I don't watch the news. I figure what's important will filter down to me through one avenue or another, and it generally does (as far as I know hehe). Recently, Pope Benedict XVI made a comment in a university lecture that has caused quite the controversy. Naturally, the controversy wasn't intended, and the Holy Father, numerous bishops, and other Church officials have quickly done what they can to calm the situation down.
It appears that, as is often the case in such brouhahas, words were taken out of context, causing much consternation in the Muslim world and, possibly, even some violence on its account, such as the murder of a missionary nun in Somalia. Although I know I shouldn't, I still am dumbfounded and in disbelief when confronted with such inhumanity and evil as a group of individuals who would gun down a woman who has devoted her life to relieving ill and suffering around the world.
It does make one wonder if the words of the Byzantine Emperor that the Pope was quoting did not have some truth to them. Looking at the startling acts of violence, inhumanity, and yes, evil, perpetrated in the name of Islam (such as 9/11, the London bombings, not to mention those in the Middle East) and those acts which have been thwarted (such as the shoe explosive, recent liquid explosives, and more that we probably don't know about), outsiders such as myself are forced to wonder if the central message of Islam is not such evil and inhuman activity. And then a senseless and violent killing in Somalia only serves to harden such suspicion.
Yet despite all of this evidence, forgetting the unknown, countless lives tossed aside during the jihads that spread Islam across the Middle East, Africa, Turkey, and Persia in the first milennia, let us with good faith assume that the Emperor was not right (though surely he was more learned on the subject than I). Let us assume that there is some new good that Muhammed brought to religion. Even so, the point at issue is still a matter of lack of context.
The Holy Father was quoting the Emperor not as an endorsement or affirmation but as an illustration. He even says that we are "astounded" at the Emperor's "brusqueness." Pope Benedict continues, as Manuel II Paleologus reportedly does, showing that this is a hyperbole leading into a discussion about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God (and reason). I've read the whole text, and while it isn't immediately obvious how the consideration of the Emperor's remarks fit into the greater dialogue other than, as the Pope says, "a starting point," it does fit with the broader theme of giving reason a greater place in human affairs, both in religion and faith and in the university, which these days has tended to want to limit reason to scientific thought stemming from Cartesianism and empiricism.
I believe the parallel between the reference to Islam and the reference to the developments in modern thought is that in both reason and God are seen to be somewhat, if not wholly, incompatible. With Islam, as His Holiness expounds, there are developments which say that faith is something other than and often in contradiction to reason; such a stance makes believing that conversion by the sword an acceptable means because reason is opposed to violence. The Holy Father also notes similar developments by some in the modern Christian tradition, so we see that it is not simply a criticism of Islam on this count.
Similarly, the modern scientific worldview sees anything that is not mathematical or empirically observable and verifiable as suspect, subjective, or wholly false, not in line with what is perceived as "reason." In both cases, the Holy Father is advocating a wider understanding of reason and its applicability to religion and faith--that there are valid, useful, indeed critically important modes of reason outside of the mathematical and empirical, that the mathematical and empirical depend on these, and that reason is in accord with them and with God's nature.
Thus we see a dual consideration: on the one hand, a critique of those who would push reason out of the sphere of faith and on the other those who would push faith out of the sphere of reason, leaving them as disparate spheres of life, more often than not in conflict. This is not the Catholic (read, historically Christian) way of understanding the relationship between reason and faith, and it is a greater understanding of and appreciation for the interdependence of faith and reason that the Pope is advocating, seeking more open and rational dialogue on both fronts.
All that said, I must say that I think the point could have been made without restating the controversial quip from Manuel II, but there I think we simply see the intellectual side of the Holy Father--the university professor who curiously relates how reading a text struck him and what it made him think of. Given the context of the address (a university lecture), this seems wholly likely.
It is highly unfortunate that this has been blown out of proportion and taken out of context, even to the point of violence. Hopefully, Muslims will see this as an opportunity to prove the Emperor wrong and make the noise of the good in Islam louder than the noise of those who would continue to try to spread and defend Islam through violence.