Muslim leaders should accept apology -
and look in the mirror
THE REV. RICHARD P. McBRIEN
When Pope Benedict delivered his address last week in Germany, he set out to define his fundamental, deeply held convictions about the role of reason in religion and society. The world's religious cultures, he said, regard the "exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions." Reason and faith must "come together in a new way," he insisted.
These were points worth making, but they have been overshadowed by the highly charged confrontation that has followed the Pope's scholarly address. To understand and evaluate what has led to the anger in the Muslim world, it is important to remember four points:
First, the presentation was an academic lecture, not a speech. I suspect that not a single person who made a negative public comment about the Pope's words had read the full text. Its content is dense and intellectually demanding - too demanding for anyone not schooled in theology, philosophy, history or cultural studies.
Second, the Pope's reference to a colloquy between a 14th century Byzantine emperor and "an educated Persian" on the subject of Christianity and Islam had much less to do with the justification of violence attributed to the Prophet Muhammed than it did with the role of reason in the understanding of faith. Indeed, when the Pope returned to this colloquy in the lecture's concluding paragraph, it was not to reinforce the point about the incompatibility of violence and religion, but to reassert the emperor's point that acting against reason is "contrary to the nature of God."
At the same time, the Pope's inclusion of the colloquy in his lecture did not require the specific reference that was made to the Prophet and the use of violence in the name of religion. If he felt the need to include the reference to Islam and violence, he should also have explicitly acknowledged the major transgressions perpetrated by the Catholic Church against Jews and Muslims alike.
Third, in an informal address given on Sunday, the Pope said that he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages" in his lecture, "considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims."
But this was not simply the conventional form of too many "apologies," which express regret for any offense taken but without assuming responsibility for having perpetrated offense in the first place. The Pope made clear that the quotation from a medieval text did not "in any way express [his] personal thought." It would have been even better, however, if he also had expressed regret for having included the particular reference, especially since it did not really advance his overall argument. The Pope may deserve a B or even a B- for his unprecedented apology, but certainly not a D or an F.
Fourth, the worldwide Islamic community has a major problem that its leading figures have ineffectively addressed. Certainly, most Muslims would never justify the use of violence (whether physical or verbal) in the name of religion, but it cannot be denied that many do, whether openly or tacitly. The enraged reaction to the Pope's lecture is itself a case in point.
What is clearly needed today is exactly what the Pope urged in his lecture: a respect for reason and an appeal to all religious and secular communities to become "partners in the dialogue of cultures."