Missing from the Pope

Posted: Sep 20, 2006 12:01 AM
Missing from the Pope

The talk over the weekend concerning the pope's blunder had to do with his under-instruction in diplomacy. Several matters were cited, among them that he had, for lack of intelligent concern, dispatched his principal Arabist to Cairo on a trivial diplomatic mission. The assumption is that if His Holiness had had his ship in order, somebody would have told him that the little paragraph about Islam in his forthcoming speech at the University of Regensburg would bring on a major diplomatic foofaraw.

This dark view of things seemed to be validated by the headlines on Monday, which spoke of an unprecedented "apology" by Pope Benedict for the words he had spoken. Fastidious analysts of course did not find exactly that. What he said was that he was truly sorry for the hurt those words had caused among the Muslim faithful. There is a world of difference between expressing regret and apologizing. One apologizes for something one did and has responsibility for. The Emperor Hirohito could plausibly apologize for Pearl Harbor; everybody else could only express regret over Pearl Harbor.

Substantially lost in the caterwauling was the pope's objective in his speech, which was to bemoan the dissipation of faith and efforts to separate it from reason. The paragraph quoting the Byzantine emperor's words about Islam was intended to remark historical accretions in religion that the pope was deploring as undesirable developments. He might also have remarked the crusading days of the Christian church as a regrettable historical development.

But it is true that the language of Manuel II Paleologus, the 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, could be taken as deploring something the emperor thought ingrained in the Muslim faith. The quoted words were, "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."

For the pope to apologize for reminding the world of sentiments expressed in the 14th century is not the same thing as to deny that the sentiments were germane to deliberations on modern expressions of faith. Here indeed is where the pope had things to say worth listening to by people of every faith, or of no faith. And for all that he regretted citing those words, His Holiness did not pause to examine them.

Examine what?

Examine the question whether much that is being spoken today in the name of the faith by many of the apostles of Islam is to be regretted.

Either a faithful Muslim exhorts the use of the sword to spread his faith, or he does not. The critics of the pope speak as if it were plain as day that such sentiments are deplored by licensed voices of Islam, but of course the matter is not so easily disposed of. If a Christian leader were to pronounce the need to eliminate a country whose religious leaders were dogmatically misled, that leader would be disowned by the larger Christian community. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the leader of a powerful nation in the Middle East who continues to call for the elimination of Israel. And we can't even satisfy ourselves by saying, "Well, our Byzantine emperor had his number, all right!"

The great unanswered question in modern political thought is: Who speaks for Muhammad? To ask this isn't to ask for a direct line to the prophet, let alone to God. It is a temporal question, answered, in Catholic Christianity, by: the pope.

The ugly fact of the matter is that the faith espoused by some very big-time practitioners today is one or another radical variant of Islam. The Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam rules in Saudi Arabia, and an offshoot of it in Egypt. In Iran, the regnant faith is a radical Shiite Islam.

But who is to say, nowadays, what is the authentic voice of the Islamic exegesis? There is no Islamic Council that can speak with authority in these matters. And surely what the pope was attempting to say, or should have been attempting to say, was that behavior of certain kinds has no warrant to excuse itself simply by citing someone's interpretation of the Quran.

But to delve into that question becomes, ironically, more difficult rather than less since the pope's speech at Regensburg, and for this the pope could legitimately apologize.