In a column written for The Australian, George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, has brought some much needed clarity and sanity to the overreaction among many Muslims to Pope Benedict's innocuous words delivered as part of his lecture last week at the University of Regensburg, where he formerly taught theology. His Eminence also published an article in the June/July 2006 issue, number 164, of the journal First Things entitled Islam and Us. Put simply, the good Cardinal is no Johnny-come-lately to the subject.
In his apology, given during last Sunday's Angelus, the Holy Father said his lecture "was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect". Picking up on this expression, Cardinal Pell pointed out that meaningful dialogue, which leads to mutual understanding, remains impossible as long as the responses of Islamic leaders see fitting criticisms of certain manifestations of contemporary of Islam as "always someone else's fault" and ignore issues touching on the nature of Islam, instead of intelligently engaging these issues.
Referring to the demonstrations in reaction to a quote from a dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian Muslim, used by the Pope in his lecture, Cardinal Pell said that the responses to the Pope's comments accurately demonstrate "the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but with violence". It is refreshing to see a Church leader being firm in a delicate situation that urgently needs attention. It is called speaking the truth in love.
In response to the calls to action to all Australian Muslims by that country's mufti, or primary Islamic religious leader, Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly and Dr Ameer Ali of the Muslim Reference Group, Cardinal Pell said: "Our major priority must be to maintain peace and harmony ... no lasting achievements can be grounded in fantasies and evasions". He went on to characterize the Pope's lecture as an "academic and gentle speech". "In fact", said Dr. Pell, "the Pope's long speech was more about the weaknesses of the Western world, its irreligion and disdain for religion and he explicitly rejected linking religion and violence".
Pope Benedict, toward the end of the second paragraph of his lecture, given in the main hall of the University of Regensburg last Tuesday, 12 September 2006, states his thesis clearly: "In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point"- itself rather marginal to the dialogue [referring to the dialogue between the Byzantine emperor and the learned Persian, from which he had just quoted]- "which, in the context of the issue 'faith and reason', I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue". To what end does Benedict employ the quote from Manuel II Paleologus? Let him answer: "The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature".
He goes on to note the observation made by Theodore Khoury, editor of the dialogues between the emperor and the Persian, that for the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.
Then, the Holy Father proceeds to answer the question, What does that mean for us now? As far as understanding God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always intrinsically true?" This question is as pertinent to contemporary Christianity as it is to contemporary Islam. So, instead of arguments and examples of how Islam obliges Muslims to act in accord with right reason, we get calls for mass demonstrations, days of rage, clarifications about how jihad is a metaphor for internal conversion, and burnings of the Pope in effigy, etc. To any informed observer, the irony of this response to a call to reason is not lost.
Dialogue, while remaining respectful, must be honest. Being honest means, at times, being critical. Christianity is certainly subject to much criticism in the Islamic world, where, in many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Christians are not even free to practice their faith. Even in Turkey, a relatively enlightened and democratic Islamic country, Christians are subject to persecution and forced conversions are not unheard of, and where churches are quite unapologetically turned into mosques. In the wake of al-Qaida in Iraq's vow on Monday, in a communique addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, to make war on Christianity and the West until Islam takes over the world, calls for "Yaum al Ghadab", Arabic for "Day of Rage", by Qatari Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi this Friday in response to Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about Muslims, while not exactly a call to violence, it hardly rises to the level of rational dialogue. Finally, Iran's supreme leader, Khameni, in response to the Holy Father's quote, said: "Islamic Jihad is not a tool for imposing one's opinions on others, but rather a movement of liberation against those powers that shackle humans with slavery,." Rather than telling the Pope this, where is the internal Islamic challenge to Muslims, like Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, and other groups, who clearly see jihad as a violent tool for imposing one's opinions and Islamic rule, including shar'ia, on others? Where are the massive demonstrations in the Islamic world calling for the end to violence in the name of God in Iraq and other places?
Here is the beginning of the statement by the Vatican Secretary of State
"STATEMENT OF HIS EMINENCE, CARD. TARCISIO BERTONE, SECRETARY OF STATE
In light of the reactions on the part of Muslims to some parts of the discourse of the Holy Father Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg, and the clarification and precisions already offered by means of the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, I wish to add the following:
-- The position of the Pope on Islam is unequivocally that expressed in the conciliar document Nostra AetateThe third section of Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions of Vatican II, states the basis on which dialogue can take place and puts the matter clearly when addressing Islam.
"The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting".
Nostra Aetate, number 3, continues,
"Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom."
One would be hard-pressed find such a statement concerning Christianity from a contemporary Islamic source. Again, frank and sincere dialogue with mutual respect on the basis of reason- is that too much ask? We hope and pray it is not. We shall see. To put this in the even larger context of the Papal trip to Bavaria and of Benedict's overall papal program, I refer readers to the incomparable Sandro Magister and his piece Islam’s Unreasonable War Against Benedict XVI .