What is wrong with the Pope affirming the truth of the faith which he represents?by Edward Skidelsky / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
One has to feel sorry for the Pope. He cannot open his mouth without giving offence to groups only too eager to take it. What’s more, the offence is shared by many members of Europe’s secular intelligentsia, who have no particular sympathy for radical Islam but are outraged that the head of a Christian church should be so “insensitive” as to voice a preference for his own faith. Things have come to a strange pass when even the Vicar of Christ is required to genuflect before the altar of cultural relativism.
Some commentators have accused the Pope of abusing his position. Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian even charged him with having “abdicated his papal role of arbitrator.” But who has ever claimed the Pope was supposed to be an arbitrator in the conflict between Christianity and other faiths? One might object were George W Bush to criticise Islam, but that is because he is president of a secular state, and so under an obligation to remain neutral in matters of faith. The Pope is under no such obligation. Indeed, he is under the opposite obligation, namely to affirm the truth of the faith he represents and thus, by implication, the falsity of all others. One might disagree with his views on Islam, but one can hardly take offence at his holding them.
As for the Pope’s actual remarks, they are not at all crude slurs, but part of a sophisticated and, to my mind, largely convincing argument about the relationship of faith to reason. God, according to the Bible, is logos, or reason. Faith in God is not contrary to reason, but is rather its perfection or completion. But in the mainstream Islamic tradition, God transcends man, and so cannot be comprehended by any human category, including reason. It is this, argues the Pope, that explains the difference between Christian and Muslim attitudes to forcible conversion. “God,” claimed the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II quoted by the Pope, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.… 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.”
No doubt the Pope could have made his case more tactfully. He could have mentioned medieval Arab rationalists such as Avicenna and Averroes, who preserved the heritage of Aristotle and passed…