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Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and Islam

Explaining the Real Message

ROME, SEPT. 23, 2006 ( As the furor over Benedict XVI and Islam died down, people started to realize that the Pope was a victim of phrases taken out of context and reactions deliberately inflamed. In fact, this was what many Church officials and prelates were saying from the start.

Rather than being an attack on Islam, “What emerges clearly from the Holy Father’s discourses is a warning, addressed to Western culture, to avoid ‘the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom,'” noted Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi on Sept. 14. The Jesuit explained that the Pope was criticizing modern culture for trying to exclude religion.

“A reason which is deaf to the divine,” concluded the Pontiff in his Sept. 12 address at the University of Regensburg, “and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Given this, the followers of an irreligious modern mentality had far more reason to be irritated with the Pope than anyone else, a fact that probably explains the extreme hostility of a New York Times editorial against the Holy Father published Sept. 16.

In a statement issued that same day, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone pointed out that Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address was speaking to a group of academics and was simply using a text by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which the Pope made clear was not his own opinion. The quotation was a way to introduce a series of reflections. This approach was not understood by many in a media culture that relies on 5-second sound bites to convey messages.

For that reason, Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recommended that people “read well” the Pope’s text. Interviewed by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Sept. 15, the cardinal explained that if Muslims were to read and meditate on the text they would understand that, far from being an attack, it is rather “an outstretched hand.” This is so because the Holy Father defended the value of religion for humanity, and Islam is one of the world’s great religions.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, also insisted on the value of the Pope’s discourse. His words came in the opening address Monday to a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Italian bishops’ conference. A central point made by Pope during his trip to Bavaria, explained Cardinal Ruini, was that through faith in that God, man’s reason and freedom find their higher and authentic fulfillment. In this context the Pope in his speech at Regensburg proposed a dialogue between cultures and religions — a dialogue that is increasingly urgent.

Support for this dialogue also came from Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. “Given the circumstances of the last week,” he said in a statement published Wednesday, “it is clear that dialogue is essential between Christians and Muslims, a dialogue in which we respect, in the words of the Holy Father, ‘what is sacred for others.'”

Targeting the West

In an interview Sept. 17 with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Cardinal Poupard commented that the Pontiff’s main concern was not with Islam, but with Western culture. This was clear in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s warning against relativism just prior to the start of the conclave where he was elected Pope.

Backing up his point, Cardinal Poupard cited a part of a homily given by Benedict XVI in Munich on Sept. 10. The Pope had said: “People in Africa and Asia admire, indeed, the scientific and technical prowess of the West, but they are frightened by a form of rationality which totally excludes God from man’s vision, as if this were the highest form of reason, and one to be taught to their cultures too.

“They do not see the real threat to their identity in the Christian faith, but in the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom and that holds up utility as the supreme criterion for the future of scientific research.”

This aspect of the Pope’s discourse was also highlighted last Monday by Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela. Madrid’s archbishop entered into the debate in a radio interview reported by the Internet service Análisis Digital the next day. The cardinal explained that the purpose of the Holy Father’s speech was to examine the relationship between believing and knowing.

We need both faith and reason, Cardinal Rouco commented, and it is a mistake to conceive of a God who acts against reason. Far from being a sort of provocation directed at Muslims, the papal speech was a call for respectful dialogue between faith and reason, the cardinal said.


Concerning relations between Islam and the Catholic Church, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone said he was confident that the explanations offered after the Pope’s Regensburg speech would be accepted. Interviewed Monday by the Corriere della Sera, the secretary of state also complained about the heavy-handed manipulation of Benedict XVI’s words.

Yet, he noted that the reaction to the papal speech from some Islamic leaders was favorable. For example, Mohand Alili, rector of the Mosque in Marseilles, France, had recommended against being offended by what the Pontiff said, as the speech was an invitation to meditate on the words of the prophet Mohammed. The problem, however, was that these and other positive reactions were not given media attention, Cardinal Bertone lamented.

From Australia, Cardinal George Pell on Monday also criticized the way the Pope’s words had been manipulated by some. In a press statement the cardinal expressed his gratitude for the words of moderate Muslims.

Days earlier, on Sept. 13, the archbishop of Sydney spoke about the theme of dialogue between the West and Islam, in the aftermath of the Pope’s address in Regensburg. Addressing the Union Club in Sydney, he noted that the great religions differ significantly in doctrine and in the societies they produce. And while religions can be sources of beauty and goodness, they can also fall into corruption and be sources of poison and destruction, the cardinal cautioned.

But for those who see religion as a source of violence, Cardinal Pell pointed out that “The worst evils of the 20th century were provoked by anti-religious men: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.”

In an interview published Monday by Spiegel Online, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, noted that conflicts with Islam are a part of Europe’s history, which was what the Pope was referring to in his address.

But there is an alternative to conflict — dialogue — which is what the Pope favors. This dialogue is not easy, the cardinal acknowledged, as it is difficult under the current circumstances “to find representative counterparts to talk with.”

We should not approach this dialogue naively, continued Cardinal Kasper, since there are major differences between Christian and Islamic cultures. In fact, the policy of multiculturalism favored by European countries has not worked in relations with Muslim communities.

“The fundamental issue, when it comes to Europe’s future, will be whether and how we manage to transfer the ideals that once made Europe great — especially its Christian roots — into today’s changed world,” concluded the cardinal. Not an easy task, judging by Regensburg.

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