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Papal Power: The new Pope is fighting for the hearts and minds of Europe

Lee Smith

Pope Benedict XVI has sort of apologized for offending Muslims, and some Muslim leaders have sort of accepted. The Shia cleric usually described as Hezbollah’s one-time spiritual guide, Hussein Fadlallah, has invited the Pope “to carry out a scientific and fastidious reading of Islam.” Otherwise, Fadlallah warned, Benedict might “succumb to the propaganda of the enemy led by Judaism and imperialism against Islam.”

Maybe that is why Muslims are still burning effigies of the Pope—to teach interfaith dialogue to a 79-year-old theologian who is apt to be misled by those lying, intolerant Jews. After all, it is almost a week since the Pope spoke about Islam before an audience in his native Germany:

“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.”

As many have already pointed out, the words were taken out of context. As the Pope himself explained, they are not even his own words, but were rather excerpted from a dialogue between a 14th-century Byzantine emperor and a “learned Persian.” The text cited discusses the role of reason in Christian thought and uses Islam as a point of comparison: In “Muslim teaching,” the text asserts, God’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

Let us posit that the Pope himself is a rational man, moreover that he is also aware of current events and, in particular, the general tenor of Islamic political activism around the world these last few years. So, in quoting a text arguing that the Muslim concept of God is not rational but is rather predicated on violence, what sort of response would a rational man expect from Muslim masses who, among other enthusiasms, torched European embassies this past winter to express displeasure over a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as a source of irrational violence? Is it not unreasonable to assume that such a speech would provoke yet more irrational violence?

Nonetheless, the Pope apologized—though as some Muslim officials correctly noted, the pontiff says he is sorry for “the reactions” to his speech, not the speech itself. But it taxes the rational intellect to believe he did not know what sort of furies he was tempting. After all, the Holy See is not the State Department, and the Vatican’s interest in Islam did not begin with September 11, nor even with the discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula. The New York Times writes that “the Vatican does not have enough experts on Islam to gauge reaction to any papal statements,” but the church has been contemplating its historical rival for about 1,300 years longer than the paper of record.

Ratzinger himself is both an intellectual familiar with church history, and a skilful political operator. Unlike his predecessor Wojtyla, he did not come to Rome as an outsider, but rather learned how to acquire and exercise temporal power within the world’s oldest and perhaps most unforgiving political institution. If Benedict had not known what sort of response his speech was likely to get, then the college of Cardinals elected the wrong man.

There was some hope among clerics and Catholic laypeople that, after the death of John Paul II, the Church might tap a candidate with a more pastoral vocation, a Latin American cardinal, say, or an African one. However, the historical legacy of the Church, as well as its wealth and political power, resides mostly in Europe, and in Ratzinger the Vatican has a leader who took his regnal name from one of the co-patron saints of the continent. Maybe aspects of the Church’s future are elsewhere as well, but Europe is the other rock the Church is built upon and Benedict means to protect that foundation.

Sure the Pope is concerned about Islam, as are all Europeans. His sentiments about Muslim Turkey not belonging to Christian Europe are well-known. “Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent,” Ratzinger said back in 2004, a year before he became Pope. But he has stated repeatedly, and even in this recent address, that the major threat to Europe comes from secularism.

Here he is like many European Muslim leaders and ideologues, Tariq Ramadan for instance, who believe that the continent has been overcome with a spiritual malaise, a lack of purpose and self-esteem. Unlike secularism, Islam is a worthy competitor for men’s souls—it is just an inferior doctrine, self-evidently so because it did not produce Europe. Moreover, and this is the point of the text Benedict cites, Islam is incapable of producing a Europe because its conception of God does not assume a rational divinity.

Now the Pope says this excerpted text does “not in any way express my personal thought.” Really? So, the Vicar of Christ does not believe that Catholic doctrine is superior to Muslim teaching? Sure he does. The Pope does not want Christian Europe to regain its spirituality by becoming less rational, like Islam, but through an expanded concept of reason—one large enough to encompass a creator who is Himself rational.

As the children of a rational God, all men can think rational thoughts, but few are capable of philosophy. Early Christian and Islamic thinkers, especially those influenced by Neo-Platonism, understood the problem: The majority of men can only comprehend one level of reality, and only then through the use of symbols. Hence, what is most interesting about the Pope’s speech is that he is operating on two different levels: There is philosophy, reason, and logos for one type of understanding, and there are symbols for another. Here, the symbols are those of the Catholic Church—the papacy itself—which he himself barely even hints at. Benedict left it to his dialogue partners to fill in the rest, and now every burned effigy of the Pope is a prick in the conscience of Catholics the world over.

Sure the European intellectual class believes the Pope is a moron for getting so many Muslims angry, but the elite is not his primary audience; rather, he was speaking over their heads to the masses of ordinary Catholics. What will they believe in? What will they live for and die for? Maybe the Church.

It is hard to get people to live, never mind die, for principles based entirely on reason. Most people need something real to fight for, something tangible. And this is the dilemma of liberal democracies that bin Laden, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad, among others, have rightly identified. It is only rational that the citizens of such a state would prefer to enjoy the privileges of such a life than to die. However, the jihadi intelligentsia have also made a less than thorough study of the war that they have chosen.

For instance, Israel is a liberal democracy, but as my colleague here in Jerusalem, Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer, explains, “Israel’s democratic structures are embedded in something older and deeper: The rooting of sovereignty in the shared history of the Jews, the Jewish connection to ancient Israel, and the story of its destruction and rebirth. This is a strong, resonant presence in the lives of many Jewish Israelis and it evokes a profound loyalty.”

Or take the Bush administration’s Middle Eastern democracy project. There are many people in the region willing to die for their ideas, but almost none of them are reform-minded Arab liberals. On one side, there are Islamists and various other fighters who want the Americans to leave their land forever, and on the other side are American soldiers who do not want their nation to suffer the outrages of Muslim-world politics ever again.

These are real things, tangible concerns, and the Pope is seeking to renew similar sentiments in Christian Europe. And in doing so he has reminded us how a 2000-year-old institution moves vast numbers of people and plays great power politics while the rest of us, even those on the right side in the GWOT, have been arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. How many troops do we need in Iraq? Is Islamofascism an apt phrase? If we revisit the Geneva conventions, won’t that expose our troops to mistreatment by the jihadi forces arrayed against us? How can we get the left to see that Hamas and Hezbollah do not, in fact, share its progressive principles? What would Orwell say?

Stalin famously asked of the Pope “how many divisions has he got?” Well, of course we know now that the USSR was a mayfly on the ass of the ages, but the more interesting fact is that many of Stalin’s troops were ranged against their own countrymen to ensure they fought the Germans rather than retreat. It’s hardly an efficient use of one’s divisions, but Stalin apparently understood the limited appeal of the Soviet idea. For the church, though, men will go to great lengths, they will live and die, all in the name of a man who died some 2,000 years ago on a wooden cross.

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