The speech that Pope Benedict XVI gave at his old stomping grounds last week continues to reverberate in unexpected ways, like the last note of a Bach fugue played by a ballpark organist on loan from the nearest cathedral. I do not mean that the reaction among radicalized Muslims comes as a surprise. By now even the most jaded news consumers realize that protest signs are as common in the Muslim world as shaving razors are in ours.
The Olympian stupidity of some commentators is also predictable enough to sound almost comforting. These are people who explore the limits of that old Forrest Gump line about life being like a box of chocolates, except that with them, you always know what you’re going to get. One wrote that the pope had asked us to distrust reason, which is plainly and viciously — how to put it? — “bass ackwards.” Another proved that research is not his strong suit by calling the speech a “temporary lapse of infallibility.” A third pundit filled radio time on San Diego’s Air America affiliate complaining that the world has grown more divided “because the pope can’t keep his mouth shut.”
None of those reactions is as puzzling as the cool response to the pope’s language from some popular Catholic bloggers who don’t usually line up with wire services like Agence France-Presse or iconoclasts like Christopher Hitchens.
Recall that in a lecture on the necessity of reasonable faith rooted in the revealed character of God, the pope quoted a medieval Christian ruler whose capital city was besieged by followers of Mohammed. That emperor asserted, with what the pope called “startling brusqueness,” that the only novelties to which Mohammedans could lay claim were negative, not least because they saw nothing wrong with spreading their faith by the sword. One does not have to agree with that Byzantine emperor to understand why he might think that way. Christopher Orlet provided readers of this publication with welcome historical context just the other day. Moreover, as the Archbishop of Denver reminded his flock last month, without jihad, there would have been no crusade.
A SURPRISING NUMBER OF CATHOLICS think the pope should not have quoted someone so blunt. They would have preferred a diplomatic paraphrase. Mark Shea, for example, was grateful to Benedict XVI for lamenting “de-Hellenization” in a public conversation about faith and reason, and certain the pope had said nothing untrue. Nevertheless, he was also sure that the pope’s choice of material was needlessly reckless.
James Akin agreed with Shea, pointing to the same passage as “inflammatory,” and suggesting in view of the upcoming papal visit to Turkey that it might be a rhetorical gaffe serious enough to get Benedict killed.
Sherry Weddell, the co-director of a program that trains lay Catholics to be modern-day apostles, reminded me that the pope is smart enough to have made his point about the evil of religious violence without quoting obscure Byzantine emperors to do so. Seconding that opinion, a law professor argued that by opening a “frank conversation on the historical use of force by Muslims in spreading their faith,” the pope had done the world a service “in an imprudent way.”
It falls to the rest of us to decide whether the pope should be taking friendly fire for what he said in televised remarks to that university audience.
My answer is no. To assume that the pope was needlessly provocative is to surrender in advance. Under the white hair and behind the grandfatherly eyes, he’s still the man who once had a bear on his coat of arms, and still the man once described by his enemies as “God’s Rottweiler.” That the Rottweiler has since become a “German Shepherd” is poetic justice, because although his older brother worries about his heart, the ursine and canine imagery fit Benedict’s intestinal fortitude.
Some critics see the recent murder of a Catholic nun at SOS Kindergarten Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia as proof that part of the pope’s lecture was irresponsible. It should give them pause that the order of nuns to which Sister Leonella Sgorbati belonged does not fault the pope’s lecture for her death. And it should give all of us pause that Sister Sgorbati had a bodyguard, who was also shot and killed.
How many nuns have you met who needed bodyguards? It’s safe — and sad — to say that Sister Sgorbati recognized the hazards of working in a Muslim country.
Moreover, as Daniel Johnson pointed out in a masterful column for the New York Sun, Benedict is the first pope elected since September 11, 2001. Johnson also noticed that “Benedict believes passionately that people of faith in general, and Catholics in particular, must either fight for their corner in the intellectual arena or shut up shop.”
WHAT, THEN, SHOULD SUCH a man have done while fulfilling his pastoral duties? To decry any link between violence and religion without mentioning Islam is possible, but sooner or later, the elephant in the room must be named, and the 79-year-old pope is quick to do that sort of thing. In fact, if you look past the manic energy unique to the younger man and the obvious limitations of any metaphor, Benedict is to theology what the late Steve Irwin was to biology. Both men are or were known for confidence, competence, enthusiasm, and teaching ability. Both could have served honorably as caretakers (Steve of the Australia Zoo received from his parents, and Benedict of the pontificate he hadn’t wanted), but each set about leaving a mark instead.
The thundering sermon that Benedict preached against relativism just before being elected pope is well-known. Fewer people remember how that sermon was of a piece with the way that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stunned Vatican bureaucrats by writing against “filth in the priesthood” in a published meditation for Good Friday.
He has now posed a question that Amy Welborn ably summarizes as “a point of clarity for the Muslim world,” namely “Can you explain how the expressions of Muslim law, as lived out in your societies, are consistent with other teachings of your own religion, not to speak of thinking about basic human rights, which the rest of the world has arrived as via…you know…centuries of…reasoned thinking?”
If the only response to that from Muslim authorities is that it is rude even to ask such questions, then the reciprocal respect for which Benedict works as a way to interfaith peace becomes harder to maintain. And while it’s true that secular Western journalists typically shift from “theology is hard” to “let’s you and him fight,” it is also true that were it not for the hook of that the provocative medieval quote in Benedict’s lecture, very few people would still be reading or thinking about the important issues that the pope raised.