Friday, September 15, 2006

Pickin’ a fight

Pope Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he had taught theology, on September 12th titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” has caused quite a stir both in the mass media and in the Muslim world (at least what we learn through the same mass media). Benedict’s lecture, from reports of what I read so far, shows quite evenhandedly that he is clearly aware both of the irrational violence —often in the name of “religion” — in the East and the dehumanizing secularism that is suffocating the West.

Unfortunately, in many quarters of the Muslim community the reaction has been one of threats and violence, in addition to condemnation of his words and demands for a personal apology.

Unfortunately, Benedict's personal journey to his homeland will most likely be remembered for these violent negative reactions in other parts of the world. In his homily at an outdoor Mass in Munich on Sunday September 10, 2006, the Pope taught about Our Lord's reaction of love to the violence he encountered with his own suffering: A reaction and a God we all need...

The world needs God. We need God. But what God do we need? In the first reading, the prophet tells a people suffering oppression that: "He will come with vengeance" (Isaiah 35:4). We can easily suppose how the people imagined that vengeance. But the prophet himself goes on to reveal what it really is: the healing goodness of God. And the definitive explanation of the prophet's word is to be found in the one who died for us on the Cross: in Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, who here looks at us so closely. His "vengeance" is the Cross: a "No" to violence and a "love to the end". This is the God we need. We do not fail to show respect for other religions and cultures, we do not fail to show profound respect for their faith, when we proclaim clearly and uncompromisingly the God who has countered violence with his own suffering; who in the face of the power of evil exalts his mercy, in order that evil may be limited and overcome.

In Morocco, the newspaper Aujourd’hui questioned whether Benedict’s call for a real dialogue between religions was made in good faith.

“Pope Benedict XVI has a strange approach to the dialogue between religions,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “He is being provocative.”

The paper also drew a comparison between the pope’s remarks and the outcry in the Muslim world over unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published around Europe beginning last year.

“The global outcry over the calamitous cartoons have only just died down and now the pontiff, in all his holiness, is launching an attack against Islam,” the newspaper wrote. (Muslim Leaders Assail Pope’s Speech on Islam by Ian Fisher, NY Times, September 14, 2006)

Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist, posted his thoughts to his personal blog on the violent Muslim reaction to Benedict’s lecture: "Anyone Who Describes Islam As A Religion As Intolerant Encourages Violence" : “Basically, Islamic culture is infected with an ethos of rage and hatred, and it needs to grow up and stop being so thin-skinned,” says Jimmy.

I don't agree with Jimmy that Benedict's citation or his original words may have been a "gaffe" (major or minor). Pope Benedict, in my estimation, is simply following the example of the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of whom he is the Vicar of. I think that this is an aspect of Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man, that many —Christians included— give too little reflection on. Christ sought out others for dialogue (e.g. the Samaratin woman at the well and Zacchaeus the tax collector) and "picked fights" with the Jewish leaders (e.g. the Pharisees on many occasions). The direct and clear words of Christ were certainly hard for many to accept when he walked the Earth. His manner of dialogue was equally hard to accept at times. (His public ministry wasn't all a dazzling Sermon on the Mount. He challanged others in so many ways.) Do we expect the reaction of some to the words of his Vicar, Pope Benedict, to be any less easy to accept?

The reaction to the words and thoughts of the Vicar of Christ are certainly externalized in the Muslim world to much a greater degree than in the West where his words and thoughts more often need time to be internalized in those hearts where they are not met with indifference or distraction.

I suppose culture plays not an insignificant factor in these quite different reactions. Nevertheless, human passions always need to be kept in check. Temperance (self-control), along with Prudence, Justice and Fortitude are the cardinal virtues. We hear much about "Justice"— and rightly so— from the Muslim world. I wonder to what degree these other cardinal virtues are given consideration among the adherents of Mohammed?

Update: Saturday September 16,2006: After I read the full (provisional) text of Benedict’s lecture for myself, it seems pretty clear to me that he was not “picking a fight” with Islam. Benedict's citiation may have indeed been a "gaffe." My follow-up post can be found here.

Photo: Benedict XVI at his birthplace, Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, on Monday September 11, 2006 (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)
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