In the Soup: Pope Benedict Gets a Lesson in Irrationality
SoMA’s official Vatican Watchdog championed the Holy Father’s right to wear Prada shoes some months ago. Now she sides with him again, defending his right to free speech.
By Mary Beth Crain
Poor Pope Benny. The little old ex-professor of theology and Vatican dogma expert has spent his life buried in books and encased in an academic environment firmly founded on the precepts of reason and empirical defense of one’s intellectual position. So, when he gave his now notorious lecture, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections,” at his old stomping ground, the University of Regensburg, last Tuesday, he had no idea that he was stepping right smack into a minefield.
The lecture—which, by the way, is as dense as a death-by-chocolate cake but nowhere near as enjoyable—focused on the issue of faith versus reason in one’s attitude toward God, and opened with a 1391 dialogue between the “erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” Benedict explained how the dialogue explored the structures of faith contained in the Bible and the Qur’an, and how the Emperor took issue with the Islamic concept of “Jihad,” or holy war. “Show me just what Mohammed 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,” the Emperor challenged his Persian interlocutor. “The Emperor,” Benedict reflected, “goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
Whoops. That’s where he slipped and fell on a grenade. You could hear the explosion all around the world. In Lebanon, the country’s top Sunni Muslim religious authority denounced the pope’s remarks and Shiite Muslim militants warned of a global religious schism. The grand sheik of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni Arab world’s most powerful institution, condemned Benedict for his “ignorance.” Morocco chided the pope for his “offensive” remarks and recalled its ambassador to the Holy See in protest.
In Iran, faith schools were closed yesterday to give students the chance to join protest rallies against the Unholy Father. Afghanistan’s parliament and Foreign Ministry screamed for an apology, as did the prime minister of Malaysia and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to meet with the pope in Istanbul in November. Needless to say, Benedict ain’t exactly getting the welcome mat at the moment, and Recep curtly replied, “I wouldn’t know” to questions about whether or not the meeting would go forward as scheduled.
Meanwhile, less restrained Muslims took more expressive measures. Palestinians attacked five churches in the West Bank and Gaza. In Somalia, gunmen killed an Italian nun following protests against the pope’s lecture, which seemed to be having the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of getting people to understand and appreciate the importance of reason over irrational violence, his little speech incited global wrath, and with it, global sharpening of knives. There have already been threats against the Pontiff’s life, and papal security has been beefed up. Threatening the pope’s life? He’s so small and frail and old! Even though I don’t agree with 99% of his medieval beliefs, I still think he’s cute. I watched him for hours on ETWN, where they broadcast his trip to Germany, and I loved his sweet little smile and the beautiful way he speaks German. He made me want to cook him chicken soup and make sure he gets tucked in at night. Assassinate Pope Benny? Shame on them!
The out-of-control reactions of his detractors must truly have astonished Benedict, primarily because they never would have made it to first base in the good old Akademische Deutschland of Joseph Ratzinger’s time. So crude, so rude, so emotional. Had his critics been going for their doctorates, they’d have been thrown out on their Muslim tushies—not because they were Muslim but because they were illogical in their thought processes. If you’ve got an argument, debate it politely. Arm yourself with facts, not guns. If I’m not mistaken, in the good old days when Ratzinger got his doctorate at the University of Munich, he not only had to write a thesis that made the telephone book look fascinating—he had to defend it publicly in front of a robed and white-wigged academic tribunal. That’s the way they did it in the 12th century, and knowing the Germans, it’s probably still that way today.
So I fully believe the Vatican spin team when they insist that the pope meant no offense, and that his lecture was intended as a reflection on “the relationship between religion and violence in general, and concluded with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come.” And I believe that even though he didn’t retract his words, Benedict’s subsequent apology—“I am truly sorry for the reactions caused by a brief passage of my speech that were quotations from a medieval text that do not express in any way my personal opinion”—was sincere. He was only giving an academic paper, for God’s sake. Literally. He was defending God as a being of reason, and even if Our Lord himself needed a translator to get the gist of Benedict’s stuffy text, I’m sure He wouldn’t have had a problem with its basic thesis.
Of course, it does smack of denial, sanctimoniousness or amazing ignorance to pass over the fact that Christians have lived by the sword since forever. After all, Islam doesn’t have the Crusades and the Inquisition—to name just a couple of holy bloodletting exercises—on its conscience. And since when has reason ever triumphed over emotion where religion is concerned? It’s astonishingly naïve to even entertain the possibility that the entire world can sit down, like good scholars at Regensburg U, and think things through calmly, peacefully, rationally. Can’t you just see Osama or Nazrallah or President Abinadina-whoever pulling up a chair with Ehud Olmert and discussing their views with precision-like clarity over tea? And then congratulating each other on a fine defense of their theses? That might be standard Teutonic protocol but sorry, Pope Benedict, it just doesn’t fly where madmen are concerned. When it comes to religion, insanity is far closer to faith than reason.
It’s a sad fact of today’s increasingly illiterate and fundamentalist world that people have lost their powers of critical thinking, More and more “holy rollers” of all cultures and faiths are relying less on intelligence and more on belligerence to get their views across. If I had a buck for every jerk who shoots off a nasty, ignorant comment to SoMA without reading the article he or she is lambasting—or totally misreading it—I’d be rich, all right. And I’ll never forget a humorous piece I wrote for the L.A. Weekly, on the Best Phantom Islamic Restaurant in L.A. Apparently there was this wonderful Islamic restaurant, only nobody could seem to remember just where it was. Well, one Sunday morning I received, at home, an ominous phone call from a deep-voiced anonymous caller who insisted, in a threatening, distinctly Mideastern accent, that I publicly apologize for my insult to Islam. When I tried to explain that it was a funny piece about a restaurant that happened to be Islamic, not a funny piece about Islam, the caller replied, “Islam is not a joke!”
I wanted to scream, “You asshole! You can’t even read, let alone think! Don’t you dare call me ever again!” But realizing that if he got my phone number, he could just as easily get my address and blow me away, I calmed him down and made sure we printed an apology in the next issue of the Weekly.
So here’s my advice to Pope Benedict: When you’re dealing with fundamentalist maniacs, hon, save your ass and not your intellectual honor. Be extra careful in your choice of words, get plenty of rest, have a bowl of chicken soup at bedtime, and say your prayers. Then, leave the rest to a God of reason, who’s probably still trying to figure out where he went wrong when he created us.
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was Death, Where Is Thy Stingray?
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