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Those Incendiary Papal Remarks—What Could He Be Thinking?

Despite pools of ink spilled about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks quoting a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who attributed to Muhammad “things evil and inhuman,” like spreading the faith “by the sword,” no one seems to have found out just why the Pope chose that particular passage. It served to introduce his abstruse talk on religion, reason, violence, and Hellenic philosophy before an audience at the University of Regensburg. In the remainder of his talk, the Pope never countered the emperor’s observation.

Under intense pressure from outraged Muslims around the globe, Benedict declared that his remarks did not in any way reflect his personal thoughts about Muhammad or Islam. What, then, did they reflect? Why did he unearth that Medieval text if not to cast aspersions on Islam and Muhammad?

One explanation came inadvertently from National Catholic Reporter writer John L. Allen Jr. in his New York Times op-ed of 9/19. While defending the Pope’s remarks, saying they were not intended as an “anti-Islamic broadside,” Allen acknowledged that the Vatican under Benedict takes a harder line against Islamic extremism, in response to anti-Christian persecution in the Muslim world. Allen noted that the Vatican fears not only Muslim violence against Christians, but also the impact of Islamic teachings. He reported, for example, that the Vatican fears that the teaching of Islam in Italian schools would “give way to a socially dangerous kind of indoctrination.”

Yet, how can the Catholic Church, one of the world’s greatest indoctrinators, dare to accuse another religion of indoctrination? The Catholic Church labors in secular policy-making bodies worldwide to pass laws that endanger Catholic and non-Catholic women alike, women without birth control who die of pregnancy-related causes, of AIDS, of illegal abortion, and women beaten by husbands their priests forbid them to divorce. If that’s not a “socially dangerous kind of indoctrination,” I don’t know what is. And while Benedict calls in his speech for a marriage of reason and faith, it’s worth noting that Catholicism derives its oppressive sexual ethic not from reason, but from a highly questionable reading of “natural law.”

In the same speech at Regensburg, the Pope approvingly quotes the emperor describing why “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” Said the emperor, and the Pope:  “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence or threats… [T]o convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm.” Yet threats are an essential tool of the modern day Catholic Church. Ironically, it was Benedict, then head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who used threats liberally, bringing the wrath of God down on the heads of advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics, ordained Catholic women, and Catholic theologians who dared to challenge the Church’s most controversial teachings.

There are also, of course, the more obvious questions about the Pope’s anti-Muslim remarks. Why highlight only Islam’s defense of violence in the name of religion? Why not also name Christianity’s holy wars fought under the leadership of Popes, under the banner of Christ, to maintain lands as Christian? Why not acknowledge the power of religion in general, particularly when combined with nationalism, to inspire all manner of violence?

And what about George Bush’s unholy war? Some see Benedict’s statement as an act that, wittingly or unwittingly, mirrored Bush’s escalating demonization of Muslims as the world’s evildoers. Indeed, Bush reminds us incessantly that Islamic fundamentalists are evil, their acts are evil, they evilly kill women and children—without ever noting that, so do we.  When asked five years ago to talk to his father before invading Iraq, Bush the younger made clear that he answered to a higher Father. He led us to believe that he had the approval of that higher Father for his preemptive strike on Iraq. Why did the Pope not take that opportunity to condemn Bush’s use of Christianity to rationalize violence on a grand scale?

All arguments to the contrary, among the world’s religions, the Catholic Church of the 21st Century is no more ready for equality, for taking responsibility for its own violence in the name of religion, for calling to task anyone who uses God to defend violence, or for owning up to the dangers of its own brand of indoctrination, than it was in those Medieval times.

As a fallen away Catholic friend of mine observed during the installation of Benedict XVI in 2005, amidst a sea of flowing red robes and those giant red hats: “How can you expect them to change the way they think? They won’t even change their clothes.”

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