- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The violent reaction of Muslim fanatics and the hysterical response of Western critics to the pope’s remarks at the University of Regensberg speak directly to the central message of his remarks. By subverting the stereotype of Catholic popes as backward and reactionary, it is clear that Benedict XVI fully appreciates the age in which he presides over his church.

True to form, the fanatics now burning (Protestant) churches, issuing death threats and murdering a nun, seem determined to support the view of the 14th century Byzantine emperor who, with “startling brusqueness” (the pope’s term), said that in Islam one “will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Although likely intended to trigger debate, this was not Pope Benedict’s central message. That message was, as he said, a “starting point” for his reflections on the issue of “faith and reason,” which encompasses the entirety of Christian theology and, to a greater extent, humanity.

Much less noticed, but more pivotal for the pope’s argument, was what the emperor further said: “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.” This is the Western heritage, of combining of faith and reason to answer humanity’s most enduring questions, questions that neither faith nor reason alone can answer. “The Biblical faith,” the pope said, early on “encountered the best of Greek thought” and led to a “rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry.” In short, the synthesis of faith and reason “created Europe and remains the foundation of what can be rightly called Europe.” Separate them, and “it is man who ends up being reduced.”

Some Western critics now argue that the pope could have made his point about faith and reason without dragging Islam into it. Apart from the fact that Pope Benedict reserved some of his harshest criticism for those who are not Muslims, the point these nay-sayers miss is that the pope identified himself clearly as someone who appreciates the dark times in which we find ourselves. He is a post-September 11 pontiff. In his predecessor’s time, the lethal threat to the world was communism; Pope Benedict’s calling is stand against Islamic fascists. Yet his solution, barring violence, is for each side — the West and Muslim world — to seek rapprochement.

To have instead ignored this conflict between the West and Islam would have been intellectually dishonest for a man who was a distinguished professor of philosophy before he was a pope. The question Benedict poses to Muslims is this, is the God of Mohammed susceptible to reason? Or is Allah “not bound even by his own word,” as some Muslim scholars suggest? “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably [i.e. with violence and threats] contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?” Before rapprochement can take place, Islam must decisively answer that question in the affirmative.

The pope ended his speech with an invitation to honest dialogue, but on the conditions outlined. To his own flock, he warned of the dangers of “a reason which is deaf to the divine”; to Muslims, a “reason which is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” No one can say whether the world will listen, but the world has now heard.

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