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(photo credit: Associated Press)
If Paris was well worth a mass, then staving off an Islamic holy war was well worth a papal apology.
On September 12, during a papal visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI addressed "representatives of science" at Regensburg University, delivering his thoughts on faith and reason, speaking as pope but also as the Catholic Church's foremost theologian.
His extrapolation of a comment by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologo, during a religious disputation with a Persian scholar regarding "the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both" set aflame capitals in the Islamic world occasioning massive anti-Christian demonstrations, threats and violence.
To unravel the misunderstanding that made an unprecedented papal apology necessary, a glance at the relevant passage is in order.
Pope Benedict XVI quotes the medieval Christian emperor as saying to his Islamic partner in dialogue, "'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 unreasonable: "Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
The pope's intent, amply expressed during his Bavarian journey, was to stress two points concerning the role of reason.
First, reason - in the form of Western civilization's heritage from the Enlightenment - not moderated by faith leads to a Godless and amoral society that frightens the believers of other religions (including Islam). This point, praised by those who believe in strengthening the role of religion in public life, has alarmed freethinkers and those who hold that only strict separation of religion and state can guarantee progress in democracy. Some observers have expressed concern over a prospective mingling of theology and politics.
Second, faith that is not moderated by reason leads to fundamentalist extremism. The medieval quote chosen by Benedict was meant to communicate this thought.
While most observers feel the Islamic world has wildly overreacted again, some find fault with the pope's communication itself, borne out by the fact that even moderate Muslim intellectuals were offended. Great respect for Pope Benedict XVI generally has impeded straightforward criticism of his use of a medieval dispute in which Christianity emerges as a religion of peace in contrast to "the sword" of Islam. Instead, Vatican observers blame media simplifications, but more specifically point to a momentary vacuum in the habitual work of the Vatican hierarchy due to recent changes brought about by Benedict XVI himself.
The Holy See's Secretariat of State is the proverbial final "editor" of papal speeches. In recent days it was apparently not as highly efficient as usual because of an imminent change of guard. On September 15, the former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was officially replaced by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose first important job was to issue an apology in the pope's name the day before the pope himself did.
The new line of Benedict XVI's papacy has not yet fully emerged. His choices of new officials in the Vatican hierarchy are however significant. Bertone, the new secretary of state, was the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's assistant at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, before Ratzinger became pope. Thus his background is primarily theological, not diplomatic.
On the other hand, the incoming foreign minister, Mamberti, points out that "the fact that the Holy Father chose me, that is, a nuncio who has for many years been papal representative in Muslim countries - Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and now Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia - is evidence of the interest the pope has in cultivating the dialogue with this world, which is so important." Mamberti, a French citizen born and brought up in Morocco, provides a missing link and key to a universe that this pope has had some difficulties with before.
As a cardinal, Ratzinger expressed his reserve at the prospect of Turkey's entry into the European Union. Nevertheless, a papal trip to Turkey is planned for November 28 to December 1. Undoubtedly this pope feels a degree of diffidence with contemporary Islam while at the same time he is deeply aware of the necessity of engaging this world in dialogue.
The pope this week confessed publicly that with the enormous tasks he faces, he must learn to delegate, rather than attempt to do everything himself. In this context, his choice of foreign minister signifies his recognition of the importance of communication with Islam for the sake of Christianity's future as well as that of the world itself. Combating extremism through reason and cultural dialogue is his aim. Behind this all-encompassing purpose there also lie his concerns for the safety and future of Christian communities in the Islamic world, and the growth of fundamentalist Islam, especially in Europe.