It stands to reason that the 265th head of the Catholic Church will view the relations between the faith he represents and the multi-religious world of the 21st century in a manner very different from many of his predecessors. Unfortunately, going by the contents of the pontiff’s lecture at Regensburg University in Germany on Tuesday, the Vatican only underlined its anachronistic credentials while Pope Benedict reaffirmed notions of his own fundamentalistic streak.
There is nothing blasphemous — in the secular sense of the word — in the Pope talking about ‘jehad’ and railing against extremist Islam’s justification for terrorism. If we, in the laity of various denominations, can castigate a mutilated and mutated religious ideology used to spread violence, there is nothing that prevents the head of Catholicism from doing so. After all, the Pope condemned every form of religious fundamentalism by citing the Quran stating there be “no oppression of faith”. Where he did end up sounding downright sinister was when he quoted the 14th century Christian emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos. The Pope was careful to stress that he was quoting Manuel II, who, after defeating the Ottoman forces and securing Constantinople, stated that Mohammad had introduced only “evil and inhuman” practices, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. Coming as it does from an entity that once waged its own ‘holy war’ and turned the term ‘Inquisition’ into a terror-word, this is rather rich.
But the point is not to delve in history — especially one that is so blood-soaked — but to find ways of sublimating bristly differences. Pope Ratzinger, as the leader of a variegated community already nervous about Islam and Muslims, needs to quell fears, not to aggravate them. At a time when he needs to expand on the inter-religious dialogue started by his predecessor, he has simply ended up looking like a Southern-belt televangelist. Even if he didn’t mean to upset Muslims by quoting a 14th century victor over Muslim forces, he definitely has bungled in his task as the Great Communicator.