Bret Stephens: Pope Provocateur

Roundup: Media's Take

Five days: That's how long it took Pope Benedict XVI to express regret for all the offense caused by his speech last week at the University of Regensburg, in his native Bavaria. But maybe his apology -- on Sunday, he said he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages in my address" -- was as sly as the speech itself.

That speech deserves to be read in its totality, and not simply as the spark that set fire to churches across the West Bank because some Muslim fanatics object to the suggestion that there is too much violence in their religion. And yes: Contrary to nervous Vatican disclaimers, Benedict plainly implies that Islam is a faith of the sword, though he makes the point abstrusely, in the form of an anecdote about the late-14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus.

But that is neither the central theme of the address nor the main purpose of the anecdote. Benedict begins by recalling his own days as a professor at the university, when every semester faculty members from every department would convene before the student body, "making possible," he says, "a genuine experience of universitas." He goes on to note that the faculty included believers and unbelievers alike: "This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: It had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist -- God."

That is the immediate prologue to the story he tells about a conversation between the "erudite" Byzantine emperor and an "educated Persian" in the winter of 1391. In it, the emperor condemns the notion of holy war, calling it "evil and inhuman." This is the line in the speech that inspires the current controversy. Yet the emperor's point -- and the Pope's -- is that "God is not pleased by blood. . . . Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats."

This story, and Benedict's personal recollections that precede it, have something in common: Both involve dialogue between men of radically different beliefs. The dialogue is possible, Benedict suggests, because despite their differences the respective sides are bound by a "single rationality," capable of inquiring broadly into all fields of knowledge, including the "reasonableness of faith." The more important point for Benedict, however, is that genuine dialogue is possible only if there is a shared conviction among the speakers that the alternatives to dialogue -- violence, forced conversion and so on -- are "contrary to God's nature."

These reflections lead Benedict to a much graver indictment of Islam: "For Muslim teaching," he says, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Citing the 11th century polymath Ibn Hazm, Benedict adds that in Islam, "God is not bound even by his own word."

Let's play that again, since the rest of the media failed to notice: Pope Benedict suggests that the God of Mohammad is, or may seem to humans to be, "not even bound to truth and goodness." Who knows whether that really reflects a consensus view down the ages among Muslim theologians -- Benedict makes his case about Islam by citing one scholar who cites another scholar who cites another. The more interesting question is why Benedict goes out of his way to use Islam as an example, since he also warns against similar tendencies toward insisting on God's radical "otherness" within the Catholic tradition itself. So why can't he simply illustrate the controversies of faith without going outside the boundaries of his own?...

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