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The Ratzinger Gospel

As far as Ratzinger is concerned, we?ve had too much of secularism and liberalism. We need to be less tolerant of irrational religions such as Islam, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2006 03:25 IST

No surprises here. Ever since Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to succeed the late Pope John Paul II, I have been waiting for the old boy to let the mask slip and allow his real views to emerge. Ratzinger’s election was something of an inside job. He was John Paul’s chief sidekick and when it became clear — over several years — that Jesus was recalling the old Pope to sit by his side, Ratzinger began lobbying the College of Cardinals so that he would seem like the obvious successor when the election was due.

His ascension — under the name of Pope Benedict XVI — was greeted with horror by most liberals in the Catholic world and outside. (He chose Benedict though wags claimed that the logical name for John Paul’s successor should have been Pope George Ringo.) The late John Paul was an utter and complete reactionary — the sort of chap who refused to allow the Church to moderate its views on contraception, divorce, homosexuality or women — but Ratzinger is so right-wing that he makes John Paul seem like Che Guevara in comparison.

In fact, the British tabloid press took to calling him the Panzer Pope (after the German World War II tank), not because of his Teutonic origins but because of his membership of Hitler Youth. Ratzinger signed up when he was 14 and has spent decades explaining away his youthful flirtation with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. As far as I can tell, his version is that he had no choice in the matter because all young Germans were expected to goose-step to the Nazi anthem in those days.

Given that the College of Cardinals took the line that he was a ‘Hail Mary’ sort of chap, rather than a ‘Sieg Heil’ sort of guy, I suppose we shall have to accept his explanation that he was compelled to wear the Swastika on his arm by law.

But ever since he became Pope, Ratzinger has stopped bothering to explain his Hitler connection. In May, when he visited Auschwitz, he was widely expected to offer some apology for the Vatican’s shameful silence during the Holocaust. He deliberately chose not to do so despite enormous criticism from Jews and liberals.

The current controversy over his remarks about Islam and the Prophet is in keeping with his record. The Vatican now says that he has been quoted out of context and that his criticism of the Prophet only represented an attempt to recall an earlier point of view.  But his so-called apology does not withdraw or reconsider any of his remarks. He only suggests that Muslims have lifted his comments out of context and so, he’s sorry about the misunderstanding.

Well, I’ve read the whole speech, and I’ll tell you the context. The speech is about the conflict between reason and religion and, therefore, about the role that violence can play in this conflict. As you would expect from any Pope — even Ratzinger — his view is that Christianity is terrific because it allows for a rational exposition of issues but that science needs to broaden its “concept of reason and its application”. It ends with a grandiose call for a ‘dialogue of cultures’ and ‘inquiry into the rationality of faith’.

The problem comes in the early part of the speech when Ratzinger provides what he calls “the starting point for my reflections on this issue”. He goes back to the dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II (whom Ratzinger approvingly refers to as ‘erudite’) and an unnamed Persian — presumably a Muslim (whom Ratzinger refers to, with rather less detail, as merely ‘educated’). That dialogue was about ‘the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran’ but Ratzinger says, “It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture.”

Nevertheless, he then goes on to gratuitously quote one of Manuel II’s more offensive observations about Islam: “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith preached.”

The intention, apparently, is not to discuss how much of the Prophet’s teachings were new or even which ones were ‘evil and inhuman’. Rather, Ratzinger’s concern is with Islam’s emphasis on violence as contrasted with Christianity’s Gandhian emphasis on non-violence. (“To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind or any other means of threatening a person with death.”)

To be fair to the old boy, the point he makes is not without merit. Christ advised us to turn the other cheek (unlike the Old Testament which asked for ‘an eye for an eye’ — no doubt Ratzinger will next discuss how much Jews love violence) whereas the Koran is rather less enthusiastic about non-violence.

But, if you were to scour the world’s religious texts to find examples to suit your argument, you could probably come up with quotes to fit any cause. (Hence that old caution about the devil quoting scripture.) Certainly, there is much in the New Testament and much more in the Old Testament that can be used to make the same case against Christianity. Similarly, you could damn Hinduism simply by quoting original texts on the subject of women or caste.

Plus, there’s the historical background. If Christianity is such a non-violent religion, then why did so many Catholics sign up in the Middle Ages for the Crusades, a Christian version of jihad, a holy battle sanctioned by the Pope to fight the Muslims who had overrun the ‘holy land’? How does Ratzinger explain the Inquisition and Torquemada? What about the brutality of early Christian conquerors? The genocide of American Indians? The European tradition — with the tacit approval of the Church — of anti-Semitism?

But even if one were to airbrush Christianity’s bloody past out of the Vatican’s version of history, and accept Ratzinger’s basic thesis — that Christianity is a non-violent religion that allows for a rational examination of religious issues, and Islam is not — there’s still the matter of the quote from Manuel II. Anybody who reads the full lecture will see that it is completely gratuitous and could easily have been avoided. Even Ratzinger conceded within the lecture that it was not central to his thesis.

So why did he include it?

I do not believe that it was a mistake or that he was unmindful of the impact it would have on the Islamic world. He may be a reactionary but he is not stupid.

My guess is that Ratzinger wanted to intervene in the current dialogue about the clash of civilisations and the need to respect other people’s faiths. If you read the full speech, his view is that faith can be respected only if it conforms to rationality. (That’s a pretty bizarre view given the Vatican’s record on women, contraception and other social issues but Popes are not big on irony or even self-knowledge.)

His message is: you do not have to respect everything that Muslims believe if you cannot find a rational explanation for it. It is all very well for them to say that it is the will of their God. But the truth is that their God makes them defy all rationality. (He quotes an Islamist to say that Allah “is not bound even by his own word… were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry”.) Let’s not make the mistake of confusing respect for Christian beliefs — which Ratzinger regards as rational — with respect for Islamic beliefs which may well be irrational and violent.

You may or may not agree with Ratzinger’s message (I certainly don’t — the essence of all religion is irrationality) but there is no mistaking his intention. He is speaking on behalf of the Christian world in the clash of civilisations and telling us that the liberal view that we must respect all religions equally is flawed because some religions (i.e., Islam) are irrational and violent.

It is the sort of thing you would expect from the Panzer Pope. As far as Ratzinger is concerned, we’ve had too much of secularism and liberalism. We need to be less tolerant of irrational religions such as Islam. Small wonder then that while there has been a chorus of protest in India — from the Congress to the BJP to the Minorities Commission — the one party that has refused to condemn the Pope’s statement is the RSS. And the VHP has actually praised him.

So, the search for an Indian Pope may finally be at an end.

If K Sudarshan begins lobbying the College of Cardinals today, there is a good chance that they might elect him Pope once Ratzinger goes off to the great bunker in the sky. Because ultimately, all fundamentalists are the same, no matter which religion they claim to represent.