The Papal apology
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Date: 21 September, 2006

Ancient Pope

'The church believed in reason, and reason told it that swords were a pretty damn good idea.'



Steve Tomkins asks what are we to make of Pope Benedict’s comments on Islam and the importance of reason in religion?

I wouldn’t want to be the Pope (though it would have been nice to be asked).

It would throw my ignorance of Latin into a rather harsh spotlight for a start. It’s got to put a dampener on your social life too.

And then you give an abstruse lecture on “Faith, Reason and the University” to academics at the University of Regensburg, to which, in all fairness you would not expect many of your audience to be listening, let alone the world’s media.

You pontificate (naturally) about the importance of reason and revelation working together, and to illustrate your point you quote a delightfully obscure text from one of the last emperors of Byzantium.

You point out how this shows the core difference between Islamic and Catholic understandings of God: that for Muslims God is above reason, and for Catholics he is not.

Next thing you know, you’re an international incident, 1.6 billion people are extremely cross with you, much of the rest think you’re a bit of a twit. A significant number want to kill you. (1 would be a pretty significant number in this context.) Latin, death threats and church every day - what a life.

What are we to make of Pope Benedict’s comments on Islam and the importance of reason in religion? They don’t seem especially reasonable to me.


To leave the argument as it stands, as the Pope did, without any qualification, is a monstrous denial of Christian history. You don’t find a lot of Christians using swords as evangelistic tools these days, because the world has changed.

But you only have to go back a few hundred years and then it is nothing but swords (and other more painful utensils) most of the way back to the beginning, the majority of them wielded by Catholics. The crusades and the inquisition are the most notorious, but there are countless other examples - the European invasion of South American, Charlemagne, the English conquest of Ireland, the wars of the reformation…

All this blood was shed with the enthusiastic, often rapacious, approval of Rome. The church believed in reason, and reason told it that swords were a pretty damn good idea.

As Pope Benedict has pointed out, the words “evil and inhuman” are not his, but a quotation. This is not much help though. The whole drift of his argument is that religious violence is unreasonable, and therefore incompatible with Christianity, and not with Islam.

Those inflammatory words are the logical conclusion of what the Pope said, and the fact that he quoted them without qualification suggests that they reflect his own opinion of Islam.


His “apology” on Sunday was also interesting for what it didn’t say, because it certainly didn’t apologise. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”

As all fans of reason know, you can apologise for your own actions and reactions, and of those of people you represent, but you can’t apologise for other people’s.

“Sorry” in English can mean simply “sad” or “apologising”: it’s the difference between “I’m sorry for the sudden loss of your beloved Fido” and ”Sorry I ran over your dog”. The Pope is saying he is sad that people have got upset about what he said, not that he did anything wrong.

His statement also conspicuously fails to say whether and how far he disagrees with the Emperor’s assessment of Islam as “evil and inhuman”.

In many ways that’s fair enough. The Roman Catholic Church didn’t get where it is today by the Pope apologising every time someone objects to what he teaches.

You get the impression that Benedict will have thought his position through rather well before blurting it out. And is it really wrong to call something evil and inhuman if you are convinced that it is?

This still leaves a problem though. If the Pope does think that Islam as a whole is evil and inhuman, then he is taking a wholly unreasonable attitude to one of the most volatile issues in the world today.

And if his real opinions are more positive, why does he not do the world a favour and say so explicitly?

Maybe I should get my Latin up to scratch and apply for the job next time round.




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