Does Islam need the Pope?

FR. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

The question — Does Islam need the Pope? — presumes a prior premise, which is that Islam faces a challenge in which the Pope is well-suited to provide assistance.

Does Islam need the Pope? The question is curious, I concede. Islam has its own method of interpreting divine revelation, and the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church has no role in that. Yet I believe that this particular pope, Benedict XVI, has something important to offer Islam at this moment in history.

The question — Does Islam need the Pope? — presumes a prior premise, which is that Islam faces a challenge in which the Pope is well-suited to provide assistance. Today Islam does face a challenge and is in need of all possible assistance. The challenge is well-known, and is generally described as the problem of violence in the name of Islam. It does not consist simply of violence by Muslims, as every culture has its own violent people, but rather violence which is justified and motivated on specifically Islamic grounds.

Usually the term "Islamist" is used as the adjective, rather than "Islamic," to suggest that such violence is a corruption of Islamic doctrine, not its authentic expression.

Islamist violence takes two forms: terrorism and religious persecution. Islamist terrorism is aimed at civilian populations and justified in the minds of the terrorists and their supporters by Islamic doctrine. Religious persecution is the violation of religious liberty by state authorities or private actors in Muslim-majority countries. Such persecution ranges from harassment to killing. Islamist terrorism and religious persecution are a grave threat to peace and security both for the world in general, and the Islamic world in particular.

This is not only a problem for non-Muslims that Muslims need to solve. The first victims of Islamist violence are Muslims themselves. While Western victims of Islamist terrorism number in the thousands, Muslim victims of terror number in the tens of thousands. Moreover, the challenge of Islamist violence constitutes a major threat to political order, peace and stability throughout the Islamic world. So it is not the case that this is a matter of Christians as a whole being against Muslims as a whole, but rather both Christians and Muslims confronting a common Islamist threat.


This is not only a problem for non-Muslims that Muslims need to solve. The first victims of Islamist violence are Muslims themselves. While Western victims of Islamist terrorism number in the thousands, Muslim victims of terror number in the tens of thousands.


It is in this context that one can speak of Pope Benedict helping Islam confront this challenge. If the perpetrators of Islamist violence claim that they are acting in the name of God, then there needs to be an argument about the nature of God. Is God such a person that He could command such violence? Or be pleased by it? Indeed, if the subject is the nature of the God of Abraham, the Catholic Pope certainly has something to contribute to an argument that must be had within the Islamic world itself, but also among Jews, Christians and Muslims — all the children of Abraham.

There is a theological component to the challenge of Islamist violence. It is not the only component of course, but it is fundamental.

Soon after 9/11, Western leaders met with Muslim leaders and visited mosques to declare that Islam is a "religion of peace." It does not belong to political leaders to make theological claims, but their gestures indicated a correct intuition that there must be a religious response to problem with, in large part, religious roots. In this regard, the Canadian response was particularly foolish. You will recall the great 9/11 memorial on Parliament Hill, at which Prime Minister Jean Chrétien decreed that there would be no prayer whatsoever by anyone. Later, he would bizarrely describe this decision as the best he had ever made. It is exactly the wrong response. Aggressive secularism has very little to contribute when confronting aggressive religious violence. Bad religious ideas need to be corrected by good religious ideas, not anti-religious ideas. That is the task of theology, which is the application of reason to the things of God.

All of which serves as background to the lecture that Pope Benedict XVI gave at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12. The address was primarily about the relationship of faith and reason, but it was the remarks concerning Islam that were met with protests — often violent — in many parts of the Islamic world.


Aggressive secularism has very little to contribute when confronting aggressive religious violence. Bad religious ideas need to be corrected by good religious ideas, not anti-religious ideas.


The Pope quoted the penultimate Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Palaeologus, who expressed a negative judgment on the history of Islam, making the accusation that Islam was spread by the sword.

The Pope said: "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...'."

Benedict asserts that God by nature is reasonable, and so that which is contrary to reason is contrary to God Himself. In particular, to coerce the soul by means of violence to the body is contrary to reason, and so cannot be compatible with God's will, which is always reasonable.

Benedict further makes the claim that the conception of God as reasonable belongs to Christian faith in its origins. The Gospel of John begins, as the Pope indicates, "In the beginning was the Word." The Greek word employed there is logos, which means both "word" and "reason." The Christian faith understands God not only as the One who reveals Himself as love – "God is Love" is the title of Benedict's first encyclical — but also as the One who is reasonable by nature.

Man, created in the image of God, is rational, and human reason corresponds to the rationality of God. Finite human reason is not coextensive with God, of course, but human reason participates in divine rationality. What is contrary to human reason then cannot be commanded by God or required by faith.

This is of primary importance given the challenge facing Islam today. Benedict's address encourages Islam to reflect precisely on this point about the nature of God, providing Islamic scholars with a potentially fruitful theological point of departure in the argument with the advocates of Islamist violence.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Does Islam need the Pope?" National Post, (Canada) October 3, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

National Post is a sponsor of the Newman House Series on Ethics and Public Life, a forum in which the ethical and moral dimensions of contemporary public issues can be examined in an intellectually serious manner. Above is an edited excerpt of a longer lecture delivered by National Post columnist Father Raymond J. de Souza at the launch of the forum last evening in Kingston, Ont. Read the full text of this lecture here.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post




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