Just a few short days after the Pope’s speech in Regensburg, it seems all parties have run out of things to say. As many have pointed out in defending the Holy Father, his speech had very little to do with Islam; whereas his detractors have pointed out that they hope God will allow them to slit our throats and divide our money among their descendants. What’s left to be said when one side of a misunderstanding so objects to their characterization as violent that they threaten you with throat-slitting, suicide-bombing, and jihad? Well, if you’re the editorialists at the New York Times, there’s a lot to be said; namely, you blame the Pope for all this.
The editorial begins, “There is more than enough religious anger in the world. So it is particularly disturbing that Pope Benedict XVI has insulted Muslims, quoting a 14th-century description of Islam as ‘evil and inhuman.’” So, the New York Times accepts without question the extreme offense taken by some Muslims to the Pope’s quotation from a 14th-century emperor. No surprise there; the New York Times has long had animosity towards the Catholic Church and certainly has no interest in changing its characterizations of Pope Benedict XVI, characterizations the Times formed decades ago when reporting (falsely, usually) on then Cardinal Ratzinger. Thus, the completely gratuitous non-sequitor in the editorial, “A doctrinal conservative, his greatest fear appears to be the loss of a uniform Catholic identity, not exactly the best jumping-off point for tolerance or interfaith dialogue.” The quotation makes no sense either in the body of the editorial or standing alone, but it just strains common sense to assert this without any comment on the talk in which the “insult” appeared, and in which the Pope was addressing the ground for interfaith dialogue and arguing it is the secular West that lacks “jumping-off points.”
But, again, we must remember this is the New York Times; it would be newsworthy if the Times made an effort to understand the Pope. The editorial trots out what it considers damning evidence that Pope Benedict XVI is one nasty anti-Muslim with no interest in interfaith dialogue. Recall, the Times tells us, that “this is not the first time the pope has fomented discord between Christians and Muslims. In 2004 when he was still the Vatican’s top theologian, he spoke out against Turkey’s joining the European Union, because Turkey, as a Muslim country was ‘in permanent contrast to Europe.’” Case closed, according to the Times: Benedict XVI is a discord fomenter. But just take a brief look at the context of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments on Turkey’s entry into the EU, and you see an entirely different picture.
Cardinal Ratzinger did not foment “discord between Christians and Muslims” when he opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU. Instead, he warned that entering the EU would be unfortunate for Turkey and its culture. “Making the two continents identical would be a mistake,” he said. “It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics.” That is, Turkey’s absorption into a culturally-alien economic entity would have disastrous effects on Turkey’s historically Muslim culture. Thus, he suggested that Turkey should seek to become the center of a “cultural continent with neighboring Arab countries and become the leading figure of a culture with its own identity.” These are not the comments of someone opposed to Islam or someone seeking to foment discord between Muslims and Christians. Instead, these comments, and the comments in his Regensburg speech emanate from a man interested in the good of Islam.
Pope Benedict is a man of great intellectual depth. He seems interested in a religious dialogue deeper than in recent experience. To achieve this, Islam must resist two perverting forces, the Pope argues: first, secularization, much as has occurred already in formerly Christian Europe, and radicalization, much as has occurred in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. These perverting forces gain strength in distortions of religious reason, a return to which Pope Benedict calls both Christians and Muslims.
Pope Benedict does not fear Islam and he clearly does not perceive a robust but reasonable Islam contrary to the good of a robust and reasonable Christianity. But a reasonable Islam is a mature Islam: its spokespeople cannot be those who connect reason to violence; who meet disagreement with threats; and who become outraged at mention of the past. Let’s hope that after the violence quiets down, Christians and Muslims can begin that deeper and more productive conversation about the relationship of reason to faith.
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.