Can the Pope be Reformed?
By Khalid Baig
Posted: 29 Shaban 1427, 23 September 2006

When Pope Benedict XVI was installed last year, Jerusalem Post predicted a radical change in Vatican's relations with Islam: "The era of subtle, discreet, yet firm confrontation has begun."  It noted with joy that in his greeting the new pope welcomed fellow Catholics, other Christians, and Jews --- but not Muslims.

There was nothing subtle or discreet in the Pope's calculated diatribes against Islam in his University address this month, but there were indications that these may have been opening salvos in the Pope's predicted crusade. He was fulfilling the expectations of Islamophobes of all persuasions. This includes Oriana Fallaci, an author with a venomous pen, who dedicated her life to slandering and vilifying Muslims. The Pope --- considered to be occupied with the issues of faith --- had no problem granting a secret audience to this self declared atheist. This was in August, a month before her death. It is difficult to imagine what brought her and the Pope together except their common hatred of Islam. The racist author, who said "Muslims multiplied like rats," was all praise for the new pope, who in her words was urging Europe to value their Christian (read: medieval) roots. Interesting that an atheist should be jubilant over Christian roots. Hatred, it seems, can produce hypocrisy.

We can gain further insight into the mindset of the new pope by listening to Father Joseph Fessio, a student and friend of Pope Benedict XVI, who gave an hour long interview on the Hugh Hewitt Show (January 2006) on the problems Christianity, especially in Europe, faced with the spread of Islam.  Read this:

Hugh Hewitt: Great to have you. I wanted to talk to you today, because Mark Steyn, a tremendous writer, wrote a piece yesterday on the loss of the West, because of depopulation, and because of a lack of seriousness. And I believe that this has been a theme in your teacher, Benedict XVI's first nine months as Pope. Am I right about that?

Joseph Fessio: Absolutely right, Hugh.

The problems mentioned above are diminishing Western populations and their decreasing faith in Christianity. In contrast Muslims are both increasing in numbers as well as in their faith in Islam.  Later in the interview Joseph Fessio makes it explicit: "[in] 2005, there were more Muslims born in France than people of traditional French background. Within four years, the top four cities in Holland will be...most populous cities, will have a Muslim majority. I mean, if we look at the demographics, which can change, but they change slowly, I don't see any other issue for Europe, or any result, than looking like North Africa, you know? Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt."

So Muslims are a problem. But the bigger problem is their faith. Benedict XVI himself sees that as a major challenge. In his interview based book, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997), written when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he notes that in the post colonial world (since 1960 in his words) Muslims have been coming back to Islam:

So the Muslims now have the consciousness that in reality Islam has remained in the end as the more vigorous religion and that they have something to say to the world, indeed, are the essential religious force of the future. Before, the shariah and all those things had already left the scene, in a sense; now there is a new pride. Thus a new zest, a new intensity about wanting to live Islam has awakened. This is its great power: We have a moral message that has existed without interruption since the prophets, and we will tell the world how to live it, whereas the Christians certainly can't. We must naturally come to terms with this inner power of Islam. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, this inner strength of Islam leads to rage rather than reflection in the Islamophobic quarters. Hence the campaign to vilify Islam.

Apparently, the Pope's address was his way of coming to terms with the inner power of Islam.

It is interesting that Benedict XVI chose the issue of faith and reason for his attack on Islam. For unlike Christianity, Islamic faith contains no mysteries or perplexing constructs like Trinity or the dual nature of Jesus, peace be upon him (at once human and divine). Ask those who are coming back to Islam in the Western world and on the top of their list you will find the simplicity and reasonableness of Islamic teachings and doctrines. They find here a belief system that immediately resonates with their own intellect. That is why the Qur'an repeatedly urges its readers to think and reflect, and says that those who will face eternal doom in the Hereafter will be the ones who failed to use their intellect.

They will further say: 'Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we should not (now) be among the Companions of the Blazing Fire!' [Al-Mulk 67:10]

The Pope managed to use the issue of faith versus reason to attack Islam not by reading the Qur'an or listening to the Prophet, Sall-Allahu Alayhi wa sallam, but by invoking a medieval emperor's polemics against Islam. (The emperor had been defeated by the Ottomans and it stands to reason that he was bitter.)

The propaganda machine that immediately rushed to his aid stated that the Pope had not approved the statement. He was clumsy, but he committed no offence. As if quoting a diatribe without clearly rejecting it can have some purpose other than propagating it. But here the Pope had done more. He called Manuel II erudite --- a clear word of praise --- and approvingly reported the conclusion he drew, implying the validity of the emperor's reasoning.

Then came the explanations. First there was the Pope's disingenuous regret over the "reaction" of Muslims. Not over his words or actions but their reactions. A few days later the Pope justified his slander by asserting that it was a necessary rhetorical device. He said the offending quote was necessary "to introduce the audience to the drama and relevance" of his talk, reported Stacy Meichtry, of Religion News Service on 21 September 2006. Interestingly the media machine kept on berating Muslims for not accepting an apology that had never been offered.

In the midst of all this the Vatican condemned those who were misinterpreting the Papal quote. We need to ask them, in how many different ways can one interpret a quote like the following: "Show me just what Christianity brought, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, like inquisitions, forced conversions of millions of aborigines in America and Australia, and a brutal slave trade that decimated Africa."

Although the media machine cleverly missed it completely, the real issue is Islamophobia. This is not an issue that can be swept under the rug. The currents of Islamophobia are strong in the West today; especially so in Europe. And with the Pope putting the weight of his office behind this, it can only get uglier.

This ominous development threatens not only Muslims. Muslims have been natural allies of Catholics on moral issues like abortion. But by pointing its guns at them, the Vatican is going to weaken its own position. For those who value that alliance as well as tolerance and peace in the world, the big question remains: Can this Pope be reformed? Can he be made to see reason?