Miller: The Pope’s New Approach to Christian-Muslim Relations
by Robert T. Miller
In a speech at the University of Regensburg concerning the relation of faith and reason, Benedict XVI quotes from an obscure fourteenth-century dialogue by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," the emperor says to his Persian interlocutor, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Benedict’s point seems to be that "violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul," and, again quoting from Manuel II, "not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature." Predictably, the Muslim world explodes in anger, terrorists set fire to churches in Palestine, a nun is assassinated in Somalia , and the New York Times demands that Benedict apologize .
Benedict sends out Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the newly appointed Vatican Secretary of State, to issue a non-apology apology . When that, predictably, satisfies no one, Benedict uses his Sunday Angelus message yesterday to issue in person a somewhat stronger non-apology apology : "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," Benedict says. "These in fact were a quotation from a Medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought." This non-apology too will probably not quiet the most indignant voices. Perhaps surprising, European politicians such as Silvio Berlusconi are coming to the pope’s defense. What should an intelligent Catholic make of all this?
Now, in one sense, it’s clear that, in context, Benedict was not endorsing the statement that every innovation of Mohammed was "evil and inhuman"; by no means do we endorse all the words we quote. Such scholarly niceties, however, are largely irrelevant here. Given the exquisite sensitivity that European politicians generally show for Muslim sensibilities, when a pope, speaking in public and before television cameras, quotes a text embodying a statement that will predictably result in explosive anger in the Muslim world, does so without needing to quote the specific language to make his point, does not expressly disavow the offending statement when quoting it, and even endorses a larger point that the author of the quotation is making, a decent respect for the intelligence of the man on the Throne of St. Peter demands that we conclude that he quoted the text intentionally, knowing what the consequences would be, and did so for a reason.
And I have a suggestion as to what that reason might be. The rumor has long been that Benedict intends to take a new diplomatic approach toward the Muslim states, an approach based on reciprocity, i.e., a demand that the religious freedom accorded by European states to their Muslim minorities be accorded by Muslim states to their Christian minorities. He intends, in other words, to hold Muslim states to the same standard that the Western states hold themselves. This would be a significant break with the diplomacy of John Paul II and former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, which avoided criticism of Muslim states in the hopes of obtaining good treatment for Christians living within their borders. Under Benedict XVI, it seems, there will be no more appeasement.
If this is right, then I think Benedict’s quotation from Manuel II signals an even broader turn toward reciprocity in Christian-Muslim relations. Benedict is hinting that Muslims can expect Christians to present their grievances, current and historical, against Islam with the same frankness that Muslims present theirs against Christianity¯and that Christians will expect Muslims to respond to these grievances in the way that Christians think they should respond to Muslim grievances. Which would include, for example, acknowledging and deploring the historical sins of their forebears, just as John Paul II did regarding our Christian forebears through the International Theological Commission in Memory and Reconciliation .
It was thus no accident that Benedict was quoting from a Byzantine emperor. He was alluding to the historical fact that, over the course of centuries, Muslims engaged in a religious war of aggression against the Byzantine Empire that eventually destroyed that Christian society. Historical fact though it is, Muslims do not generally acknowledge and deplore this unpleasant reality.
Like many sins of Christians against Muslims, these are sins from long ago and are now long past rectification; there is no way to remake Hagia Sophia into a Christian church. Moreover, the worst thing that could happen would be for past sins to become the cause of current hatred. But that doesn’t mean that those sins ought not be talked about openly. Rather, just as contemporary Christians acknowledge and deplore the sins of their forebears against Muslims, as in the Inquisition or the Crusades, so too ought contemporary Muslims acknowledge and deplore the sins of their forebears against Christians. Acknowledging the sins of the past relieves us of the burden of defending the indefensible, helps us resolve not to commit such sins in the future, and shows respect for the humanity of those harmed in the persons of their contemporary representatives. Christians, while still very far from perfect in this regard, made significant progress under John Paul II. Benedict seems to be asking Muslims now to do the same. At the very least, he is signaling that he intends to act as if they ought to do so.
Still, Benedict went about this noble business in a very imprudent way. The statement he quoted¯that everything new Mohammed brought was "evil and inhuman"¯is simply untrue and so obviously hurtful that it will prevent anything else the pope might say from getting a hearing. Given the predictable reactions in the Muslim world, it is patently counterproductive to try to make the legitimate point that Muslims have sometimes used violence to spread their faith by quoting, even without endorsing, the untrue and much more sweeping statement that everything peculiar to Islam is "evil and inhuman." If Benedict wishes to call Muslims to account for wrongful acts, current and historical, committed by Muslims against Christians, well and good, but he ought not do so by grossly overstating the case in an obviously provocative way that he himself does not believe and then apologize in stages for having done so.
The larger point, however, remains. When the pope reminds the Muslim world that Islam has sometimes been spread by the sword and implies that Muslims ought to acknowledge and deplore this, some Muslims respond violently and many respond angrily. No matter what the pope may have said, firebombing churches or shooting nuns is a morally unacceptable reaction and represents a level of moral wrongdoing out of all proportion to the offense, even if that offense be as bad as perceived. I would not have made the point quite as Benedict did, but in opening a frank conversation about the historical use of force by Muslims in spreading their faith, Benedict has done the world a service.
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