The reaction – from all sides – to Pope Benedict’s remarks in Regensburg has been typical. And typically disappointing. Neither loud agreement nor violent disagreement with what the Pope is thought to be saying about Islam comes close to what the Pope actually said.
There are three keys to interpreting the Pope’s address. They won’t come as any surprise to long-time observers of Benedict’s theology, nor to observers of the moves he’s made to distance himself from some of his predecessor’s actions.
The first is that the Pope is not a diplomat, and does not care much for politics. Though he’s “right wing” in theology, or perceived as such, it’s hard to find much commentary on overtly political issues in his huge corpus of work. It would be wrong to believe that Benedict aligns himself with the adherents of the War on Terror, for instance. His priorities are simply elsewhere. He feels that the truth of the Christian message should be proclaimed without regard for secular niceties, and he sees his mission as doing just that.
Benedict has downgraded the Vatican’s diplomacy, and appointed the first non-diplomat as Secretary of State for centuries.
Secondly, Benedict believes relativism to be the key crisis of our time. So he has uncompromisingly proclaimed Christianity the true faith, having written the declaration Dominus Iesus which said just that. He thought John Paul II was mushy on Islam, but then he thought that John Paul II was mushy on Buddhism and Hinduism as well.
Thirdly, Benedict doesn’t just attack secular relativism, but also the religious relativism that he sees as corrupting Christianity from within. Thus the main point of his lecture was to criticise creeping “dehellenisation” of the faith. Liberal Protestant theology, and what he sees as its effects in secularising European culture, is much more in his sights than Islam in these remarks. As any reading of the full text will show.
Those who are loudly denouncing or applauding need to take a cold shower. Benedict’s position is interesting, but the reference to the Manuel II Paleologus “dialogue” on Islam has more to do with his consistent worries about relativism than world politics. It was simply a badly chosen example. The true motto is that sacking and downgrading the Vatican politicos might be an ill judged move. The other motto is that interpreters need to look beyond the soundbite and read the text. That would surely be a miracle.