The WSJ gets it right about Pope Benedict

In today’s Opinion Journal/Wall Street Journal online there is a featured article, free to read. It is worth a few minutes of your time. Here is an excerpt (my emphasis):

In Christianity, God is inseparable from reason. "In the beginning was the Word," the pope quotes from the Gospel according to John. "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word," he explained. "The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of history of religions, but also from that of world history. . . . This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe."

The question raised by the pope is whether this convergence has taken place in Islam as well. He quotes the Lebanese Catholic theologist Theodore Khoury, who said that "for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent, his will is not bound up with any of our categories." If this is true, can there be dialogue at all between Islam and the West? For the pope, the precondition for any meaningful interfaith discussions is a religion tempered by reason: "It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures," he concluded.

This is not an invitation to the usual feel-good interfaith round-tables. It is a request for dialogue with one condition–that everyone at the table reject the irrationality of religiously motivated violence. The pope isn’t condemning Islam; he is inviting it to join rather than reject the modern world. By their reaction to the pope’s speech, some Muslim leaders showed again that Islam has a problem with modernity that is going to have to be solved by a debate within Islam. The day Muslims condemn Islamic terror with the same vehemence they condemn those who criticize Islam, an attempt at dialogue–and at improving relations between the Western and Islamic worlds–can begin.


In another piece by Bret Stephens called "Pope Provocateur" (p. A21), we find another example of how the WSJ gets it right (again my emphasis and comment):

These reflections lead Benedict to a much graver indictment of Islam: "For Muslim teaching," he says, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Citing the 11th century polymath Ibn Hazm, Benedict adds that in Islam, "God is not bound even by his own word."

Let’s play that again, since the rest of the media failed to notice: [we noticed!] Pope Benedict suggests that the God of Mohammad is, or may seem to humans to be, "not even bound to truth and goodness." Who knows whether that really reflects a consensus view down the ages among Muslim theologians — Benedict makes his case about Islam by citing one scholar who cites another scholar who cites another. The more interesting question is why Benedict goes out of his way to use Islam as an example, since he also warns against similar tendencies toward insisting on God’s radical "otherness" within the Catholic tradition itself. So why can’t he simply illustrate the controversies of faith without going outside the boundaries of his own?

In fact, Benedict saves his sharpest barbs for non-Muslim targets: Protestantism, which seeks a "primordial" form of faith; liberal theology, which reduces Jesus to "the father of a humanitarian moral message"; scientific rationalism, the ethics of which are "simply inadequate" to answer the "specifically human questions about our origin and destiny"; and what might be called Catholic pluralism, a culturally adaptive notion of the faith that Benedict denounces as "false" and "coarse."

These aren’t mere provocations. There is an overarching philosophical architecture to Benedict’s critique, expressed in the notion of the "de-Hellenization of Christianity." Christianity, in his view, is shaped and defined by the great dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation. When the Apostle John says "In the beginning was the Word," the "word," literally, is logos — which is reason, or argument. This, according to Benedict, expresses "the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry."

That rapprochement — a triumph of dialogue — lies at the heart of Benedict’s theology: Strip faith from reason (as scientific rationalism does), or reason from faith (as Protestant literalism does), and "it is man himself who ends up being reduced."

There is a political subtext. Precisely in the middle of his speech, the Pope describes the convergence of faith and philosophy as decisive to the character of "what can rightly be called Europe." He does not mention Europe again, nor, except obliquely, Islam. But near the end of his speech he warns that the "exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason" may be seen by other cultures "as an attack on their most profound convictions." "Reason which is deaf to the divine," he adds, "is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."  [Remember that Benedict resisted the suggestion that Turkey be admitted to the EU.]

A Europe that cannot understand its own religion, except as a form of subjective irrationalism, cannot possibly engage another. A Christianity that voluntarily recuses itself from reason cannot sustain a belief in the goodness of its convictions, to say nothing of its truth. A West that abandons a critical dialogue between faith and rational inquiry ceases to be the West. It becomes, in a peculiar way, guilty of the same errors Benedict accuses Islam of making. This is the Pope’s teaching, and it requires no apology. Notice that he offers none.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Er, Father, the WSJ rarely gives it away for nothing. You have to be a online
    subscriber of WSJ to view the links you posted. Just because you may subscribe
    to the print does not mean you get the online or vice versa.

  2. animadversor says:


    True, they rarely give it away for free, but sometimes they do, especially their opinion columns. Although His Reverence’s link to their editorial won’t work for non-subscribers, here’s one that will: Unfortunately, there is no link to a free version of Mr. Stephens’s comments.

  3. Proklos Grammatikos says:

    It is amazing to me that people listen to the Pope on Islam. it really is not his area of expertise. Ibn Hazm, a mediaeval Spanish scholar, is the darling of fundamentalist Muslims. The Pope citing him as someone characterizing Islam would be like an Ayatollah citing the Anabaptist Thomas Munzer as a representative of the Catholicism. He belongs to the literalist (Zahiri) school of Islamic law. That school was always an extreme minority. It has had a revival since WW II. When I was studying Semitics in university, my friends and I used to read Ibn Hazm’s legal opinions (fatwas) for amusement because they were so outrageous in comparison with the traditional views.

    The entire tone of the Pope’s speech was disgraceful and utterly uncalled for in my humble opinion. But then the only two people scripture seems to make a point of singling out as being reconciled by Jesus’s sministry was Herod and Pilate, who were once enemies but became friends from the day He was condemned to death.

  4. Proklos: I guess that means you can come up with precise examples from the whole speech that that, in your view, disgraceful.

  5. Proklos Grammatikos says:

    The address as a perlocutionary speech-act was disgraceful. In my view the Pope intended his words to be taken out of context in order to create a solidarity among Catholics against a group all could agree in hating, namely, the Muslims. Notice how carefully he crafted his apology so that he was not repenting of his actual words but their effect. But to him the psychological effect was what counted, not the effect on Muslims, but their effect on Catholics.

    We are divided among ourselves in a way that I never thought possible. The structure of discipline within the Church has almost completely eroded. There was a time when a priest or bishop who infringed even on liturgical rubrics faced almost immediate discipline. That time has passed. How then will a Pope completely devoid of the charisma of sanctity create enough personal support to carry out his work? By creating a social solidarity of Catholics behind him that includes rad. trads liberals, et al. This he has succeeded in doing. For who doesn’t agree that Islam is the grear enemy of our time?

    He justifies himself by saying that his speech was an invitation to dialogue. What is there to dialogue with Islam about? Religious tolerance? Well, then there you have it: Pope Paul VI’s DECLARATION ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. DIGNITATIS HUMANAE. December 7, 1965. But why dialogue with Muslims on the themes addressed there? What about the SSPX? They’re Catholics. Why not dialogue with them? It is because the Pope holds this document as the basis of his programme, a document which places human rights above divine rights and which Muslims rightly reject. But so do many traditional Catholics like SSPX. So a week or so after throwing a wrench into a dialogue with Catholics with the creation of the Good Shepherd institute, he wants to open dialogue with Muslims?

    We know that DIGNITATIS HUMANAE. is central to the papal agenda program from Benedict XV’s speech before the curia on 22 December 2005 where he said it was necessary for Vatican II “to give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern State that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them and for the freedom to practise their own religion.” That doctrine, however, is backfiring in Europe where Catholics in France and Germany are embracing Islam, French Muslims are demanding their secular government to hand over the empty churches in their hands for Islamic use,Catholic women are marrying Muslim men without bothering about dispensations which means that there is no guarantee that the child will be baptized, etc.

    So to me the entire gesture of Pope’s speech was disgraceful. It was an appeal not to reason but to the power of mass sentiment against Islam. I think it would have been better for him to have addressed principial issue. E.g., How is Catholicism reconcilable with modernity? Modernity is the problem, both for traditional Catholics and Muslims. But the Pope as we can see from his speech of 22 December 2005 agrees in general with teh great theses of modernity enshrined in the ideology of the 18th century revolution both in its American and French phase even if he has argments with it on certain points.

  6. Proklos: Nice speech, but there was nothing really very concrete about why it was “disgraceful”. I am also amused by your “good old days” of discipline approach and your simultaneously public castigation of the Sucessor of Peter, who is the Legislator and Vicar of Christ. Talk about “disgraceful”. Still, there is room for civilized conversation about these matters. Frankly, my impression so far is that you might not have understood the Address and have, instead, decided to focus narrowly on a pet idea of your own. Yours is an example of what I call “funnel vision”. Perhaps others have more to say on the issue.


  7. efinnerty says:

    “I think it would have been better for him to have addressed principial issue. E.g., How is Catholicism reconcilable with modernity?

    When I read the Pope’s address, my impression was that his main point was _exactly_ that: how secular modernism needs a basis in religious faith. If anything, his remarks about Islam were simply to drive the point home to the University academics that they needed faith as much as they think Islam needs reason…with the Church representing an ideal union of the two.

    Those WSJ excerpts really seemed to hit the nail on the head to me.

  8. I think the Regensburg Address hands out an even stiffer does of criticism to Protestant thinkers than it does to followers of Islam.

  9. Proklos Grammatikos says:

    I take it that the Pope was just expressing his own opinion not doctrine. Still it is the first time I have ever had occasion to publicly castigate the Successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ. May God forgive me! I forgot myself. I could go on about this. But given my present state of disgrace, it is perhaps better to keep silent on the matter.

  10. Anonymous says:

    1. I think everything in the speech was intentional–but it was anything but disgraceful. Did BXVI intend to “create a solidarity among Catholics against a group all could agree in hating”? If he did, it puts him in the company of St Paul (cf. 1st Cor re the Jews and Greeks) and St John (not only in the Gospel but also in the Letters). And in so far as Peter was tossed into prison, I think it safe to assume that he employed a similar technique.

    2. Joseph Ratzinger is a very interesting man. An academic, he has nevertheless spent more time as a member of the hierarchy than he did as a professor. An extraordinarily intelligent man, his wide interests and gift for synthesis often produce comments that are not merely academic but also relevant to contemporary problems. I would imagine that this gift for synthesis is also a heavy factor in his tendency to produce “zingers” that upset people. Good for him.

    3. Is BXVI “devoid of the charisma of sanctity”? As a Thomist, I think that charisma has nothing to do with sanctity.

    Further, as a priest friend noted, it is quite possible that the present controversy is a consequence of JPII’s image as a friend to all.

    4. BXVI knows well that the contemporary Church is without discipline in more than one area–liturgically, doctrinally, intellectually, etc. He also knows that despite JPII’s considerable gifts, he did very little to reform the Church. And that IMHO is the principal reason that Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope.

    5. But of course, he hasn’t really had time to do much. Just recently, JPII’s Sec of State was replaced. He didn’t want to leave. JPII’s Master of Ceremonies, a man who doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a papal mass and a Rolling Stones concert, also doesn’t want to go.

    6. BXVI has made it clear that he thinks the 40 year long attempt by the Church at detente with secular culture has been a failure. But we can’t be so naive as to assume that changing that attitude will happen overnight.

  11. Proklos Grammatikos says:


    If we think of charisma in the sense that St.Paul uses it, not in the sense of that well-known protagonist of modernity Max Weber, it has everything to do with sancity or rather with divine grace. Max Weber was part of the modern movement to empty our Christian vocabulary of its primordial spiritual meaning. Thus, when we see charismatic we do not think of divine gifts but of a social phenomenon at best or a phenomenon of the personality.

    The Xtian idea, Father correct me if I’m wrong, that God chooses to variously express His activity through expressions of His grace. Hence, St Paul says:”There are different charismata but the same spirit, different diakonia (ministries) but the same Lord, different energemata but the same God.” In explaining “spirituals” (pneumatikoi)he causes our mind to move in a circle from the charismata to energemata, i.e, from God, the Holy Spirit, to God the Son to God the Holy Ghost. So the charisma of sanctiy I had in mind comes from scripture. It presence betokens God’s presence with us, which is what a saint is. But God may be presnt with us in the official ministries of the Church, not excluding the papal office. That was why I backed down when Father gently chastised me.

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