgia but generally draw the line at Buddy Holly records or watching silent movies on TMC (btw the silent version of Wizard of Oz and the Scarlet Letter are fascinating).  Despite Ridley Scott, I’m not all that big on the Crusades.  Last week, Pope Benedict XVI (it seems like Super Bowls and the Pope are the only events that get Roman numerals these days)  managed to draw the ire of the entire Moslem world with a theological speech in  Regensburg .   In his speech on the relationship between faith and reason, the Pope slipped off into a discussion of a book by Theodore Khoury and quoted from 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus  (I think the emperor was billed under a different name for World Wrestling Federation, WWF, matches but I’m not sure) dialogues with an “educated” Persian ( they weren’t developing nuclear weapons back then).  

"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".

Pope Benedict actually took care to point out that Khoury believed that Paleologus was well aware that an earlier Surrah in the Qu’ran quotes Mohammed as saying, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

There are apparently a couple translations of the Pope’s speech, one in which he used the term “Jihad” and the one referenced here in which he talks about spreading faith by force.  
Still, some things are clear.  The speech itself was not about Islam or a condemnation of Islam per se.  In fact, it was about one of Benedict’s favorite themes the interdependence of reason, faith, and ethics. For most of the speech, Benedict tied the Hellenic tradition of analysis to the evolution of the western church.  Along the way, he included references to Kant, Descartes, and Plato.  Most significant of all, Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg argued that the Greek notion of “logos” is inherent in “God” and that religious conversion by faith or force is simply wrong.  

This, however, doesn’t get the Pope entirely off the hook.  In his very long speech, he offers several examples of Christian “rationality”.  He offers only one example of the belief that God’s needs and demands may be beyond reason and that’s the quote from Paleologus about Islam.  If you remember Lee Atwater’s ingenious Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign, they were simply about Michael Dukakis’s furlough policy for convicted criminals and had nothing to do with race.  It was just that Willie Horton, the literal poster child for the Republican criticism of the program, happened to be black.  

Unlike Atwater, who did seek forgiveness from God shortly before he died but not before he trained Karl Rove, I don’t think Pope Benedict did this on purpose and I imagine he did not choose his example to stir up “holy war” between Catholicism and Islam.  I do, however, think it’s worth bringing up some of the historical background behind Paleologus’s quote.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church and the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.  One of the ironies of the Crusades, which involved a fair amount of forced conversion, is that the Byzantines had originally asked European Christendom for help in securing access to the Holy Land.  Over the long haul, western intervention ultimately weakened the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople itself.  By the Fourth Crusade, instead of going to the Holy Land, the European Crusaders were laying siege to and sacking the still Christian city of Constantinople.  In fact, the Fourth Crusade never got near Jerusalem (think about going to Iraq to get Bin Laden).  

Prior to the Fourth Crusade, tensions between the Eastern and Western Christian Church literally reached a breaking point.  The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church mutually excommunicated one another.  Three centuries later by 1395 and Paleologus’s time, Constantinople was vulnerable to Moslem takeover.  The long term effect of the Crusades was not the reconquest of the holy land by Christians, it was the Moslem breakout that included the retaking of Constantinople, the conversion/conquest of North Africa, Spain, and the Balkans.  

Pope Benedict should be well aware of this history because he has continued Pope John Paul’s work in trying to reconcile the 800 year old schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  In fact, some of history’s most extreme examples of conversion by force aren’t of Moslem invasion of Christian territory as they are of Christian on Christian conversion by force.  One of the more interesting anecdotes of the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople for instance was the burning by the Cruasders of a Mosque in Constantinople while Greek/Orthodox and Moslems tried to defend the building.  

I do not believe that any sane reaction to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech would include burning churches or killing nuns, but I do actually understand why so much of the Moslem world took offense to his choice of example.  In fact, it’s almost more painful because it probably was inadvertent and thus even more revealing of how the Pope may see the world.  In some ways, it is far more surprising than a Danish cartoon, because this was an extremely thoughtful and thought through speech about the place of reason alongside faith in the modern world. While it was not an invitation to renewed Crusades or holy war against an unreasoning infidel, I do think it called for more than "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."

fwiw, I do wonder what the Pope has to say about spreading "democracy" and "liberty" by force, war, invasion, and torture?



At 9/21/2006 01:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re spreading anything by force -- it is past dubious, monstrous, and obsolete. It is mad.

Dr. Gino Strado who has operated on war-mutilated civilians all over the world for the last 12 years said to himself, "I don't want to operate on shattered children any more -- we must abolish war."

This keen thought is made more anguishing by the staggering revelation Dr. Strado made in a CSpan joint presentation he made with WWII bombardier now co-war-abolisher Howard Zinn that 9 out of 10 casualties in world-wide wars since 1946 have been civilians not combatants.

That the Pope is not using his position to demand actual ceased violence peace and actual justice -- equal worth -- every waking hour he can speak until his throat bleeds is absurd and obscene. What in the hell is religion worth if it won't speak out against kids getting their arms blown off?

Abolish war. Establish peace. Let's get after it, Pope dood.

At 9/21/2006 08:25:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
the Pope's speech was to a theological group and actually was about not spreading religion by force and the intertwined relationship between God and reason.

It's more a matter that he chose kind of an odd example of the opposite view, made odder by the history of Constantinople.

As conservative as he is, Pope Benedict has actually been critical of the War in Iraq, maybe not loud enough about it or critical enough, but....


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