Daniel Martin Varisco: Holy War over Papal Bull

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]

The recently installed Pope Benedict gave a speech on Tuesday in his native Germany. Even though the Vatican has ruled that the pope as the prime representative of Christ on earth is as close to being infallible as anyone, such dogma has long since ceased to be newsworthy. Individuals designated as Catholics and Protestants have found other things to fight over (or even to agree with against a common secular enemy) and the thousands upon thousands of victims in Europe’s religious wars are more or less relegated to a historical footnote. Last Tuesday this doctrine of ex cathedra truth rose from the dead of church history and crashed through the gate of ecumenical tolerance.

There are Muslims protests around the world today over comments by Pope Benedict that seemingly villify the Prophet Muhammad. A resolution condemning the pope for making “derogatory” aspersions on Muhammad was passed today in Pakistan. Even the prime minister of Lebanon, Fuad Saniora, asked his ambassador to the Vatican to seek clarification on what the remarks mean. The Vatican has been quick to clarify that Pope Benedict was quoting someone else (who happened to be a Christian emperor talking with a Muslim), but the question is why he would use such a potentially misunderstandable example. Does Benedict give credence to the idea that Muslims have tended to be irrational while Christians were on the side of reason, as his examples suggest?

Perhaps Benedict’s problem is that he is too interested in history. In remembering academic life in his old university he cited a dialogue from about 1391 C.E. (and I do not mean Christian Era) between “the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” Here is the passage that has caused the uproar:

In the seventh conversation [text unclear] edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”.

According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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”.

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably … is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.

In a quick reading, the kind most people would do (especially in translation), it could be assumed that Benedict agrees with his medieval eastern counterpart’s portrayal of Muhammad as only spreading things “evil and inhuman.” To be fair, he is quoting an emperor under Ottoman siege and one who lived six centuries ago. But the real damage comes in the moral lesson drawn from the anything-but-tolerant statement by the earlier Christian luminary:

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 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 [Hazm] 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 practise idolatry.

Beyond the obvious problem that a revered pope repeated this “self-evident” commentary in the current world climate of tension over “Muslim” terrorists, it would be bull no matter who was giving the lecture. Islamic doctrine nowhere teaches that Allah can contradict his own words or divine principles of justice. To say that Muslims worship a God so fickle as to contradict the Quran and force people to worship idols is, to borrow a phrase, beyond belief. It is much closer to “Can God create a boulder so large He could not move it?” If I were that Persian interlocutor six centuries ago, I would want the self-righteous Byzantine emperor to explain how he could believe in a God who would allow his own son to be killed or insist on splitting the one supreme God into three persons of equal divinity. For the record, however, doctrinal debates are poor vehicles for talking about the role of reason.

The irony here is that Pope Benedict is appealing to reason as a necessary balance to faith by using Islam as a foil and ignoring the appalling violent history of the church he leads. All religions are spread by the sword at some point, some more than others. Throughout its long history Christianity has been coerced on people by the sword perhaps more than any other religion. Read Bartholomé de las Casas on the Christian conquistadores who enslaved and butchered hundreds of thousands of native peoples of the Americas. Read the bloody history of Europe itself, where the cross was often used to bludgeon anyone branded a heretic. There have been many violent Muslim rulers as well, so there is little point in weighing which faith has caused the least number of deaths.

The problem with Benedict’s lecture is that it perpetuates two problematic themes: the first is that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity and the second is that religious dogma must always trump scientific reason. His talk is not really about Islam but about the need for reasonable people not to rule out the role of faith. This is a fine platitude, but the critical issue is how to reconcile dogma that asserts its own truth with the reasonable findings of modern science. The Catholic church has absorbed the teaching of evolutionary theory as a method but still gives its faithful the dogmatic right to say that God created a literal Adam out of the mud and Eve from his rib in a real place called Eden. Just as disturbing is the wording of the infallibility plank that makes Pope’s Benedicts remarks more than those of an old man returning to his academic home to give a nostalgic university address. Once again for the record, here is what the church approved over a century ago:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
[from Pastor Aeternus, First Vatican Council, 1870]

Until such thinking is anathema, there can be no appeal to reason.

Read entire article at Tabsir (blog)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Mike Schoenberg - 9/23/2006

Look at any of the religions, whether the Jews of the Old Testament, Christians from the Crusades to Coloniesm or the Muslims with their attempt to take over whatever they could and there is always a justification for violence in the name of religion.

Jason B Keuter - 9/20/2006

is certainly an infinitely more violent religion than Christianity. Arguably, it has been and it is basically a fact that today it simply is. Christianity is almost entirely domesticated, mostly private and certainly not any kind of arbiter in most decisions in the so-called "Christian" world.

Further, Christianity's relationship to temporal power is both doctrinally and practically more ambivalent and problematic. Also, Christianity's "violent" history is most violent within Christianity itself - in the prolonged period of Europe's religious wars - not against Islam. The "Crusades" are inflated beyond all reason and led as much to Western Christendom fighting with Eastern Christendom as against Islam. Further, it is conveniently forgotten that these areas were originially Christian in the first place! (not mention North Africa, the rest of the Eastern Meditterannean, etc).

Nick Thompson - 9/18/2006

Whatever one thinks about the notion of infallibility as such, the author seems at least to wink at the old canard that every word dropping from the pontiff's lips is regarded by the Catholic faithful as infallible.

In fact the conditions for the exercise of papal infallibility are tightly defined, and the 1870 canon with which the article ends can be read as exercise in the limitation of papal infallibility as much as an endorsement of it. Like all conciliar definitions it represents something of a compromise between the two factions present at Vatican I.

Officially, only two papal declarations have claimed or met the criteria outlined in the canon: the 1854 definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and the 1950 definition of her Assumption into heaven.

As an elderly Anglican acquaintance of mine put it: "Assumption. Best name for it!"

In any case, papal guest lectures don't remotely claim or meet the criteria for infallibility.

Mike Perry - 9/18/2006

A "Papal Bull?" I'm not a Catholic, but I know this speech was not a "Bull." I'm also aware that papal infallibility has nothing to do with Catholics believing a Pope is "as close to being infallible as anyone." I'm not sure even rural Baptist preachers believe that any more. That seems to have died out during the 1960 election.

A 'Papal Bull" is a written document with the proper seal attached, and even modestly well-educated Catholics know all too well that some Popes have been dreadful in both word and deed. It's also absurd to suggest that this Pope, who is exceptionally well-versed in history, isn't painfully aware of that Catholicism has used force and violence to convert.

Nor is the Pope suggesing "that religious dogma must always trump scientific reason." He brings science up only to dismiss it with a wave of the hand as woefully inadequate for cross-cultural dialogue: "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

Put in more down-to-earth terms, he's saying that the blind can have little to say in a conversation among the seeing. Two men can hold a discussion about whether the figure on a distant hillside is John the fisherman or Tom the farmer. They can have no real conversation with an anthropologist who assumes, as a matter of course, that both men are merely imagining that someone is there.

Instead, in this speech the Pope is dealing with a centuries-old debate in philosophy and theology about the proper role of human reason in establishing what is true and what is good. In particular, he is defending what among scholars is called the "Hellenization of Christianity," a centuries-long process by which Christianity acquired the ways of reasoning to truth previously developed by Greek philosophy. (A process the Pope believes was anticipated by the logos passage in John 1.) He is defending that Hellenization against its critics, some of whom he mentions, and he notes that "in the early years of my teaching, this [dehellenization] programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too."

It is in that context that we must place his quoting the remarks of the long-ago Byzantine emperor that "spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul." Deny the universality of human reason, either crushing it with dogma or reducing it to mere cultural conditioning, and I suspect he would suggest that some will find conversion by force appealing. Deny reason and little is left but force.

Finally, we need to remember that the real danger that the Pope was warning about wasn't Islamic jihad, but an "adversion" that is deeply inbedded in Western civilization itself. I quote his concluding remarks:

"The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian
interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."

And I might add that scientific dogma can be adverse to the marvelous "grandeur" of reasoned debate and discourse as religious dogma.

--Michael W. Perry, Seattle