Monday, 18 September 2006

Ratzinger ratchets up the rhetoric

I'm very interested in the election results in Sweden, but I'm going to write about it later this week because the furor over the Pope's comments about Islam is getting more and more interesting and might at any moment explode into something similar to what was seen around the world in reaction to the Danish Mohamed cartoons.

To recap, at a speech last Tuesday in Regensburg, Germany, which was devoted to denouncing science and insisting on a central role for religion in all academic and secular life, the pope formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) made some pretty incendiary remarks about Islam. In making a point about the danger of fundamentalist Islam, the pope cited a quote by a Byzantine Emperor saying that the Prophet Mohammed brought "only evil and inhuman things" to the world. The full quote is below:

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," Benedict said, quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Expressions of shock and anger came almost immediately from throughout the Muslim World, with even officially atheist China saying its Muslim population had been deeply offended. Now Ratzinger has apologized, saying his remarks were taken out of context. The apology is understood to be the first by a pope in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church.

Considering that the pope is God's messenger on earth and is technically infallible according to Catholic doctrine, what does an apology from his holiness mean exactly? Did God screw up when speaking through the pope? Terribly sorry Muslims, God didn't mean to call you 'evil and inhuman,' he was just having an off day. God gets a little cranky if he hasn't had his coffee.

The constant refrain from the Vatican has been that the remark was taken out of context and the media has largely attributed the gaffe to Ratzinger's 'political inexperience,' having come from the world of theologia (does that work? Like academia?) and not having a whole lot of experience in dealing with actual people.

But those of us who have followed Ratzinger's activity through the years know better. This wasn't a short-sighted blunder by a new and inexperienced pope. This was a calculated move by the pope to show his teeth and to signal to the world that the new Catholic Church is on offense.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gotten in on the fun and defended Ratzinger, saying the pope's remarks were misunderstood. But if you actually read the speech in its entirety you see that the quote was perfectly in line with the rest of the content. What exactly was misunderstood? Just because Ratznger was quoting the statement rather than saying it outright doesn't mean he wasn't conveying the same message. In fact, what preceded the statement was something like, "You can see what Emperor Manuel II meant when he said…" Basically the pope's argument in his speech is that Islam is an inherently violent religion which was spread by force and that there is no room for reason within Islam, as opposed to Christianity, which is built on reason.

Just the choice to choose a quote by a Byzantine Emperor made just 200 years after the main crusades, in which Christian Warriors assembled by the pope set out on a quest to kill Muslims simply for being Muslims (hmm…sounds familiar…I believe the modern version of this would be Al-Qaeda, who kill Christians simply for being Christians.)

Before he became pope, Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the person basically in charge of rigidly enforcing church doctrine. Over the years he's been known as "God's attack dog" for his arch conservative views and acid-tongued proclamations. He is especially active in denouncing homosexuality and condom use, and there is little doubt that he intends to steer the church toward an aggressive stance on the issue during his reign.

I'm sure Ratzinger regrets making his statement now. But I have no doubt that at the time he knew exactly what he was saying. In his mind, Christianity is under threat on two fronts by secular and Islamist forces. He intends to aggressively defend the church against its perceived attackers, and that includes an aggressive stance toward Islam. World leaders shouldn't be surprised by this incident, because it is completely within Ratzinger's character. This may have the effect of making him realize he has to tone down his rhetoric, but it won't change his plan. Ratzinger's only getting started.

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