What did the Pope think he was doing?

Posted: Sep 20, 2006 12:01 AM
What did the Pope think he was doing?

Just what in the world did the pope think he was doing?

For a Catholic like me this last week has been deeply trying to the soul. Pope Benedict cannot apologize for defaming Islam, because he didn't. But he did apologize for the distress of the Muslim faithful, and clarify that the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor (issued before the final Islamic conquest of Constantinople) suggesting Islam's innovations were "evil and inhuman" did not represent his opinion.

Like many ordinary Catholics, I find this surprisingly galling. I have sudden new sympathy for Peter's position in the garden of Gethsemane: Jesus is surrounded by soldiers, and Peter naturally wants to do something about this to prove his courage and his faithfulness, in spite of the clearly overwhelming odds. So Peter pulls out his sword and chops off the nearest guy's ear.

"Put your sword back into your sheath," Jesus orders.

Harrumph. Pope Benedict -- a better Christian than me? Who would have thunk it?

But if a mere speech is worth conducting a worldwide day of anger over (this Friday), passing parliamentary resolutions (Pakistan), making death threats (Great Britain), burning churches (Palestine), issuing supercilious and deeply offensive orders to the pope to apologize for Catholic theology (New York Times editorial board) and slaughtering a nun (Somalia), perhaps it is also worth actually reading and thinking about.

The New York Times in a news story this week (to give credit where it is due) tried to point out that the pope's point was not attacking Islam at all: "The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason."

Oh, dear. Wrong again. What Pope Benedict was trying to say was the exact opposite thought: that in restricting reason to "science" (or that which can be empirically verified through the scientific method), the West risks reducing the "radius of reason" in ways that are dangerous. Why? Because (among other things) we risk relegating almost all the great important questions about human beings to the realm of unreason:

"If science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by 'science,' so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective."

What are the consequences? Ethics and religion become "a completely personal matter," losing "their power to create a community" and ending the very possibility of dialogue between different cultures: "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures." (Postmodernism suffers from the same deficit: If truth is impossible because reality is entirely subjective, what is the point in speaking to one another at all?)

The Byzantine Emperor Manual II (whom Benedict cited) argued: "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."

At the heart of Christianity, drawn by John from the book of Genesis, lies the insistence that God is "logos," or creative reason capable of being communicated. One cannot "dehellenize" Christianity, says Pope Benedict, without doing violence to the faith. The meeting of Jerusalem and Athens was no historical accident: "... they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself."

The alternative to a new synthesis of faith and reason, points out Benedict, is to remove reason from the most urgent questions human beings face, including this one: How do we live together in peace?