The Pope can invoke as many “I didn’t mean its” as he wants but no one believes that this most articulate and scholarly man did not understand the import and meaning of what he was saying last week in Germany. Having delivered more than a few speeches in my day, I know that, while one can easily go astray extemporaneously, quotes are always intentional. So Benedict’s disclaimer is simply not credible. Nor is the idea that this was the misstep of a neophyte Pontiff. After all, this particular Pope was not plucked out of obscurity, a surprise candidate like John Paul had been in an earlier conclave. He was a Vatican man through and through and among those closest to his predecessor. There is little question that he advised John Paul on what pronouncements to make and it would not be surprising to learn that he helped him draft some of his later papal speeches. So he knows well what the Papacy is and what is expected from the leader of 1 Billion Catholics around the world – a constituency far greater than any of the world’s political leaders from whom we expect so much.
“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.” “These (words)”, professed the Pope today, “were in fact a quotation from a Medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought.” Right. Well why incorporate them in a talk, why most especially in this highly charged environment? The fact is that the Pope has done a great disservice to the dialogue between the world’s faiths and, while it may be presumptuous for a non-Catholic to say so, to his own. In a sense, joining our own President who talks of a war of ideologies, he has only underscored and reminded us of the very negative role that religion is playing as a root cause of multiple conflicts across the globe. In an environment of “my way or no way” Pope Benedict presents himself with these comments, as in the flow rather than a calming force one might hope him to be. If he had made similar comments about Jewish tradition, I would feel no less incensed than are Muslims all over the world.
Benedict of course professes deep respect for Islam, “some of his best friends…” But such expressions of tolerance can seem hollow when the leader of a competing religious ideology calls your revered founder a proponent of evil. The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, religion is earning itself a bad name in our time when the most terrible things are being done “in the name of God”. Perhaps it is unfair to paint religion as a whole with that brush, but in the eyes of many it is a perception that is becoming increasingly hard to deny. Religious leaders will be quick to point out, and probably rightly so, that all the trouble is coming from the extreme. Perhaps it can be attributed to a bad seed, but that doesn’t change the reality that it’s a religious seed even if gone awry. Is it any wonder that only a tiny fraction of Catholics in the Pope’s homeland attend Mass with any regularity as is the case throughout Europe (including Italy where the Vatican is seated) and in the United States? And Catholics are not alone in this regard. Pews stand empty at Sabbath services in both Protestant churches and in synagogues. What are we to think when in word and deed people who profess faith do such terrible things or, in this case, invoke such intolerant ideas?
The world is in deep trouble and with it so is religion. Colin Powell suggested the other day that the United States was in danger of losing its moral edge when it comes to combating terrorism. Religion is not helped when its leaders by inference suggest superiority and a “my way is the only valid way”. Perhaps he didn’t mean it, but Genie is out of the box. What may be even worse is the charade of hiding behind a quote, attributing its sentiments to someone long dead and disingenuously pretending to disown it. Sadly, in this atmosphere none of us, whatever our religion or lack of it, will be the better for it.