Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address: Have We Learnt Anything Since Then?
September 12 marks the fourteenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg address in which he discussed the very nature of man’s understanding of a free conscience, his thirst for knowledge in both reason and revelation, his understanding of the limitations of the will and the nature of his ability to understand his neighbor.
The Pontiff raised the question whether, under the notions of faith and reason, is it moral to convert a person against his or her will by means of violence? Referring to Muslims who blindly follow the lead of Islamic militants, he sought to explain the obstacles in finding a common ground between Christian-based Western society and Islam. Thereupon, Benedict, citing the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1391-1425), stated:
“The emperor [Manuel II] must have known that sura 2, 256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period when Muhammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the ‘infidels,’ he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed 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 he preached.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
Benedict’s address set off a worldwide uproar and violence in the Islamic world, to which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (future Pope Francis) responded: “These statements will serve only to destroy in twenty seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years.” He added that Benedict’s statements “don’t reflect my own opinions.” Incidentally, Christian persecution skyrocketed in the Islamic world after Benedict resigned.
Overshadowed by the violent reaction and rioting throughout the world, the Regensburg address sought to identify, as Robert Sokolowski, Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University in Washington explained, “an issue that is at the core both of the cultural crisis in the West and the conflict between the West and militant Islam.”
Benedict undoubtedly touched on what he had raised in 1997 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything…. One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of pluralistic society.”
This is something that, unfortunately, most civil and ecclesiastical leaders in the Western world today willingly fail to acknowledge. Benedict’s words were never meant to offend Muslims, rather they tried to highlight the fact that the fundamental application of the Quran and the hadiths — the historical acts and words of the Prophet Muhammad — as certain Islamists insist upon is nothing other than, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk once said an observance of the “theology of an immoral illiterate Arab.”
This is why present-day interreligious dialogue between the Vatican and Muslim radicals, such as Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb who calls for the killing of Muslims who leave Islam, or praises for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — a known terror supporter and inciter, and a rabid antisemite — forbear to give sufficient attention to whether there are different or distinct inherent, fundamental or categorical qualities between the Christian west and the Islamic world.
Failing to see this only serves to block efforts that can help foster a harmonious environment with Muslims, especially those who continue to come to the West to escape sharia legislation. More of an effort is needed, as Benedict told us, to help Muslims disavow those passages that call for violence and archaic observances that suppress human dignity.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.