The Theology of Regret: Making the Pope Say ‘Sorry’


When will the Pope apologize to the Muslims for those perfectly awful things he apologized for in September, 2006? The case where he quoted (and took exception to) the words of a 14th century Christian emperor who said some rather nasty things about Islam being violent. Where would anyone get such a crazy idea?

During his trip to Jordan, the pope was given low marks by CNN and the BBC for his failure to “apologize” to the Muslim world (or was it Muslim leaders, and who are they?) for his address in September 2006 to the Faculty at Regensburg where he was once Professor of Theology.

To demystify this event (most Muslims know only that the pope is thought to have said something horrible and have no idea of what went on), here is what he said:

“The emperor [Manuel II Pailailogos in 1391] must have known that [Qur’an] sura 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body.”

The pope had said that the emperor’s comments were delivered with “a brusqueness that we would find startling,” but he also points to a little-heeded fact that Manuel seems to have been alert to, and the savvy Rat zinger will not have missed: that Muslim Christian dialogue depends on how the concept of God works itself out in a particular theology. Ever the teacher, and now the only one that matters in the Catholic church, Benedict was not going to let this point get away from his audience.

Despite what you may have read about Crusaders and forced conversions to Christianity, the unanimous position of the western church since the time of Gregory I (7th century) has been that a forced conversion is no conversion at all because it deprives the potential beneficiary of free choice. As the act is irrational (good to be able to bring Aquinas in at this point) it cannot be beneficial. It’s needful to say, the Church did not always stick to its principles and forced conversions of Jews and heretics were an occasional part of the religious landscape of medieval Europe.

But the general point is important: to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to the nature of God as he is understood in Latin theology. Violence is unreasonable as a means of promoting religion.

The pope went on:

“To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. [the Pope then goes on to quote the word of the Byzantine scholar, Theodore Khoury, “For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Muslim R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

I think the pope is onto something, but it’s nothing he can apologize for. He is saying that the concept of God as it has evolved in the Church since the Middle Ages has increasingly merged with the concept of reason. Aquinas’ job at Paris was to theologize about the relationship between reason and faith, and he gets at least an A- for the effort. Using Aristotle to maximum advantage, Thomas reserved faith as mode of “knowing” for those cases where natural reason failed to provide the answer—for example: God can be known through reason because he is rationality itself. The trinity is a mystery accessible only through faith. Yet the mysteries of faith (he thought) were never incompatible with reason.

Some Muslim scholars were on the same path prior to the desolation of Baghdad in 1258 (Aquinas died in 1274), but the fourteenth century brought the beginning of intellectual torpor to the Muslim world. Interesting speculation ends up as an unfinished paragraph

Crouching behind a couple of authorities he obviously admires, the Pope suggested that the Islamic doctrine of God as having a transcendent will makes irrational action possible. It wasn’t an especially modern recognition, just one that needed reiteration, he felt. Nor was this interpretation of Aristotle unique to Muslim scholars. Aquinas sorted through the thorniest of Aristotle’s dilemmas and quieted the radical Franciscan school at Paris—the friars that broke their heads against problems like whether God being God could send righteous souls to hell to exhibit his omnipotence. Thomas hushes them by saying that God can do nothing contrary to his nature, and his nature is infinite reason. Things like power and goodness and knowledge will work in conformity with the divine nature, not contrary to it.

Islam opted for the idea that God’s freedom is absolute, and consequently for the belief that his will is unconstrained by a paltry thing like “reason.” It is what makes irrational behavior like violence possible in a situation—say—where God’s will is known and the means to achieve is force. If God’s revealed will is the domination of Islam over other religions and people, there is little reason to convene a council to ask whether violent action is “reasonable.”

If Christians could say, “Thy will be done–under certain conditions that have to meet the criteria for moral action and reasonable consequences” (which is a good Aristotelian response) the typical Muslim response of “Inshallah”—according to God’s will, is a much more incisive statement. It will happen according to God’s will, only if God wills it.

It is a shame that Professor Ratzinger’s words were attacked because they were considered insulting to Muslims. They were much more dangerous than that

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