Pope Benedict XVI stepped into the volatile realm of religious violence yesterday, warning that fanaticism is “contrary to God’s nature” and quoting Byzantine criticism of Islam.
Breaking with a recent trend of theological passivity towards Islam, the Pope highlighted that much of the Islamic theological canon is diametrically at odds with that of the Church.
Speaking to academics at the University of Regensburg where he taught theology in the 1970s, the pope traversed centuries of Islamic, Greek and Christian philosophy to decry holy wars and forced conversions, and to hold up Christianity as the “profound encounter of faith and reason.”
Reverting, on his old stomping ground, to his much-admired role as intellectual heavyweight, the pope’s lecture was wide-ranging and intellectually uncompromising. Rather than criticize Islam directly, he cited a Byzantine emperor’s harsh condemnation of Islam, its founder Muhammad and holy war.
Eschewing the tabloid use of the word, Benedict used the word “jihad” in its Islamic theological context as the Arabic term for holy war or struggle.
“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” Benedict said. “Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
The Holy Father quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in conversation with “an educated Persian”: “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.”
Departing from his prepared text, the pope added two reminders to his audience that he was quoting, an indication he was aware of the sensitivity of the comment.
The pope said the emperor would have been aware of Quranic instructions on the waging of holy war as he argued that the spreading of the faith through violence “is something unreasonable”.
Ultimately, HH’s long exposition was not about Islam but about the dangers of secularism in the Christian West and the need to know God better. But, to a theologically ignorant media, the remarks on Islam, however couched, were likely to draw the most attention.