Sandro Magister, the Italian professor who writes a column for the Italian language magazine "L'Espresso" and an internet column, Chiesa ("Church"), dealing with "All Things Vatican", has posted his latest L'Espresso column today in Chiesa that is a brilliant analysis of the Pope's lecture in Regensburg, the subsequent violent reaction in the Islamic World, and the somewhat confused reaction in the Western World, including even in the Curia.
Why Benedict XVI did not want to fall silent or backpedal
by Sandro Magister
The masterful lecture that the pope-theologian delivered at the University of Regensburg really did send shivers throughout the world. Because what Benedict XVI said there is just what happened afterward. The pope explained the distance that runs between the Christian God, who is love, immolated in Jesus on the cross, but also “Logos,” reason; and the God worshipped by Islam, so transcendent and sublime that he is not bound by anything, not even by that rational assertion according to which there must not be “any coercion in matters of faith.” The Qur’an says this in the second sura, to which the pope conscientiously made reference, but it then makes other and opposite statements. And the violent eruption in the Muslim world against the pope and Christians confirms that this other tendency has the upper hand, giving form and substance to the way in which myriads of the faithful of Allah view the world of the infidels. The other side of pope Joseph Ratzinger’s lecture in Regensburg is the blood poured out in Muslim Mogadishu by sister Leonella Sgorbati, a woman veiled and yet free, a martyr whose last words were addressed to her killers: “I forgive you.”
In reality, almost the entirety of Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg was addressed to the Christian world, to the West and to Europe, which in his view are so sure of their naked reason – too sure – that they have lost the “fear of God.” But here as well the pope’s words found their confirmation in the facts. Hand in hand with the swell of verbal and physical violence on the part of Muslims, on the other side, in theory his own side, the pope was the target of incessant volleys of friendly fire. Just as the sagacious companions of Job attributed the blame for his misfortunes to him, so also Benedict XVI was surrounded by a veritable whirlwind of advice and rebuke of the same sort.
It was the same way in the Vatican. Benedict XVI had the good fortune of installing a new secretary of state and a new foreign minister, both of them firmly in his trust, on the very day that the Muslim attack against him began, on Friday, September 15, right after he came back from his trip to Bavaria. But the grumbling of the curia members hostile toward him did not calm down at all – on the contrary. He got away with the appointment of the new foreign minister, archbishop Dominique Mamberti, from Corsica, who has worked as a nuncio in Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, and before that in Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and thus has direct familiarity with the Arab and Muslim world, and is skilled in the art of diplomacy. But as for the nomination of cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as the new secretary of state – for this, no, they did not forgive him. The fact that Bertone is not a career diplomat, but a man of doctrine and a pastor of souls, is now being held even more against the pope as proof of his ineptitude on the world political scene. In Bavaria, with the assignment changes not yet having taken place, Benedict XVI was accompanied by the outgoing secretary of state, cardinal Angelo Sodano, who has spent his entire life in diplomacy. But the pope was careful to avoid having cardinal Sodano read in advance the lecture he was preparing to deliver in Regensburg. Whole sections of the text would have been censored, if its supreme criterion had been the Realpolitik upon which the Vatican diplomacy of Sodano and his colleagues is nourished.
For Benedict XVI, too, realism in relations between the Church and states is a value. It was so with the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century: with German Nazism as with Soviet Communism. The controversial silences of Pius XII with Nazism, and later, with Communism, of John XXIII, of Vatican Council II, and of the Ostpolitik of Paul VI, had compelling reasons, and in the first place the defense of the victims of those systems themselves. But now, it is being demanded of Benedict XVI that he maintain a similar silence in regard to the new adversary of Islam: it is a silence that is often given the name of “dialogue.” Has pope Ratzinger not respected this? Then this is the comeuppance he deserves from “offended” Islam: threats, demonstrations, burning in effigy, governments demanding retractions, the recall of ambassadors, churches burned, a religious sister killed. The pope is seen as bearing his part of the blame in all this. On the other hand, it’s “post mortem” beatification for his predecessor John Paul II, who prayed humbly in Assisi together Muslim mullahs, and when visiting the Umayyad mosque in Damascus listened in silence to the invectives his hosts hurled against the perfidious Jews. No fatwa was issued for the demolition of the Vatican walls, or for the slitting of Karol Wojtyla’s throat. It was a mere coincidence that Ali Agca, who shot him, was a Muslim – the assassination had been planned in Christian territory...
Benedict XVI does not deny the proper value of political realism. The secretariat of state has mobilized its network of nunciatures to provide for governments the complete text of the lecture in Regensburg, the official note of explanation released on September 16 by cardinal Bertone, and the explanations presented by the pope in person at the Angelus on Sunday the 17th. By the end of September, the ambassadors to Muslim-majority countries will be called to the Vatican for another effort to defuse the tensions. And later on, the pontifical council for culture, headed by cardinal Paul Poupard, will prepare a meeting with Muslim religious representatives.
But realism isn’t everything for Benedict XVI. The dialogue with Islam that he wants to create is not made of fearful silences and ceremonial embraces. It is not made of mortifications which, in the Muslim camp, are interpreted as acts of submission. The citation he made in Regensburg, from the “Dialogues with a Mohammedan” written at the end of the fourteenth century by the Christian participant in the dialogue, the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos, was deliberate choice. A war was on. Constantinople was under siege, and in a half century, in 1453, it would fall under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire. But the learned Christian emperor brought his Persian counterpart to the terrain of truth, reason, law, and violence, to what marks the real difference between the Christian faith and Islam, to the key questions upon which war or peace between the two civilizations depends.
Pope Ratzinger sees modern times, too, as being fraught with war, and with holy war. But he asks Islam to place a limit of its own on “jihad.” He proposes to the Muslims that they separate violence from faith, as prescribed by the Qur’an itself, and that they again connect faith with reason, because “acting against reason is in contradiction with the nature of God.”
In Regensburg, the pope exalted the greatness of the Greek philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. He demonstrated that this is an integral part of biblical and Christian faith in the God who is “Logos.” And he also did this deliberately. When Paleologos held his dialogue with his Persian counterpart, Islamic culture had just emerged from its happiest period, when Greek philosophy had been grafted onto the trunk of Qur’anic faith. In asking Islam today to rekindle the light of Aristotelian reason, Benedict XVI is not asking for the impossible. Islam has had its Averroes, the great Arab commentator on Aristotle who was treasured by such a giant of Catholic theology as was Thomas Aquinas. A return, today, to the synthesis between faith and reason is the only way for Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an to free itself from its fundamentalist paralysis and from obsession with “jihad.” And it is the only ground for authentic dialogue between the Muslim world and the Christianity of the West.
At the Angelus on Sunday, September 17, which was broadcast live even by the Arab television network Al-Jazeera, Benedict XVI expressed his “regret” at how his lecture had been misunderstood. He said that he did not agree with the passage he cited from Manuel II Paleologos, according to whom in the “new things” brought by Mohammed “you will find only evil and inhuman things, like the order to spread the faith by means of the sword.” But he did not apologize at all; he didn’t retract a single line. The lecture in Regensburg was not an academic exercise for him. He did not put aside his papal vestments there in order to speak only the sophisticated language of the theologian, to an audience made up only of specialists. The pope and the theologian in him are all of a piece, and for everyone. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who has grasped the essence of this pontificate better than other Church leaders have done, said on Monday, September 18 to the directive body of the Italian bishops that “the fundamental coordinates” of the message Benedict XVI is proposing to the Church and the world are found in these three texts: the encyclical “Deus Caritas Est”; the address to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005, on the interpretation of Vatican Council II; and, last but not least, the “splendid” lecture in Regensburg.
Benedict XVI is hopeful. He would not have been so daring if he did not believe in the real possibility that an interpretation of the Qur’an that marries faith with reason and freedom can be reopened within Islamic thought. But the voices in the Muslim world that are accepting his offer of dialogue are too weak and too few, and almost not to be found. And the pope is too much alone in a wayward Europe that really does resemble somewhat the Eurabia described by Oriana Fallaci, a “Christian atheist” whom he has read, met with, and admired. And then there is the violence that hangs over Christians in Islamic countries, and also outside of them – when, to silence the pope, members of his flock are killed, and all the better if they are innocent, like a religious sister, a woman.