The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version of the text…

…complete with footnotes. (This is at the end of the copy of the full speech by Pope Benedict at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/15_09_06_pope.pdf). Having read it all, I’m still not sure exactly what the Pope was intending by the offending remarks. Even if this is what you get if you choose a German academic as Pope (as my husband put it), the quotation that caused all the problems still seems very odd to include.

The main theme of the talk is faith and reason and the Pope’s argument that they ought to ‘come together in a new way’. Part of it seems to be a familiar criticism from him about modern rationalism, and specifically that it only considers as rational propositions those ones that are empirically verifiable. His point that this is a very limited view of the use of reason is a good one. As a historian, I think the use of reason is important in a field like mine, despite it being one where no ideas can ever be definitively ‘proved’. I’m less enthusiastic than the Pope is about the results of the intertwining of early Christian thought and Greek philosophy (it had a fairly bad effect on sexual ethics, for example), but I would certainly accept that religion should not simply ignore reason or intellectual activity.

The references to Islam are actually somewhat peripheral to the main argument. The key quote from the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus for Benedict is ‘not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature’. Benedict contrasts this ‘self-evident truth’ in Greek philosophy with the Muslim view that God is beyond rationality. [I will say now, I don’t know enough about either Greek or Muslim theology/philosophy to say if these characterisations are accurate]. This in itself is hardly inflammatory.

Benedict, sensibly enough, gives the context for this quote: the emperor saying that violence should not be used to convert people, only proper reasoning. It is fair to say that medieval Muslims supported forced conversions (although not, I believe, of Jews and Christians). And the support of the death penalty for apostasy (abandoning Islam) by many contemporary Muslims is an appalling blot on the religion. However, it is hard to say that medieval Christianity was any better. Christian wars of conquest were fought from the Baltic to Palestine in the Middle Ages and from the time of Augustine onwards, theologians justified violence against those who did not believe correctly. There were some voices who argued that religion should be taught rather than imposed (like Alcuin in the eighth century). But, as far as I know, none of them faced up to the implicit problem with this suggestion. What happened, if, after careful Christian exposition and argument, a rational person still did not believe or believed another religion? In practice, the repeated answer by religious and secular authorities was that such people were blinded/wicked/incorrigible/children etc and therefore must be coerced or persecuted, or at best excluded from the realm to avoid contagion. Manuel’s statement comes in a time between the expulsion of Jews from England and the expulsion/forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain, both supported by Catholics at the time. If Benedict wants to make a point about forced conversion, or religious violence in general, a little more humility about the historic Christian experience would have been good.

The bit that has really got Muslims worked up, however, is when Benedict quotes the emperor as saying Muhammad brought only ‘evil and inhuman’ things. I still cannot see why the Pope included this quote: it’s not necessary in order to give the context for his main quote from Manuel about reason. Even if he wanted to show that the emperor was very hostile to Islam, he could have made that point directly. (If I was marking this as an essay, he’d lose marks for the paragraph with that quote for not getting to the main point). Either Benedict included that quote because he’s so concerned about adding colour to a lecture that he didn’t think about the wider consequences of what he was doing (which might make him an interesting lecturer, but not really suitable in a political role), or he quoted Manuel because he consciously or subconsciously agreed with him. Either view isn’t really encouraging.

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