"But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together." -- Acts 7:57It’s been said that the difference between a diplomat and a serious and deep thinker is that when a diplomat sees light at the end of the tunnel he averts his eyes and prays for more tunnel. As the Italian journalist Sandro Magister has insightfully argued, the message that Pope Benedict XVI brings to the Church is: less diplomacy and more Gospel.
The truth the Gospel proclaims, and that Benedict made the theme of his first encyclical, is that God is Love. The point the pope was making in his Regensburg University lecture was that God is also Logos. Christian truth is a reasonable truth and Christian proselytizing relies on the persuasiveness of its apologists and recognizes the dignity of the individual conscience.
On Sunday, as the volcanic ash from an Islamic world once again in rage was wafting over the cable channels and the internet, Pope Benedict said this at his Angelus audience:
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. Yesterday, the cardinal secretary of state published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words. 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.This was taken as an apology, and one needn’t quibble overmuch as to whether or not it qualifies as one. It is clear today, and I suspect that it will grow clearer as time passes, that the pope’s quotation from a 14th century Byzantine emperor was not an inadvertent one the 21st century pertinence of which, and the 21st century consequences of which, were completely unforeseen.
Did the pope realize that he might be putting his own life in peril, especially in light of his next foreign trip – to Istanbul, the center of Eastern Christianity until it fell to Muslim armies and Christianity virtually disappeared? Almost surely. Did he foresee that churches would be firebombed and Christians murdered in the streets of the Muslim world? I doubt it. Did he realize that those dangers existed? Probably. Did he think that if he waited or equivocated those dangers would recede in time? Not likely.
To choose between diplomacy and the Gospel is not to choose saccharine sentimentality and milquetoast moralism. It is rather to speak a truth the world has organized itself in order to avoid. That Benedict chose to speak that truth by way of a quotation from one of the last Christian rulers of Eastern Christianity, who ruled in the very city (then Constantinople, now Istanbul) which the pope will visit on his next foreign trip, was by no means coincidental. No one has ever accused Joseph Ratzinger of intellectual imprecision. Any high school sophomore reading the passage in his university lecture that has attracted so much attention could have predicted a strong reaction. It’s not likely to have eluded His Holiness.
The central purpose of Benedict’s lecture, as I said in an earlier post, was to remind the world and European culture specifically of the Christian insistence on reason, based as it is on the enduring belief that the God who is love is also Logos, that is, reason. The burden of this truth is that the irrational can never be part of God’s work in the world, and that violence is irrational. The specific quotation Benedict cited brought this insight into the sharpest relief: spreading religion with the sword is abominable. If historical Christians have occasionally committed that abomination, they have done so in conspicuous contradiction to the life and death of Christ, and their actions have been unambiguously rejected by the Church. That Mohammad spread Islam by the sword cannot be doubted, and that his doing so is today regarded as exemplary, is likewise obvious. The “moderate Muslims” who renounce the use of religious violence have earned their reputation for moderation largely by speaking in hushed tones.
Why would Benedict make such an apparent diplomatic faux pas when his very next foreign trip is to the Islamic world? Again Sandro Magister offers a plausible explanation:
As for Benedict XVI, he knows that he hasn’t made his trip to Turkey any easier. But it is the pope’s firm conviction that a visit prepared and carried out only under the shield of reticence, silence, purely ceremonial dialogue, and submission would have done more harm than good – both to the Church and to the Muslim world.The challenge facing any Christian today, and which Benedict XVI has chosen to engage, is how to be open to charitable dialogue with religious believers of any and every kind while reminding those long-slumbering inhabitants of formerly Christian societies that their world will soon come to an end and their children and grandchildren pay a terrible price if they do not quickly realize how precious and indispensable to a free and happy life is the great gift that Christian faith is to those who have been given it and that a Christian cultural milieu is even to the non-believers fortunate enough to inhabit one.