Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday 17 September 2006

Pope Benedict on Islam - the controversial speech

I have refrained from any comment so far about the controversy surrounding Pope Benedict XVI in relation to a speech he gave at the University of Regensburg recently. In any case this is a video recording I have found of the relevant part of his discourse, in German, followed by an English translation, of which I do not vouch the accuracy. Before this, the following paragraph gives my own views on the matter.

Whether it was correct, or wise, of the Pontiff to couch his discussion in quite the way he did is a matter for debate. I have no particular love for the Catholic Church (or indeed any other religious faith) and I have railed regularly in this blog about some of the policies espoused by the present Pope and by his predecessor, particularly those concerning his Church's policies towards homosexuals. However, what is in absolutely no doubt whatsoever is that I defend the right of the Holy Father, and those who criticise him for what he said in his recent speech, to express their views freely and in more or less whatever fashion they choose. Even in our Western democracies, of course, freedom of speech is not absolute - one may not falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre with impunity, for example, nor may one make statements deemed to be 'racist', etc. With those provisos, however, I defend the Holy Father's right to say what he likes in the same way that I defend the right of Moslems to make their displeasure known by peaceful means - whatever I may think of the Catholic Church, or indeed the Presbyterian Church, it is absolutely unacceptable for the Pontiff, or anyone else, to be made to feel they cannot express themselves without fear of physical retaliation by those who do not share their views. We cannot allow ourselves to be forced into the position of curtailing our own freedom of expression in order to appease those who object to the expression of such views - similarly, Moslems should be able to express themselves equally openly, provided they do do peacefully and without threat or use of violence. The killing of an elderly Italian nun in Mogadishu (Somalia) may or may not be related to the present controversy involving the Pope (it is a largely lawless country in many parts and may, I suppose, be an unconnected act of barbarity), but if it is in response to the Pope's speech then it is a clear signal of just how great is the threat to the freedom of expression which we cherish and which we must defend.

Controversial speech by Pope Benedict mentioning Mohammed

English version: raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) 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.

It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor.

The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an.

It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.
In the seventh conversation controversy 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...".

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 BBC carries the text of the 'regrets' issued this evening by The Holy See:

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The pastoral visit which I recently made to Bavaria was a deep spiritual experience, bringing together personal memories linked to places well known to me and pastoral initiatives towards an effective proclamation of the Gospel for today.

I thank God for the interior joy which he made possible, and I am also grateful to all those who worked hard for the success of this Pastoral Visit.

As is the custom, I will speak more of this during next Wednesday's general audience.

At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.

These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.

Yesterday, the Cardinal Secretary of State published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words.

I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

Recent divergences of policy within the Catholic Church, since the accession of Pope Benedict XVI to the Papacy last year, are examined here and I must admit that I, to some extent, sympathise with his desire for 'reciprocity' in dealings with other faiths, although I cannot but note that the Pontiff has only recently made some notably hostile comments about the recent change in the law in Spain, by the elected Government of that country, in relation to its marriage law affecting homosexuals; of course the Pope can continue to express his displeasure, if he chooses, but he will have to understand that Spain is a secular democracy, no longer open to be coerced, as might have been the case in previous times, into following at least some of the policies of a Church with which a majority of its citizens evidently now disagree.

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