The recently installed Pope Benedict gave a speech on Tuesday in his native Germany. Even though the Vatican has ruled that the pope as the prime representative of Christ on earth is as close to being infallible as anyone, such dogma has long since ceased to be newsworthy. Individuals designated as Catholics and Protestants have found other things to fight over (or even to agree with against a common secular enemy) and the thousands upon thousands of victims in Europe’s religious wars are more or less relegated to a historical footnote. Last Tuesday this doctrine of ex cathedra truth rose from the dead of church history and crashed through the gate of ecumenical tolerance.

There are Muslims protests around the world today over comments by Pope Benedict that seemingly villify the Prophet Muhammad. A resolution condemning the pope for making “derogatory” aspersions on Muhammad was passed today in Pakistan. Even the prime minister of Lebanon, Fuad Saniora, asked his ambassador to the Vatican to seek clarification on what the remarks mean. The Vatican has been quick to clarify that Pope Benedict was quoting someone else (who happened to be a Christian emperor talking with a Muslim), but the question is why he would use such a potentially misunderstandable example. Does Benedict give credence to the idea that Muslims have tended to be irrational while Christians were on the side of reason, as his examples suggest?

Perhaps Benedict’s problem is that he is too interested in history. In remembering academic life in his old university he cited a dialogue from about 1391 C.E. (and I do not mean Christian Era) between “the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” Here is the passage that has caused the uproar:

In the seventh conversation [text unclear] edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”.

According to the experts, this 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 Qur’an, concerning 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 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 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… 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…”.

In a quick reading, the kind most people would do (especially in translation), it could be assumed that Benedict agrees with his medieval eastern counterpart’s portrayal of Muhammad as only spreading things “evil and inhuman.” To be fair, he is quoting an emperor under Ottoman siege and one who lived six centuries ago. But the real damage comes in the moral lesson drawn from the anything-but-tolerant statement by the earlier Christian luminary:

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.

But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn [Hazm] 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 practise idolatry.

Beyond the obvious problem that a revered pope repeated this “self-evident” commentary in the current world climate of tension over “Muslim” terrorists, it would be bull no matter who was giving the lecture. Islamic doctrine nowhere teaches that Allah can contradict his own words or divine principles of justice. To say that Muslims worship a God so fickle as to contradict the Quran and force people to worship idols is, to borrow a phrase, beyond belief. It is much closer to “Can God create a boulder so large He could not move it?” If I were that Persian interlocutor six centuries ago, I would want the self-righteous Byzantine emperor to explain how he could believe in a God who would allow his own son to be killed or insist on splitting the one supreme God into three persons of equal divinity. For the record, however, doctrinal debates are poor vehicles for talking about the role of reason.

The irony here is that Pope Benedict is appealing to reason as a necessary balance to faith by using Islam as a foil and ignoring the appalling violent history of the church he leads. All religions are spread by the sword at some point, some more than others. Throughout its long history Christianity has been coerced on people by the sword perhaps more than any other religion. Read Bartholomé de las Casas on the Christian conquistadores who enslaved and butchered hundreds of thousands of native peoples of the Americas. Read the bloody history of Europe itself, where the cross was often used to bludgeon anyone branded a heretic. There have been many violent Muslim rulers as well, so there is little point in weighing which faith has caused the least number of deaths.

The problem with Benedict’s lecture is that it perpetuates two problematic themes: the first is that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity and the second is that religious dogma must always trump scientific reason. His talk is not really about Islam but about the need for reasonable people not to rule out the role of faith. This is a fine platitude, but the critical issue is how to reconcile dogma that asserts its own truth with the reasonable findings of modern science. The Catholic church has absorbed the teaching of evolutionary theory as a method but still gives its faithful the dogmatic right to say that God created a literal Adam out of the mud and Eve from his rib in a real place called Eden. Just as disturbing is the wording of the infallibility plank that makes Pope’s Benedicts remarks more than those of an old man returning to his academic home to give a nostalgic university address. Once again for the record, here is what the church approved over a century ago:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
[from Pastor Aeternus, First Vatican Council, 1870]

Until such thinking is anathema, there can be no appeal to reason.

Daniel Martin Varisco

[This post is also archived on the HNN at http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/29932.html .]