Benedict XVI: God's not-so-infallible Rottweiler taking aim at Islam Print E-mail

London -- Saturday September 16, 2006

After a quiet first year as pontiff, God's Rottweiler shows his teeth

Pope believes his church should take tougher line on Islam [Scroll down to read: Papal fallibility]

John Hooper in Rome

The anniversary of Pope Benedict's election in the spring focused a question that had been forming in the minds of Vatican-watchers throughout his first 12 months: "What happened to God's Rottweiler?"

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican ministry that once ran the Inquisition - Joseph Ratzinger had done a fine job for Pope John Paul of intimidating the thinkers of the Roman Catholic church into sullen conformity.

But since he emerged on to the balcony of St Peter's basilica after his election in April 2005, the guard dog seemed to have become a pussycat - a benign old gent with a harmless taste for anachronistic headgear and a habit of boring his audiences with abstruse theological discourse.

The German commentator Wolfgang Cooper had cautioned before Benedict's election that the new Pope was an academic who "prefers intellectual discussions". And, indeed, by the time the papal jet touched down near Munich last Saturday, Karol Wojtyla's snappy soundbites were no more than a fond recollection in the collective memory of the Vatican press corps.

On the day he uttered the phrases that have prompted such uproar in the Muslim world, Pope Benedict celebrated an open-air mass. How did he try to reach out to the crowd? Initially, by talking about the medieval theological compendiums known as summae - not exactly a topic of burning currency in pious, rural southern Germany.

It is tempting to see the Pope's controversial reference to a 14th century Byzantine emperor in the same light - as the gaffe of an other-wordly intellectual who does not stop to think that his words are going to be seized on by journalists.

However, he more or less apologised in advance for the "startling brusqueness" of the emperor's remark that Muhammad brought "only evil and inhuman" things. That suggests he was fully aware of the impact it could make.

What is more, it is clear from the passage that followed that the Pope fully supports, if not the emperor's language, then certainly his underlying contention - that holy war is at odds with reason.

There are two further motives for thinking Benedict is ready to upset the believers in other faiths rather than shrink from what he believes needs to be said (or not said).

First, he has done it before. At Auschwitz, in May, he appalled many Jews by passing up what they saw as a historic opportunity for a German pope to apologise for the Roman Catholic church's conduct in the second world war. The second factor is that Pope Benedict has signalled clearly that he favours a tougher line in his church's dealings with Islam.

The key word in the Vatican now is "reciprocity". The leadership of the Roman Catholic church is increasingly of the opinion that a meaningful dialogue with the Muslim world is not possible while Christians are denied religious freedom in Muslim states.

One of the Pope's earliest personnel moves was to send Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Vatican's leading expert on Islam, to Cairo as the Holy See's envoy to the Arab League. The department he left behind, the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, has been absorbed into the Vatican's "culture ministry".

That reshuffle is one of several major changes effected by Pope Benedict. With what, for the Vatican, is uncharacteristic haste, he has put new men in several top jobs including the secretariat of state. He has set a new agenda for the Vatican whose new concerns include not only relations with the Islamic world but also a redoubled attempt to heal the breach with Orthodox Christianity and a drive to assert the role of God in the processes of creation and evolution.

At the same time - and in contrast to the approach of his predecessor - Benedict has begun to deliver on his pledge to drive the "filth" from the church. In May, in a singularly public and humiliating manner, he disciplined one of the church's most influential priests, the head of the Legionnaires of Christ movement, who had been accused of sexual abuse.


 London -- Saturday September 16, 2006

Papal fallibility


The Pope perhaps did not imagine that an erudite lecture delivered to the university where he once taught that included a reference to a dialogue between a 600-year-old Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim would become the latest spark to reignite the tension between Islam and Christianity. But even if Benedict XVI, despite his reputation for meticulous preparation, had failed to appreciate the impact of his thoughts, his advisers should have. Urbane and intellectual as he is said to have been, Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425) was hardly an impartial observer of Islam. As a boy, he had been held prisoner by the Turks, and his dialogues took place as his inheritance lay in jeopardy to the Ottoman empire, and his capital under siege. No academic impartiality lay behind the assertion, repeated by the Pope in his lecture in Regensburg earlier this week, that all that was new in Muhammad's thought was "evil and inhuman", citing conversion under threat of the sword as an example. The Pope used this to kick off a discussion of God and reason rather as a parish priest might casually preface his Sunday homily with a reference to the storyline of EastEnders. It is unsurprising that it caused offence.

There might have been less protest had Benedict a clearer record in favour of dialogue with Islam. As a cardinal in the Holy See, he was known to be sceptical of John Paul II's pursuit of conversation. One of his earliest decisions as pope was to move archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, one of the Catholic Church's leading experts on Islam, and head of its council on interreligious dialogue, away from the centre of influence in Rome, and send him to Egypt as papal nuncio. Benedict has spoken publicly of Christianity as the cornerstone of Europe and against the admission of Turkey into the EU. But he has also accepted an invitation from Turkey's president to make the first-ever papal visit in November. That visit, which could have been a symbol of his commitment to the reconciliation and respect between religions of which he has also spoken, may now be at risk. The Pope has lived a cloistered life, rarely exposed to the unholy nuances of world politics. He needs advisers around him who are. However, the Vatican has apologised. That should be enough for what was almost certainly nothing more than an ill-judged remark. For there is a second strand to this argument. There cannot be dialogue without rigor and openness. The Muslim world should also take pains to be thoughtful in its response, and perhaps less quick to take offence.