Saturday, September 16, 2006

A papal mistake or a deliberate slight?

The big story this week has been the Pope's alleged comments about Islam. Like many reacting to them I haven't read the full speech - at a glance I can only "key" extracts on the BBC News site. I suspect most protesters have no idea what the Pope said exactly either, and are just reacting to news reports and stirrers.

What appears to be the crucial point is as follows:

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read... 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.

In the seventh conversation...the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad 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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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," he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably 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."
On reading it one feels that this is aimed at condemning religious violence and not another faith. But not everyone's convinced.

It's as well that even in Roman Catholic theology the Pope is not assumed to be infallible unless he asserts infallibility. (On an aside I sometimes wonder if this means that if the Pope turns up at a railway station he can assert infallibility to declare the train to be so late that he qualifies for passenger compensation!) It's possible the Pope didn't realise just quite what reaction the speech would have, and the previous removal of Archbishop Fitzgerald from the Vatican's unit on dialogue with other religions now looks like a big mistake. But now the Roman Catholic Church is showing a willingness to be firm with Islam, pushing for a real open debate and seems unafraid to cause offence.

When it was announced that Joseph Ratzinger was the new Pope, many expected a hardline Papacy and so far these expectations have not been met. Is the hallmark of Benedict XVI's Papacy going to be relations with Islam? And will we see more comments that bring violent reactions?

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