Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ratzinger’s Blunder

As one can see below, MM has launched a spirited and nuanced defense of the now infamous speech by Benedict XVI. I share MM’s view that there is value in discussing the link between faith and reason, as well as having candid dialogues between cultures and religions. I am however surprised by his dogged defense of the entirety of the speech. While granting that the speech had some valid arguments, I am not surprised that it has been undermined by a terribly ill-timed quotation, and MM, and other pious Catholics like him, should not shy away from recognizing that.

Does the Vatican not have PR staff and speech reviewers? Could they not come up with a more neutral reference than the one that was used? Given how inflamed religious tensions are these days around the world, the last thing we need is the Church digging up old, highly inflammatory, quotations from the age of religious wars (regardless of the caveats applied). More pertinently, for Mr. Ratzinger to talk about conversion by the sword and not refer to his own religion’s track record is disingenuous to say the least.

I am also disappointed by the statement of regret that has been released, which reads like the product of a modern spin machine. The pope did not express regret over his poor choice of quotation per se; rather he (or his people) regretted that some Muslims may have been offended by what he had to say! To me, this sounds like “I know I am right, I am just sad that you think I am wrong, and I regret that you are offended by what I had to say (although I know I am right).” When one makes a visible mistake, one needs to show contrition, not give out smart sound bites.

Again, I do not disagree with the need to have discussions on faith and reason; in fact, I find such discussions intellectually intriguing and stimulating. What I find condemnation-worthy is the pope’s demonstrated lack of sensitivity in making his arguments. He is a world figure, and he needs to be much more careful in pushing his thinking. Otherwise he risks undermining the very dialogue he is trying to foster. Most importantly, now that we have a bit of a loose cannon in the Vatican, the bureaucracy there ought to reinforce the speech review process before Mr. Benedict hits the podium again.


kalle anka said...

Is the Vatican using Bush-White-House tactics? When wrong, repeat your argument and attack your critics. Not quite, but they seem to be on the track...

Greatness is best exemplified in owning up to one's mistakes. This would have been an easy one for the pope, but he didn't go far enough. Now catholics should be upset.

shadhu said...

I wouldn't want to be too harsh on the Vatican's reactions, recognizing that there have at least been proactive attempts at defusing the matter. But you're right, Kalle Anka, there was a chance to set an example of greatness here, and sadly we did not see that.

Morning's Minion said...

Kalle Anke,

Care to enlighen us on the nature of the mistake that seems to have grieved you so much?

And where does he "attack his critics"? He should speak out more against the kind of "critics" that kill nuns and burn churches. Or is that not at issue for you?

Morning's Minion said...

"Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence," - Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam.

Is it too early in the day for irony?

shadhu said...

MM needs to read more carefully. Kalle Anka did not say the Vatican was attacking. In fact, he added a caveat (by saying "not quite"), just like the pope did!

AR said...

A nice set of articles. I agree with Shadhu's surprise at how the whole flap was handled - one would have expected a little more savvy from the Vatican in these charged times. Having said that, I do think it's a topic very much worthy of debate, and one from which church (and secular) leaders should not shy away. And I thought MM's final paragraph was really excellent!

kitab said...

This is a real storm in a teacup! The Pope's reference hardly does justice to the butchery that has been carried out in the name of Islam over many centuries; a savage record equalled perhaps only by the carnage engendered by the Catholic church itself.

All the world's "great" religions have dubious and disreputable histories. Their adherents need to lighten up, acknowledge their own chequered histories and shed their thin skins. And perhaps they should stop feeling so superior to Tom Cruise, whose religion has empirical foundations at least as sound as those of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism, with the bonus of never having caused even a teeny little war or genocide.

shadhu said...

Clearly Kitab is a hedonistic degenerate. :)

Intolerant Secularist said...

i think kitab hits the nail on the head...clap, clap:)

Morning's Minion said...

William Rees-Mogg has a nice piece in the Times of London. Recommended reading for Kitab in particular! Key quote:

"It is a mistake to think that all the major religions are identical: they have real differences of doctrine that have real impacts on human society. What is true, however, is that no religion shall survive for more than a generation or two unless it has a substantial element of truth in it. The diabolical cult of Nazism lasted for only one generation. It is natural for Christians of different denominations to love what they have in common without ceasing to be aware of their differences.

A Christian should also rejoice in the positive spiritual values of the other major religions. It is natural for a Christian to feel enriched by Judaism, which was the religion of Jesus; or by Platonism, the philosophy of the opening chapter of St John’s Gospel and of St Augustine. Yet Christians also find spiritual truths in Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam itself. There is a significant link between aspects of Islamic Sufi mysticism and the Christian mystical tradition.


Yet nowadays Islam is the only major religion in which violence is a serious doctrinal issue. It is true that tribalised Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have only recently stopped killing each other and vengeful Sikhs assassinated Indira Gandhi in India, but neither the Catholic nor the Protestant churches believe in terror; nor do the Sikhs.

A significant proportion of the Islamic community does believe that suicide bombers are martyrs carrying out a religious duty. Suicide bombing causes Islamophobia. There are varying degrees of authority and uniformity in different religions; rather low in most cases. This pluralism has its own virtues, but in Islam they are outweighed by the disadvantages. Those imams who preach al-Qaeda’s view of the duty of jihad are not required to answer to any authority, even the authority of reason.

Islam has only partially experienced the modern process of enlightenment and reform, which was, after all, resisted by a number of pre-Vatican II Popes. Pope Benedict will have done Islam a service if he has started a debate within Islam and between Islam and the critics."

Anonymous said...

Since MM is quoting the press, here's what the Economist had to say:

...since Pope Benedict took office last year, the Vatican’s attitude has become fractionally, but unmistakably, less emollient. Especially after the murder of a Catholic priest in the Turkish port of Trabzon in February, Vatican pronouncements have put more emphasis on the idea of “reciprocity”: if Christian countries are expected to look after their Muslim minorities well, then Christians should get similar treatment in Muslim countries. The Pope has also downgraded the part of the Vatican bureaucracy which deals with Islam. Its respected former head, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, has been sent to Cairo.

... the trouble with using such a reference—albeit in heavy quotation marks—is that such rhetoric has an almost automatic polarising effect. For Muslims who were already mildly suspicious of the new Pope (who has a record of questioning Turkey’s European credentials on grounds of its religion), the speech confirms their gravest fears. Some Westerners, hearing of violent protests and threats to the Pope’s personal security, will retort that the onus is on Muslims to show the peaceful nature of their religion.

As head of a small state, Pope Benedict can draw on an extraordinary range of talent and expertise in formulating his policy towards the Muslim world. But he will need to draw deeply if the geopolitical effects of his learned discourse are somehow to be contained.

Morning's Minion said...

Like much of the media, the Economist is clueless about religion. The whole good John Paul vs. bad Benedict spin is doing the rounds on Al Jazeera, and is becoming conventional wisdom in the west too (ust as Kerry the flip-flopper and Gore the exaggerator became conventional wisdom-- because herd instict reigns supreme).

But there's one problem: it's just not true. Just look at the text of Benedict's "meeting with muslim communities" speech:




Saturday, 20 August 2005

Dear Muslim Friends,

It gives me great joy to be able to be with you and to offer you my heartfelt greetings.

As you know, I have come here to meet young people from every part of Europe and the world. Young people are the future of humanity and the hope of the nations. My beloved Predecessor, Pope John Paul II, once said to the young Muslims assembled in the stadium at Casablanca, Morocco: "The young can build a better future if they first put their faith in God and if they pledge themselves to build this new world in accordance with God's plan, with wisdom and trust" (Insegnamenti, VIII/2, 1985, p. 500).

It is in this spirit that I turn to you, dear and esteemed Muslim friends, to share my hopes with you and to let you know of my concerns at these particularly difficult times in our history.

I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism. I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it. I am grateful to you for this, for it contributes to the climate of trust that we need.

Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts of the world, plunging people into grief and despair. Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations and destroy trust, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful and serene life together.

Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence.

If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace.

The task is difficult but not impossible. The believer - and all of us, as Christians and Muslims, are believers - knows that, despite his weakness, he can count on the spiritual power of prayer.

Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims. There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values.

The dignity of the person and the defence of the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every social endeavour and of every effort to bring it to fruition. This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear voice of conscience. It is a message which must be heeded and communicated to others: should it ever cease to find an echo in peoples' hearts, the world would be exposed to the darkness of a new barbarism.

Only through recognition of the centrality of the person can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies. Some quotes:

"During my Meeting last April with the delegates of Churches and Christian Communities and with representatives of the various religious traditions, I affirmed that "the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole" (L'Osservatore Romano, 25 April 2005, p. 4).

Past experience teaches us that, unfortunately, relations between Christians and Muslims have not always been marked by mutual respect and understanding. How many pages of history record battles and wars that have been waged, with both sides invoking the Name of God, as if fighting and killing, the enemy could be pleasing to him. The recollection of these sad events should fill us with shame, for we know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.

The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other's identity. The defence of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization.'

"Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism. We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope.

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."