There are many popes within Christianity—the Coptic Church has one, and the Eastern Orthodox Church also boasts a patriarch or holy father—but we have acquired the habit of using the term to describe only the bishop of Rome (as the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church describe him), and this is a pity for many reasons. It confers a sort of supreme authority on the leader of only one Christian sect, and it therefore helps to give non-Christians the impression that the representative of Roman Catholicism represents rather more of the “West” than he actually does.
Attempting to revive his moribund church on a visit to Germany, where the Roman congregations are increasingly sparse, Joseph Ratzinger (as I shall always think of him) has managed to do a moderate amount of harm—and absolutely no good—to the very tense and distraught discussion now in progress between Europe and Islam. I strongly recommend that you read the full text of his lecture at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday.
After the most perfunctory introduction, Ratzinger goes straight to his choice of quotation, which is taken from 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II. This potentate supposedly once engaged in debate—the precise time and place is unknown—with an unnamed Persian. The subject was Christianity and Islam. The Byzantine asks the Persian to “show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” (On the face of it, not a very open-ended inquiry.) But, warming to his own theme, the purple-clad monarch of Constantinople allegedly added that “to convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.”
Now, you do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion. To take Islam’s own favorite self-pitying example: It was the Catholic crusaders who sacked and burned Christian Byzantium on their way to Palestine—and that was only after they had methodically set about the Jews, so the Muslim world was actually only the third victim of this barbarity. (Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades is the best source here.) Yet of all the words he could have chosen, to suggest that religion might wish to break its old connection with conquest, intolerance, and subjugation, Ratzinger had to select an example that was designed to remind his hearers of the crudest excesses of the medieval period. His mention of Manuel II was evidently not accidental or anecdotal. He refers to him repeatedly and returns to him again in the closing paragraph, as if to rub it in.
And of course now we hear, as could have been predicted, the pathetic and unconvincing apologies issued by his spokesmen and finally Ratzinger himself. These will only serve to convince infuriated Muslims that by threatening reprisal, calling for the severing of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and issuing a few more sanguinary fatwas, they can force yet another retreat. The usual things have happened: the shooting of a nun in Somalia and the desecration of Christian churches in Palestine. And so the ecumenical “dialogue” goes on.
To read the bulk of the speech, however, is to realize that, if he had chanced to be born in Turkey or Syria instead of Germany, the bishop of Rome could have become a perfectly orthodox Muslim. He may well distrust Islam because it claims that its own revelation is the absolute and final one, but he describes John, one of the apostles, as having spoken “the final word on the biblical concept of God,” and where Muslims believe that Mohammed went into a trance and took dictation from an archangel, Ratzinger accepts as true the equally preposterous legend that St. Paul was commanded to evangelize for Christ during the course of a vision experienced in a dream. He happens to get Mohammed wrong when he says that the prophet only forbade “compulsion in religion” when Islam was weak. (The relevant sura comes from a period of relatively high confidence.) But he could just as easily have cited the many suras that flatly contradict this apparently benign message. The familiar problem is that, if you question another religion’s “revelation” and dogma too closely, you invite a tu quoque in respect of your own. Which is just what has happened in the present case.
The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either “the word” or “reason,” which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of “revealed” truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really “offended” the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day’s work, and one that we could well have done without.