Pope Benedict XVI Courts Political Controversy

Truth, famously, is the first casualty of war; in a religious flare-up, the prime victim seems to be context. In a talk he gave on Sept.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 2, 2006

Truth, famously, is the first casualty of war; in a religious flare-up, the prime victim seems to be context. In a talk he gave on Sept.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 2, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI Courts Political Controversy

Truth, famously, is the first casualty of war; in a religious flare-up, the prime victim seems to be context. In a talk he gave on Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI, leader of a church that once embraced the sword with outright enthusiasm, briefly sideswiped Islam for the same sin, quoting a medieval Christian who denounced the Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman" in favouring forcible conversions. Not to be outdone in the unintentional irony department, Tasnim Aslam - who as foreign ministry spokeswoman for Pakistan, a country under intense criticism for its friendly relations with the Taliban, was probably glad of the distraction - responded that "Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence." A Turkish official likened Benedict to Hitler and Mussolini, while an Anglican vicar (of all people), in an argument as difficult to follow as Benedict's, castigated the Pope for bringing "a whiff of Christian triumphalism" to his remarks by merely citing a Christian emperor in what is now Muslim Istanbul.

In the cartoonish manner of last winter's cartoon crisis, half-hearted apologies have since been issued - and rejected. (Benedict, 79, may despise contemporary moral relativism, but that didn't stop him from issuing a thoroughly modern "I'm sorry if anyone was distressed by my comments" statement of contrition.) Polemicists of all stripes have weighed in, including the theologians of al-Qaeda, absurdly implying that their centuries-old religious traditions have always had clean hands - at least in comparison to those guys. And the war of words has been matched by protests and violence in the Islamic world, though less than over the Danish artists: Benedict burned in effigy, seven churches attacked in Gaza and the West Bank, and an Italian nun shot dead in Somalia - an act for which no one has yet taken responsibility. Meanwhile, the background to Benedict's remarks - what he meant to say about what he considers one of the burning issues of the day, and why he may have said it as he did - seems almost lost in the uproar.

The lecture was delivered by the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger during a visit to his home country of Germany at the University of Regensburg, where he was once a professor of theology. "It was a typical Benedict speech, oscillating between serene and somnambulant," notes Vatican watcher Michael Higgins, president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, "one that looked at the state of the Christian world - which to Benedict means Europe - and offered a diagnosis."

It turned out to be a diagnosis no less feisty than the one he had offered a group of visiting Ontario bishops four days before. "In the name of 'tolerance,' " he told the Canadians, "your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of 'freedom of choice' it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children." Same-sex marriage and abortion were not Benedict's only concerns. The Pope also issued a stern call to duty for "Christian civic leaders." They must cease "yielding to ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of opinion polls. Democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person," he continued. "Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle."

Nor is Canada the only country that Benedict has put on notice during his 17-month-long pontificate. Last July, during a brief visit to Spain - the fourth country after the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada (all with large Catholic populations) to have legalized gay marriage - the new Pope said much the same to that country's bishops. And backed it up by preaching to large cheering crowds that "the family, based on the indissoluble marriage of a man, and a woman," is the only proper basis for a society.

But at Regensburg he had bigger issues than sexual morality on his mind. Benedict's European focus is central to his concerns. He is the first western European pontiff in a generation, and no successor to St. Peter could like what he sees in the former heartland of Christendom - a generally post-religious society where Islam, the ancient rival, is the fastest-growing faith. His address concentrated on what is known to Catholic theologians as de-Hellenization, the perceived removal of reason and philosophy from religion, leaving an emotional core of irrational, even anti-rational belief. For the Eurocentric pope, who is far less focused on the Third World, for instance, than his predecessor John Paul II, it was in Europe that "Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East" - by this Benedict can only have meant the emergence of the Bible and Jesus Christ himself in Jerusalem - "finally took on its historically decisive character."

And who would be so un-Christian (and un-European) to uncouple reason and faith? Protestants, for one, who were the main targets of criticism in the speech. The Reformation drive to return to the literal word of Scripture, banishing all the medieval Catholic Greek-derived metaphysics, impoverished their brand of Christianity by divorcing reason and faith. And also modern secularists, who insist faith is subjective, relative and unworthy of a place in the universities or public discourse. The tragic result, according to the Pope, is that by remaining silent on the great questions of life, death and meaning, "it is man himself who ends up being reduced" by the exclusion of faith.

Mainstream Catholic theology to its core, succinctly expressed. But, having positioned traditional Western opponents on either flank - scientific secularists and fundamentalist Protestants - Benedict also opened a third, Islamic front in the reason wars. To make his basic point about the immorality of coercing assent to religious belief, the Pope quoted from a 1391 conversation between a Persian Muslim scholar and Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, ruler of an ancient Christian realm that within decades would be extinguished forever by Islamic Turks. At one point in their conversation, Benedict recounted, Palaeologus turned to the Persian and said "somewhat brusquely" - the Pope's sole concession to the harsh words that followed - "Show me just what Muhammad 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." The emperor, Benedict explained, as a "Byzantine [Christian] shaped by Greek philosophy," knew that force and reason were incompatible, that God is reason. Islamic theology, the Pope went on to imply - without flatly stating it - places such emphasis on God's transcendence as to preach that he is not bound by reason and can demand irrational acts from his believers.

Why would the current occupant of the Vatican, the original home of make-no-waves diplomacy, make such a statement in a time of heightened cultural and religious tension? For supporters, like Quebec's Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Benedict's reasonable comments have been blown out of proportion by Islamist groups with a stake "in politicizing the situation." For Higgins, however, there was nothing innocuous about the pontiff's words, and the only possible answer to why he said them is gross stupidity: "The Pope goofed big time." Normally a papal speech is vetted by high officials, says Higgins, who stresses the complete lack of diplomatic experience possessed by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, Benedict's friend and new secretary of state, responsible for the Vatican's foreign relations. "I have to believe that if an experienced cardinal had seen this address, the reference would never have gone through." Even Benedict himself may not have realized, Higgins generously allows, that as Pope he no longer gets to make airy theological speculations, at least not without intense media scrutiny.

But forget the political mistake; for many aghast onlookers, it was a moral error as well, one that transgresses even a child's grasp of basic Christian ethics. "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" (Matthew 7:3) is one of the most familiar sayings of Jesus in all of the New Testament. Benedict could have broached the topic of spreading the faith by the sword, says Higgins, by denouncing past violence in his own tradition. "Perhaps by mentioning the conquistadores or the Christian sacking of Constantinople in 1204 that left it so weakened before its Muslim enemies; why not start there, with a decent expression of papal humility, and then, if necessary, go on to the other fellow's sins?"

But others aren't so sure about the simple mistake explanation. For many observers - pro and con - Benedict is simply too intelligent and experienced to have been unaware of what he was risking. Before the Pope's address, his senior officials were telling the media that it would prove a "defining" statement for his 17-month-old pontificate. For those troubled by what his remarks might be defining, Benedict's identification of Europe and Christianity is bound to make him more hardline, if not actively hostile, toward Islam than John Paul II, who was far more concerned with Europe's Cold War fault lines.

And although the Pope's apology five days after the fact stressed that the emperor's words "do not in any way express my personal thought," Benedict nonetheless has "form," as a British critic put it, on the hawkish front. Less than a year before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger - reflecting his view that Europe must struggle to retain its Christian identity - spoke out against Muslim Turkey joining the European Union. Moreover, Benedict can count on tapping into what John Allen, Vatican-based columnist for the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, says is a "desire for a more muscular stance towards Islam that has been building in Catholicism for some time."

Persecution of Christians in the Islamic world, such as the Feb. 5 slaying of Italian missionary priest Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, Turkey, keeps concern about Islamist violence alive. In the midst of the cartoon crisis, a 16-year-old Turk shot Santoro, while shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great"). The lack of reciprocal freedom of worship between the two faiths also stings. The Saudi royal family contributed US$50 million to build Europe's largest mosque in Rome, Allen notes, but Christians cannot build churches in Saudi Arabia. Recently, one of Benedict's closest advisers, Bishop Rino Fisichella, declared it was time to "drop the diplomatic silence" about anti-Christian persecution. Benedict may well have done just that in advance of his scheduled November visit to Turkey, now itself endangered by the controversy.

As for his political message to this country, Canadian supporters were quick to echo the idea that Catholic politicians must fall in line with Catholic teaching. That's a potentially explosive demand when Parliament is expected to revisit this fall the same-sex marriage question, a concept Benedict clearly considers a wrong almost as grave as abortion. Speaking in Edmonton last week, Cardinal Ouellet said faith cannot be cast aside in the decision-making process. "I think it is important to remind our politicians that the Constitution of Canada in its preamble says Canada is founded on values that respect the supremacy of God and of the law." The country, therefore, not only deserves legislation that protects marriage as "an institution of the Creator," said the cardinal, but also laws that "are more respectful of human life from beginning to end."

Fred Henry, the outspoken bishop of Calgary, said God's teachings demand that the Church take a political stand. "The Gospel has public implications, because defending the inalienable dignity and infinite value built into human beings by their Creator is a public matter," he wrote in an open letter to the faithful recently. A year of same-sex unions has already had "adverse" effects on society as a whole, said Henry, citing gay adoptions, changes to school curriculum, and requirements that "the homosexual lifestyle must now be treated as wholesome and legitimate, when in reality, it is unwholesome and immoral."

But, like everyone else, Benedict and the other bishops had best be careful of what they wish for. Several Catholic MPs who voted for gay marriage did so not in the teeth of their faith but precisely because their religion guided them to that decision. "It was said that I voted for same-sex marriage in spite of my faith," says Tony Martin, 58, the NDP member for Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "In fact, that vote flowed out of my faith." Martin was well aware of his church's position: he had been alternately lobbied and harangued by those opposed to the legislation, while sympathetic parishioners voiced concern for his place in the Church. In the end, he turned to the themes of the Second Vatican Council, whose outcomes served as a beacon to him and many Catholics of his generation. "It was all about tolerance, openness to the world and social justice," he says. "Those were the principles that guided me."

Fellow NDPer Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) admits he was conflicted - "I'm conservative in my views of what marriage is" - but cast his mind back to his days as a Catholic school trustee, when he and fellow board members defended minority rights as a matter of Church teaching. "To be the champion of majority rules," he says, "opens the door for other protected rights to be taken." Joe Comartin (NDP, Windsor-Tecumseh) relates his position to the very underpinnings of Christian tradition. "You ask yourself that age-old question, what would Christ do?" he says. "What my faith had taught me was his love for humanity was an absolute fundamental, in many respects overriding all other considerations." In short, it was hard for Comartin to imagine Jesus frowning on same-sex couples prepared to commit to each other for a lifetime. So like Angus and Martin, he voted yes.

All three say they are at peace with their decisions. But since that divisive vote two years ago, each has suffered the pains of religious pressure. In the end, each member navigated the moral and political minefield in his own way. Martin quietly and voluntarily quit doing readings at his church for fear of stirring anger in an otherwise peaceful parish. "I later learned there was a group from the Knights of Columbus who were prepared to walk out if I got up to read," he says. "I didn't want to be the cause of any discord." On orders from the local bishop, Comartin was told he and his wife could no longer teach church wedding courses, which they'd been doing for years. Angus, meanwhile, was outright denied the sacrament; he and his family haven't taken it to this day. "That put me in a difficult situation," he says, "but I just thought, well, you have to stand where you're going to stand." The whole experience left Angus questioning his faith. "But I still consider myself a Catholic," he adds, chuckling. "I really have nowhere else to go."

The inevitable screws are starting to bite in an era of escalating religious tension. Everywhere, institutions are drawing lines in the sand to define themselves against others, as Benedict did with Islam. And everywhere, individuals are struggling to find or keep a home. The Pope, on behalf of his Church, insists on religion's right to be involved in public affairs; at the same time he is trying to restrict the liberty of those who wish to remain both Catholic and politician, responsive to Church, conscience and electorate alike. Public life in this country would be diminished by his defeat in the first contest or by his victory in the second.


Maclean's October 2, 2006