The Geopolitics of Vatican Theology
Joseph Ratzinger may be a great theologian, but Benedict XVI turns out to be a mediocre politician. Or at least, thus went conventional wisdom in the wake of his Regensburg speech on September 12, 2006.1 Addressing “representatives of science” in the German academic world he once belonged to, the new pope chose as his “starting point” a quotation of “startling brusqueness” by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, from a dialogue with “an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both”: “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.”
Admittedly, the arguments of the “erudite emperor,” who kept the record of the discussion, were “given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor,” but in Regensburg, the latter’s response was not even mentioned. Nevertheless, what we know is how numerous Muslims throughout the world reacted to the Pope’s address: with indignation and outrage, and sometimes violence. Not surprisingly, Benedict’s reading of this late-fourteenth-century “dialogue” was interpreted as a commentary on our times: the medieval critique of the “holy war” resonated with the present, all the more so as the speech was delivered on the day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
For most secular commentators, this was a diplomatic faux pas: the Pope should never have expressed so candidly his theological views on Islam. On the other hand, for Vatican spokesmen, it was merely an intellectual misunderstanding: rather than a political discourse about Islam, Joseph Ratzinger was offering “memories and reflections” on “faith and reason” — the real topic of his speech. But in both cases, the suggestion was that theology should not be confused with politics, no more than God with Caesar. But what if we read this speech simultaneously as theology and as politics? After all, there is no reason not to take Benedict XVI as seriously as Joseph Ratzinger, or to assume that the two have nothing in common. In a word, why not understand Vatican theology as Catholic geopolitics?
For the Pope, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” At least, this is how he presents Catholic theology. “But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Hence the suggestion that violence is intrinsic to Islam, but not to Christianity. Of course, the Pope is aware of a surah that reads: “There is no compulsion in religion,” but according to him, it only made sense at a time “when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.” Conversely, if one were to recall the Christian history of the crusades, should the more peace-loving ethos of today’s Catholic Church also be interpreted as a sign of weakness? For the real issue is not historical: it is in the present world that Vatican theology claims to reject the “holy war” in the name of a god whose transcendence remains within the limits of reason.
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- Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Benedict XVI to München, Altötting and Regensburg (September 9 – 14, 2006); Meeting with the Representatives of Science; Lecture of the Holy Father; Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, Tuesday, September 12, 2006 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006), www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi _spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html.