The Pope and Islam
by Martin E. Marty
Pope Benedict XVI has had a free ride so far. Back when there were still Protestant anti-
Catholics, some would have found much fault with him, but most appreciated his encyclical on
divine and human love, and said so. Many Catholics and non-Catholics whose friends suffered
under him as Cardinal Ratzinger now empathically choose to help the wounded nurse their
bruises. Some among the Catholic right even think he should be more of a hardliner.
For all those reasons, it is regrettable that in the midst of a well worked out (of course) formal
speech at Regensburg, his old academic turf, the pope lapsed for a moment and did what we
tenured folk sometimes do—and remember, the pope has lifetime tenure: We come up with an
allusion that gets us in trouble, let a side point take center stage, or fail to count the cost of a
remark. So it was that almost inexplicably the pope began his talk in Regensburg with inflaming
words from an obscure fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor to show that jihad as holy war is
bad. That emperor through this pope said that what Muhammad brought to the world was “only
evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Like
Christians often did? The pope did not mention that.
His Holiness must have underestimated how useful such words would be to extreme fightpicking
Muslim clerics and right-wing American talk show folk. His people now stress that he
did not intend to offend Muslims, but his plea for “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so
urgently needed today” will be set back and out-shouted by those clerics and rightists. What
sounds at least half appropriate in a history-and-theology classroom sounds different when
spread to a billion Christians and a billion Muslims, as words such as these will be. The only
thing that will be remembered from the pope’s new call for reason and dialogue is the
unreasonable and monological citation that Muhammad contributed only “evil and inhuman”
speech and action in human history.
I know I’ll get hit for suggesting “equivalencies” here, though I am always clear in stating that
there is no equivalency between today’s radical and extreme Muslims and today’s ordinary
Christians. But it must also be said that Christians, from the fourth to the eighteenth century, can
match the Muslims one-for-one when it comes to having spread the faith with the sword. Read
the history of the Christianization of Europe and you have to go hunting for that minority of the
faithful who spread the faith without the sword, merely by witness and works.
We live today not in the time of Christian Crusades and Inquisitions, but in a time when the pope
is needed as a bridge-builder, a link-maker. Having quoted claims seven centuries old that only
“evil and inhuman” things were new in the program of the Prophet and in the name of Islam, it
will be harder for the pope to have dialogue with the Muslims who do good and human things.
Some on the Muslim and American right seem to be craving a war of civilizations, a war about
which we know only one thing: Both sides (or the many sides) would lose.
Rather than point to the “evil and inhuman” nature of Islam’s, Judaism’s, Christianity’s,
Hinduism’s, Buddhism’s, and other holy wars, the pope will serve better if he can still find
dialogue partners in search of the good and human. All is not lost. Yet.
Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact
information can be found at http://www.illuminos.com - Originally published at http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/index.shtml