In Defense of Pope Benedict

by , September 19, 2006

What is an erudite and perhaps overly scholarly pope to do in the face of a news media that insists on cherry-picking his pronouncements – buried amidst references to obscure Byzantine emperors and abstruse theological constructs – and making of them blazing headlines?

There isn’t much he can do, and perhaps this is for the best. Benedict XVI is blunter and more assertive than his predecessor, and if I were a practicing Catholic – which I am not – I would be glad of it. In an era dominated by relativism and political correctness, where all religions are supposedly equal and truth is a matter of opinion (usually someone else’s), it is refreshing to see someone uphold what they believe and defend it against all comers.

Clearly, Benedict had no idea that, in returning to the University of Regensburg, where he once taught theology, and delivering a lecture with the supremely inoffensive title of “Faith, Reason, and the University – Memories and Reflections,” he would be charged with launching the Tenth Crusade. Yet that is plainly happening.

Out of a complicated and thoroughly delightful narrative on the relationship between faith and reason – intended to illustrate his point that Catholicism is the only authentic alternative to the “primitive” irrationalism of Protestant and Islamic mystics, on the one hand, and godless rationalism on the other – the fanatics (egged on by the media) have latched on to a few paragraphs, which are citations and not even the words of this pope. What is fascinating is his point that the long-term trend within Christian circles, Catholic as well as Protestant, has amounted to a process of “de-Hellenization,” i.e., an attempt to divorce Christianity from what the “reformers” regard as alien accretions of the Hellenistic period. Yet the gospels were written in Greek, notes Benedict, and he goes on to explain, in so many words, how the Christian concept of the logos – in the beginning, writes Saint John, was the Logos – assumes a rational, benevolent God.

After reflecting on his experience at the university, where theology was put on a par with philosophy and the other disciplines, and noting that, within the university, no one thought this at all odd, Benedict continues:

“I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

“It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the ‘three Laws': the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.”

Let’s stop here, and note one error. The dialogues set down by Manuel did not occur during the siege of Constantinople, but much earlier, during the emperor’s youth, when he was held as a hostage at the court of the Turkish sultan; his father, John V, was a Turkish vassal, who paid yearly tribute to the sultan. At the Turkish court, young Manuel passed the time by engaging in a series of dialogues with a scholarly Persian, and later recorded them from his notes. This historical context is important, in view of the controversy that has arisen – and arise it did, when the pope got around to his point:

“In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself – which, in the context of the issue of ‘faith and reason,’ I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

“In the seventh conversation (‘diálesis’ – controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.”

Much is being made of the pope’s alleged error in citing this particular sura as being of “the early period,” but, contra Andrew Sullivan, it is not central to his point – which is that Islam lacks a moderating Hellenistic influence, and therefore doesn’t rule out the vision of a capricious and irrational deity presiding over a universe based on reason. Nature, says the pope, reflects its Creator, yet some deny this:

“Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels,’ [the Emperor] turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: ‘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.'”

The German translation of this paragraph differs from the English one, as Wikipedia notes: “According to the German text, the pope’s original comment was ‘He addresses his interlocutor in an astoundingly harsh – to us surprisingly harsh – way.'” This is important, given the earsplitting brouhaha arising from this citation.

It doesn’t matter to the pope’s critics – not all of them Muslims, by any means – that this is a citation, and, taken in context, clearly doesn’t reflect the pope’s personal views. And it surely doesn’t matter that Manuel was speaking from the bitterest of experiences: that he personally lived through and witnessed the Turkish invasion of the medieval Balkans, where many thousands were faced with the choice recently offered to those two Fox News employees by their captors in occupied Palestine – convert or die. The pope’s accusers couldn’t care less that Benedict is here concerned chiefly with rescuing the Hellenistic spirit of theology as philosophical inquiry from the assault of various fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim. To the Catholics, both Greek and Roman, not to act in accordance with reason is alien to God’s nature. To the devout Muslim, however – and, the pope would doubtless aver, to Protestant sects as well – God is utterly transcendent. To buttress this point, Benedict cites the leaders of the Reformation as well as “the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

This nightmare universe ruled over by a malevolent God, where reason is overthrown, is a Bizarro World, where good is evil, godliness is mass murder, and anything is permitted. All wars, in such a world, are “just” wars. The same theology that rejects this vision and required the Vatican to come out against the American invasion of Iraq has inspired this pope to underscore the Hellenistic roots of a Christian faith anchored in a vision of a rational universe:

“The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (“syn logo”) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…. 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….'”

These words of the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus might well be addressed to George W. Bush, a mad Emperor intent on spreading the “democratic” faith through violence. The Turks gave up forcible conversions some centuries ago: today, the United States has revived this abhorrent practice and made it the principal element of its foreign policy of “regime change.” Unfortunately, no one has read that far into Benedict’s speech: the critics stopped near the beginning, where the sensationalistic quote has been ripped out of its proper context and emblazoned in headlines from Cairo to Canberra.

It is nonsense to characterize the Vatican as the enemy of Islam and the ally of Bush and the neocons in their efforts to spark a disastrous “clash of civilizations.” Just as the Catholic Church was perhaps the most authoritative and powerful voice raised against the invasion of Iraq, so the Vatican clearly put the onus on the Israelis for launching an unjust war against Lebanon – and for essentially the same reasons. The Church has consistently condemned the brutalities of the Israeli occupation of the Holy Land and clearly sympathizes with the plight of the Palestinians. John Paul II characterized the Iraq war as “a defeat for humanity,” and, citing the massive antiwar demonstrations that occurred all around the world on the eve of the invasion, called on Catholics to fast in protest. Benedict is not deviating from these stances, but is, instead, seeking to buttress the intellectual foundations of the doctrine – based on the interplay of faith and reason – that gives rise to the Church’s antiwar, albeit not pacifistic, stance.

This may be too complex for a newspaper headline, but I doubt the pope is much concerned with this, even after being scolded for his apparent naiveté by the New York Times editorial board. If speaking up for the timeless principles of the Church is considered too provocative and an argument against forcible conversion is now “controversial,” then one wonders how we can possibly avoid the world war we all fear.

The current controversy is being compared to the tasteless caricatures of Muhammad that appeared in many European newspapers, but the reality is quite different, almost the complete opposite: the cartoons were a deliberate provocation, whereas the pope’s comments were not intended to give offense. Indeed, in its defense of reason and dialogue as the alternative to violence, the pope’s lecture was and is a valuable contribution to the cause of peace.

That extremists of every stripe – including Western secularists, who hate the Catholic Church – are rejecting the Vatican’s explanations and condemning the pope’s remarks as “insensitive” is hardly surprising. These people disdain the restraints imposed on their actions by the logos, or the rule of reason, and prefer to believe that their ideological and religious views transcend the need for rational or moral justification. As long as the Vatican stands against this worrying modern trend, it opposes the War Party of every nation. Apologize? This pope has had to face a veritable storm of demands for apologies from the beginning of his tenure, but has yet to have any cause for contrition.

I would add that the War Party ought to resist the temptation to make of Manuel II Paleologus a saint. He was the third to last emperor of Byzantium, a capable and ceaselessly beleaguered ruler, who – through a combination of shrewdness and good luck – managed to preserve the Empire a good 50 years beyond its natural life span. His strategy was to avoid confrontation.

By currying favor with the Turks and playing off the Venetians and the Genoans against the various sultans and would-be sultans, Manuel took advantage of the divisions among the many predators who came to feed on the decaying remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire. By neocon lights, Manuel was hardly an exemplar, since he pursued a policy of submitting to vassalage to the Turkish sultans as the price to be paid for continued Byzantine suzerainty.

He was, in short, a practitioner of what the neocons call “appeasement,” and what historians of the period point to as some pretty adept diplomacy. And, by the way, it wasn’t the Turks who really destroyed the Empire of the East, but the marauding Crusaders, who took Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade: after that, old Byzantium never regained its former power and grandeur. Western intervention, ostensibly launched to save Christendom and the Holy Land, wound up paving the way for the invasion of Europe by the Turks. So forget Manuel II Paleologus, guys – and drop the Byzantine analogy before it’s even raised.

Read more by Justin Raimondo