Prophetic words

The Holy Father’s Sept. 12 address at the University of Regensburg addressed the topic of faith and reason. He reflected on the question of whether the truth of the Hellenistic concept that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature” is confined to that Greek philosophical system, or if it is “always and intrinsically true.”

He went on to describe the way in which the West has moved away from basic Hellenistic principles, giving rise instead to a new, secularized culture in which scientific reason is the only accepted paradigm. Faith, therefore, is becoming marginalized as a source of knowledge.

“The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur ? this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time,” he concluded.

That call for the West to rediscover faith as the cornerstone that will give meaning and strength to modern culture, was the main focus of the pope’s address.

Those words are prophetic. Both secularized Europe and the increasingly secular America should carefully take note of the pope’s message and find ways to correct a trend that will lead to societal decay and, in our view, will weaken the ability of the West to confront the challenges ahead.

To introduce the theme, the pope used a medieval text in which a 14th century Byzantine emperor discusses Christianity and Islam with “an educated Persian.”

This is what the pope said:

“In the seventh conversation 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 Quran, 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 reason for employing that quote, in the context of his address, was certainly not to state that Mohammed’s teachings contained things that were “only evil and inhuman,” but to introduce the emperor’s reflection on faith, reason and violence.

It should be noted that, at the time those words were written, Emperor Manuel II Paleologus was in the midst of an eight-year siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire.

The pope never endorsed the emperor’s assessment of Islam. In fact, at this week’s Wednesday audience, the Holy Father acknowledged again that the quote “unfortunately, has lent itself to misunderstandings.”

“However,” he continued, “to an attentive reader of my text it is clear that in no way did I wish to make my own the negative words pronounced by the medieval emperor, and that their polemical content does not express my personal convictions. My intentions were quite otherwise: on the basis of what Manuel II subsequently said in a positive sense ... concerning the reason that must guide us in transmitting the faith, I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together.”

The pope’s respect for Islam is well documented. The Sept. 17 statement of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, that appears on page 10 of this week’s Pilot gives a clear summary of the pope’s views.

The Holy Father himself reiterated at the general audience his “deep respect for all the great religions, and in particular for Muslims who ‘worship the one God,’ and with whom we are committed to promoting ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity.’”

Reaction in the Muslim world to reports of the pope’s words has been a firestorm of protests that have, unfortunately, included threats to the life of the pope, attacks against Christian churches and apparently the killing of one nun in Somalia.

Catholics can reasonably disagree with the appropriateness of employing such a quote in a papal address. However, whether we agree or disagree with the choice, we should all pray for the Holy Father in this time of trial and for a return to peace and dialogue.