The Fallible Patriarch
Thursday 30 November 2006
Pope Benedict XVI is in Turkey this week on a trip originally planned for the purpose of meeting with Eastern Orthodox
leader Bartholomew, although the world is viewing it as the pope's opportunity to make amends for a speech that caused
great offense throughout the Muslim world.
In that speech, given in September as a lecture at the German University of Regensburg, Benedict quoted the words of a
14th-century Byzantine emperor in dialogue with a Persian Muslim. The emperor told the Persian this: "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."
Benedict used the quote uncritically in the context of berating Islam for a practice of "violent conversion," which he
said is a result of Islam's spurning of reason. Specifically, Benedict said: "But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely
transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
The rest of Benedict's lecture sought to show that Christianity is so imbued with reason, by virtue of its New
Testament connection with Greek thought, that science itself is deficient without resting on the supreme rationality of
Christian faith. It would seem that his main point in the speech was to critique scientific logical positivism and that
the comment about Islamic violence and irrationality was just a launching point for that discussion.
With his poor choice of examples, the Pontiff has engaged in the rhetorical equivalent of playing with dynamite.
A gracious letter in response from 38 Muslim scholars sought to educate the pope on Islamic theology, pointing to the
words of Mohammed that "there is no compulsion in religion." The scholars pointed to Islam's history of tolerance for
other faiths, saying: "Had Muslims desired to convert all others by force, there would not be a single church or
synagogue left anywhere in the Islamic world." They also condemned in the strongest terms the violent reactions of a few
Muslims to the pope's speech calling them "acts of wanton individual violence" and "completely un-Islamic."
Theologian Karen Armstrong said the pope's remarks were "extremely dangerous," and that they "will convince more
Muslims that the West is incurably Islamophobic and engaged in a new crusade." She said that the myth of Islam as a
violent faith is just that - a myth left over from the Crusades. Extremism in the Muslim world today, she said, is a
response to "intractable political problems - oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands ..."
Clearly, Pope Benedict, known as an intellectual, failed to do his homework on Islamic theology. Charged with promoting
peace, he blundered and insulted Muslims for no good reason. Benedict is revealed as only a man, a fallible person with
his own agenda that he pursues imperfectly.
What is that agenda? And why, apart from asking him not to antagonize the volatile Middle East, should the non-Catholic
public care what his agenda is?
Judging by his Regensburg address, we can see that a primary concern of the pope is his notion of reason. He is
concerned that the triumph of science and secularism in the West has unreasonably left faith behind. Elsewhere, he has
called for a return to "natural law," saying that while the Holy See cannot become involved in "partisan political
debates," the Church will always work to uphold natural law. The Vatican concept of natural law includes what most
people call sexual morality. We need to care about the pope's views because the Vatican continues to impose this natural
law on people everywhere, not just Catholics.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI proclaimed that every sex act must be "open to the transmission of life," and the use of
contraceptives was against God's will. This was a huge disappointment to Catholics worldwide, and the majority in the
West began ignoring the directive, while many left the church altogether. The Vatican found this development profoundly
threatening, but instead of moderating its stance on contraception, it only became more rigid.
Some theologians believe that it is the doctrine of papal infallibility, the idea that pronouncements by a pope are as
good as God's word, that makes it impossible for the Vatican to backtrack on contraception. To protect papal authority,
the Vatican has to "stay the course" on birth control, no matter what.
Dr. Stephen D. Mumford, president of the Center for Research on Population and Security, has written about the
Vatican's campaign to influence US public policy on abortion and birth control. He traces the beginning of the Christian
Right movement to the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities issued by the American Catholic Bishops in 1975. The bishops
recruited like-minded Protestants, who eventually became the visible leaders of what was first known as the Moral
Majority and then as the Christian Coalition. This movement's impact on US politics is undeniable. Its latest
manifestation is Bush's appointment of Dr. Eric Keroack as head of federal family planning programs for poor women.
Keroack calls birth control "demeaning to women." Bush's father appointed a similar ideologue to the position, who told
the press, "When it became possible for women to buy contraceptives on their own, men lost their manhood."
"A misogynistic prejudice has pervaded the Church's moral thought down through the ages," wrote Francis X. Murphy, a
priest who reported on a 1981 bishop's synod on the Christian family for the Atlantic Monthly. The synod heard pleas to
modify the Church's ban on birth control from leaders like Bishop Iteka of Tanzania, who said that large families were a
burden that kept his people poor and unable to improve their lives. Archbishop Dennis Hurley of South Africa made the
most challenging statement to the synod:
It is not easy to explain to [couples] that the act of artificially limiting the exercise of one faculty of life is
intrinsically evil, while the act of exterminating life itself is not. For in certain circumstances a person may kill,
as in self-defense or in a so-called just war.
Murphy said that Archbishop Hurley's speech was expunged from the official transcript of the meeting because: "He
touched exactly the weak point in the papal teaching on birth control. Not only is the ban on contraceptives
biologically questionable, but the Church's tolerance of killing a human being in a war or police action ultimately
calls into question the logic of its intolerance of abortion."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict, then ended the session, concluding that consensus had been
achieved on all the issues at hand, "hardly in keeping with the facts," according to Murphy.
This was the Vatican's enforcer of religious doctrine in action, a man who came to be known as "God's Rottweiler."
There is not much evidence of logic, fair play or compassion in Pope Benedict's dealings with families, women and now,
with the Islamic religion itself.
The results of the papal prohibitions on sexual conduct have been clear, if difficult to quantify. Withholding
contraception from the world's vulnerable poor has produced unsustainable population growth, hunger, infant mortality
and maternal deaths from illegal abortions. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 3 million people die from AIDS every year as the
Catholic Church does everything in its power to keep condoms that might prevent the disease out of their reach.
In Turkey, the pope still has not made an apology for his quotation of the Byzantine emperor's remark or for
perpetuating the myth of Muslim irrationality and violence. He called for an "authentic dialogue between Christians and
Muslims" but engaged in no dialogue at his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey's president of religious affairs. When
Bardakoglu told the pope that Western leaders were distorting Islam's message as a religion of peace, Benedict chose to
simply not respond.
The man and the institution are patriarchal to the core. The patriarchal response is always to never back down,
compromise or respond to criticism. This is no way to work for peace.
Whatever opportunities the pope is now squandering in Turkey, he will have an opportunity in the next several months to
save lives by changing the Vatican policy on condoms and AIDS. To his credit, Benedict convened a working group to study
relaxing the ban on condoms for married couples where one partner has AIDS. The group is constructing a logical loophole
in the "every conjugal act must be open to life" dictum based on the fact that AIDS will actually transmit death in a
conjugal act. This will allow African bishops to drop the line that it is better to die of AIDS than to go to hell for
using a condom. Unfortunately the new policy, if Benedict adopts it, will only apply to married partners.
I find Pope Benedict to be a very curious man - an intellectual who worships reason along with faith, who in his zeal
to combine the two, has left compassion behind.
is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears
, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.