Saturday, September 16, 2006

Benedict's faux pas

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, recently delivered a classic "rat zinger"* when he gave a speech that included a condemnation of jihad, the Muslim concept of holy war or holy struggle. Benedict's speech cited the words of a 14th-century Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus of the Byzantine Empire: "Show me just what Muhammad 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."

Christianity is hardly in a position to condemn the fusion of violence and faith, and we need not go far back in time to cite Christian failures in that regard. The pope, however, is learning an important lesson about the Muslims his church has been coddling:

Correspondents say Pope Benedict, who has been closeted with his chief advisers at his summer residence near Rome, is upset at the way in which his remarks have been interpreted.

The Vatican is seriously concerned that the protests might develop into violence directed at the tiny city state, says the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

The Muslims who react with anger and violence to the pope's words are, of course, responsible for their own actions: they can choose not to react that way. But the pope isn't helping matters by being socially retarded.

On the one hand, then, you've got an inept pope who has finally tread on the wrong toes. On the other hand, you've got a religion that could be quite a noble thing, but is instead mired in a victim mentality that produces adherents ready to take offense at every misstep made by the Other. I'm tempted to Photoshop some of the more recent pics of Muslim demonstrations against the pope by adding the caption: "We are a religion of peace! Death to Benedict!"

Are you still convinced that interreligious dialogue isn't an important subject? If you're convinced that it is, at least, a comical subject, then you're not far from what many students in religious studies also think.

*I did my grad work at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, back when Pope John Paul II (commonly known as JP2 on campus and elsewhere) was alive and then-Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Ratzinger had a bad reputation among many of the more progressive Catholics; while he was and is an acknowledged Church authority in such matters as scriptural hermeneutics, Ratzinger has never been known as a conciliator. If the cardinal took the time to smack down someone in the ranks, the action was referred to as "a rat zinger."

Ratzinger was the chief force behind the 2000 Dominus Iesus, a CDF document that offended many Jews who had enjoyed something approaching a civil dialogue with JP2 (the Jews were justified in being offended, I thought). Then as now, the Vatican claimed that no offense had been meant. At the time, the followup argument was that Dominus Iesus had been intended for a purely Catholic audience, a claim I found disingenuous at best. Much the same is being said now, as the Vatican's PR machine attempts to emphasize that the pope was trying to highlight the incompatibility of violence and faith. I say the pope has a tin ear, and this incident is consistent with the behavior of the pre-papal Ratzinger.


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