The reaction - from all sides - to Pope Benedict’s remarks in Regensburg has been typical. And typically disappointing. Neither loud agreement nor violent disagreement with what the Pope is thought to be saying about Islam comes close to what the Pope actually said.
There are three keys to interpreting the pope’s address. None will come as any surprise to long time observers of Benedict’s theology, nor to close watchers of the moves he’s made since becoming pope to distance himself from what he saw as mistaken approaches by his predecessor.
The first is that the Pope is not a diplomat, and does not care much for diplomacy or politics. Though he’s “right wing” in theology, or perceived as such, it’s hard to find much commentary on overtly political issues in his huge corpus of work. It would be a mistaken assumption to believe that Benedict aligns himself with the adherents of the War on Terror, for instance. His priorities are simply elsewhere. He feels that the truth of the Christian message should be proclaimed without regard for secular niceties, and he sees his mission as doing just that.
By contrast to John Paul’s pontificate, Benedict has downgraded the importance of the Vatican’s diplomacy, and appointed the first non-diplomat as Secretary of State for centuries. In part, this emphasis on the proclamation of the word reflects his belief that the rise of Nazism in his native Germany was resisted more effectively by spiritual denunciation than by the Vatican’s careful diplomacy at the time.
Second, Benedict believes relativism to be the key crisis of our time. As such he has been uncompromising in proclaiming Christianity the true faith, having authored in 2000 the declaration Dominus Iesus which courted criticism by saying just that. He thought John Paul II was mushy on Islam, but then he thought that John Paul II was mushy on Buddhism and Hinduism as well.
Third, Benedict is not only taking aim at secular relativism, but also at the religious relativism that he sees as corrupting Christianity from within. Thus the main point of his Regensburg lecture was to criticise creeping “dehellenisation” of the faith. Liberal Protestant theology, and what he sees as its flow on effects in secularising European culture, is much more in his sights than Islam in these remarks. As any reading of the full text will show.
It’s not that the Pope’s views on Islam don’t warrant a (civilised) discussion, just that it wasn’t what he was trying to do with his address at the University of Regensburg.
Those who are loudly denouncing or applauding both need to take a cold shower, and then do some serious reading in theology afterwards.
Benedict’s position is interesting, but the reference to the Manuel II Paleologus “dialogue” on Islam has much more to do with his consistent worries about relativism and watering down of truths than world politics.
It was simply a badly chosen example - and the true motto is that sacking and downgrading the Vatican politicos might be an ill judged move by the Pontiff. The other motto is that interpreters need to look beyond the soundbite and read the text. That would surely be a miracle.
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