In the Holy Father’s recent address to representatives of Science at the University of Regensburg he was used to and at home with the world of debate and controversy. To say the least, he was controversial. His quote from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus stating that when it came to the subject of violence and holy war, “Show me just what Mohammed 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”, was certain to raise an eyebrow. Unfortunately it did more than that.
Why Pope Benedict choose that quote is uncertain. Nonetheless, he did. Out of fairness to him, perhaps he wanted to provoke everyone to a rethinking of violence, and its false connection to either faith or reason. If that was his intention, the Pontiff surely got our attention! Thus his apology for understandably having offended the feelings of Muslims was a necessary and welcomed step towards greater dialogue.
In his recent book Values in a World in Upheaval, the Holy Father explores in depth the pathologies that have affected both reason and faith, and particularly the violence that has resulted from both. His point is simple, yet profound, and it is the same point that he tried to make in his controversial lecture. I hope that Muslims, Christians, Jews, nonbelievers, and all people of good will take the time to think more thoroughly with the Pope about the awful truth of violence. The Holy Father’s point is twofold:
First, in the secular West, “reason” (science, politics, etc.) has pushed any thought of God and absolute truths about man’s dignity and inherent worth, as well as what is objectively right or wrong, completely out of its discussions and policies. This dangerous thinking has produced such notorious figures as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. and the oppressive regimes that they led. Their forms of absolutism place man alone as the arbitrary judge to decide the limits of morality. Thus, whoever rules at the time defines what is moral or not. This has resulted in one of the most inhumane and violent centuries ever. Reason without a mature faith in God, the Pope says, and without a belief in the greater purpose of human existence, and objective right and wrong, is more than dangerous, it is disastrous.
Second, the Holy Father takes on violence in the name of God. While not pretending that Christians have been immune from this pathological sickness that attacks faith just as much as reason, the Holy Father does take aim at the recent phenomenon of warfare and violence in the name and mission of God.
It is here that his quote from Paleologus, described by the Holy Father himself as “startling brusque”, takes aim. The Pope is aiming at those who believe that violence and terror on innocent people can be justified as God’s will. Yet, the Holy Father does not aim only at religion. In his book, Values, in a more thorough treatment of the topic he also takes aim at secular violence, which over the years and still today, in the name of protecting what is ours, has been self-serving, imperialistic, opportunistic, and domineering. God, being reasonable, does not want to see reason used to justify violence. God is reasonable and He created man reasonable. Violence is not reasonable. Thus violence is not from God.
The Holy Father also takes aim at faith, any faith, which claims that God could in any way condone acts of violence to promote the cause of true religion. Did the Holy Father intend to offend by his words or by the quote? No. Did he attempt to get us to think? No doubt. I hope and pray that think we do. In his statement of September 20 the Pope said,
“This quotation, unfortunately, has lent itself to misunderstandings. However, to an attentive reader of my text it is clear that in no way did I wish to make my own the negative words pronounced by the medieval emperor, and that their polemical content does not express my personal convictions. My intentions were quite otherwise: on the basis of what Manuel II subsequently said in a positive sense … concerning the reason that must guide us in transmitting the faith, I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together.
Violence for the sake of getting what we want as a result of deficient reason or deficient faith, or both, is evil. Violence is not reasonable and therefore, it is not from God, because God is reasonable. No matter how much we want to justify it we cannot square it with a Good God. This is true of secular society that claims no allegiance to God or to objective right and wrong. It is also true of faith, any faith, for violence has no business representing God.
It is this challenge to believer and non-believer alike that inspired the Holy Father to take on the most difficult pathologies of today that affect right reason as well as true faith. He does it with courage and it is meant for anyone who uses violence as a means to an end, not just this group or that one.
The world will be a better place if his criticism is well heeded. Violence is the result of our sins; peace and justice will also be the result of our good actions when done in proper relationship with God. Thank you Pope Benedict for pointing the way to us. Thanks also to the many Muslims, Christians, Jews, non-believers and all those of good will who struggle and work to make this world that place where the true face of the Merciful and Good God can be seen and loved.
Bishop Gregory J. Mansour