Posted by: Steve Coplan | September 19, 2006

Bears, woods etc

The last time I checked, the pope was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This would imply to me a certain amount of convinction in a particular doctrine, and by definition one which is exclusive. I’d imagine that you’d struggle to find a Muslim cleric with nothing but kind words for Catholocism. Ratzinger didn’t have much of a reputation as a cultural relativist before his appointment, not unsurprising given that he led the Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei responsible for keeping the clergy ‘on message’ (and which played a prominent role in discouraging ‘liberation theology’). The speech that has generated so much acrimony was remarkably open-minded on the question of commonality of belief and the guiding principle that God is reason (itself a Greek idea via medieval Arab translation via Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas). Judging by this column by the usually impeccable Karen Armstrong, discussing Islam without an in-depth knowledge is tantamount to an insult. I would refer back to my initial observation Ratzinger is the Catholic pope — seems to me that he has plenty on his theological plate already. Much of his speech was devoted to the question of how faith and reason can be reconciled — one which also consumed Maimonides and possibly led to the development of the Kabbalah as anti-philosophy- rather than a direct comparison with Islam.

Equally though, it strikes me as somewhat naive to overlook the potential for the speech to be misinterpreted given that Ratzinger is the pontiff, and the demonization of Islam in the West. Missing from both side’s of the debate (if we can call it that) then is context and perspective. I am not suggesting that Ratzinger should be banned from touching on questions of theology, but he clearly has a bias on the question on the optimal path. On the other hand, even as a man of profound faith, his perspective is framed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and modern philosophy that allows for him to understand the progression of religious ideas. This is not the kind of perspective that those offended by a few lines in the speech muster.

I don’t think Ratzinger should apologize. (Although apparently the Sephardic Chief Rabbi does). But he should elaborate on his comments — starting with making it explicit that the Church was wrong to provide the theological cover and propaganda for the Crusades but equally that past aberrations don’t negate its underlying principles. Offering advice is not tantamount to criticism. Equally, it’s time for Muslims to educate the rest of the world why Islam has taken hold from Senegal to Xinjiang based on a message of humility and compassion rather than one that was developed as a political response to failed states in the Middle East propped up by corruption (and accomplices like the US).



  1. You seem to number amongst the few commenting on the speech having actually bothered to read or listen to it. The overall thrust of the speech sought common cause with all faiths against positivism, so as you say this was Ratzinger in consensus mode – hence the irony of the subsequent uproar.

    “Equally though, it strikes me as somewhat naive to overlook the potential for the speech to be misinterpreted”

    That’s where I’d disagree. I suspect this all was just cock-up. This was Ratzinger speaking before academics at the University where he taught – if he’d really wished to make a profound statement about the nature of Islam he could have surely chosen a more high profile occasion. He obviously wished to juxtapose violence with reason in religion but I think little beyond that. I accept that using an example that cited Islam, might have been calculated to have contemporary resonance and as you say offer advice, but it all seems rather subtle to me – perhaps I’m a little dense. What I’m sure wasn’t meant is the crude and now often repeated interpretation denegrating Islam.

    btw I’m sure the Pope appreciates you allowing him to continue to discuss questions of theology.

  2. I am certainly not in the camp that the comment was meant to cause offense or criticize, but Ratzinger is now on a global stage and his audience is no longer as narrowly defined as it was in his previous position. Of course, that doesn’t justify the degree to which his comment was misinterpreted or the disproportionate response.

    As to your point on my wllingness to indulge the pontiff in matters of theological pronouncements, I’d point out again that the office he now holds imposes restrictions on his latitude in these matters.

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