All You Need To Know About The Pope

There has been a little bit more than usual in the press about the Pope over the past few days. As longer-readers will be well aware, I was a huge fan of John Paul II, who was a titan of a man. Although I have difficulty with anyone who could try to silence Hans Kung, I guess I have given Papa Ratzie the benefit of the doubt over the last two years. Since I changed my job and stopped travelling to and fro all day every day, I have been much less plugged in to talk radio and so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Irish reaction to the comments made at Regensburg University last week. Planet Potato hasn’t passed comment on it yet so I don’t know what smart Irish people are thinking. I know Christopher Hitchens’ rapid descent into Dawkinophia (a terrible disease where atheism swamps everything you write so that not being able to find a car parking space can be explained by religious idiocy) has been accelerated by the furore. I suspect United Irelander has come close to how most people feel about this issue when they write that the Pope’s comments might have been ill-advised but he has said sorry so what the hell are these people complaining about?!

While you might have heard lots of comment on this issue, you probably haven’t got the low down as its seen from an evangelical Presbyterian churchman who is studying theology under Catholics. And I am equally sure that you have been waiting for just such a man or woman to come along and explain things to you. So settle yourself down, put a coaster under your cup of tea and take out your copy of the Satanic Verses because I’ll lay it out as plain as day.

The Pope delivered a lecture last week at his old university, Regensburg. He didn’t make a speech. He attended an event held for theologians by theologians and he read his prepared comments which take the form of an academic paper. Indeed, he had intended to publish this paper in due course through the relevant Vatican journals. When it was delivered last week it caused quite a flurry of excitement because, and I think this is crucial here, the work is a masterpiece. Theologically speaking, this is a gem of a paper that reads as easily as its logic flows so that you barely notice the choppy intellectual waters he has steered you through.

That is was a theological paper delivered before his peers should be taken into consideration. It was never intended to be let it float on choppy political waters. It was never meant to be a diplomatic statement on inter-religious dialogue. It actually has nothing to do with Islam. It is an academic paper presented in a university to a theology faculty on the doctrine of God. When an astrophysicist delivers a lecture down the road from me in Maynooth offering a theory on multiple universes, it doesn’t create a political maelstrom in the Middle East, although it presents a real challenge to Islam. The reason is that in the normal course of things, academics don’t have to be answerable to political forces. (“How naive!” the academics say. “He has never applied for funding, obviously!”)

Imagine if a world-renowned doctor delivered a groundbreaking lecture on the topic of public health at a medical conference. In this paper he presents the outline of the next generation of public health work set before he and his peers, where the task is one of making access to health care and information for health prevention available to everyone regardless of class or creed or race. He deals with massive, complex problems in an elegant manner that inspires and refreshes the thinking of those present. And as an example of how public health can fail and fall short of the standards set before it, he mentions the decision to stop homosexual men from donating blood on the back of sexual promiscuity amongst that population in the early 1980s. He cites popular writings by informed men in that time that linked the HIV epidemic that group endured to that group’s lifestyle. It might not be politically correct but he is citing someone else to make a point so no one bats an eyelid. It is not he that is offensive, but the text he cites. Whether that text is accurate or not is moot because of the larger point this doctor is making which is that in this generation we must move beyond old stumbling blocks and make a revolution for public health so no group is victim of an epidemic for lack of information or kept from treatment from the presence of prejudice.

I think this is a pretty fair analogy to what the Pope was saying. His point is not that Muslims are blood thirsty, that Mohammed was a murderer or that Islam is evil. His point isn’t even that conversion should never be forced. What he was laying out was the big picture facing theology, facing the church, facing Christians. The big picture is that reason and faith are divorced in the common mind and in popular discourse but that our faith must not fall prey to this dichotomy and in fact be the force that overcomes it. As as example of how this challenge has been missed in the past he cites a medieval text about unreasonable faith-action, that is Jihad.

What the Pope laid out in this lecture has nothing at all to do with Islam really. He was arguing that a chief characteristic of God is reason. That humanity has reason at all is because God has graced us with it. As we bear his image, we bear a reflection of this reasoning. He points out that the similarity between man and God is minute in comparison to the dis-similarity. We could not reason our way up to God, beat God at chess, or understand what God is up to. But the Biblical record is clear that reason, in Greek “Logos” is a characteristic of God. Logos is also the title that John, the author of the Gospel named after a guy called John gives to Jesus. He starts his biography with “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God…”

Benedict XVI used an illustration to make his point when he cited a medieval text where an Emperor argued that it wouldn’t do to convert someone to faith in this Reasonable God by force. It just so happened that the Emperor was referencing Mohammed’s teachings and actions. But in the quotation there is an implicit repudiation of the rhetoric used. Here is how the Pope said it:

…he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “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.”

This is an elementary lesson in context that needs to be taught by the government-backed newspapers of the Islamic nations exploding with self righteous fury. The old German doesn’t mean to pass these comments off as his own! This is a 5-page lecture he has given where he charts strands of thought from the apostolic age right up to postmodern era thinkers like Monod and all the world is talking about these couple of lines?! If I feel like crying its because so few people love the theology as much as me and they are just warbling on about diplomacy and political correctness. You’re missing the theology!!!

If for some absurd reason the theology doesn’t get your blood pumping, all you need to know about what what the Pope said is that he threw down the gauntlet to his theologian buddies to join with him in the task of:

…broadening our concept of reason and its application…We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.

It doesn’t need to be pointed out that protests against the Pope allegedly calling your religion violent become largely meaningless if you respond by shooting nuns, burning churches and threatening widespread persecution. False religion, whether it makes its home in a mosque, a Catholic parish, a skeptics society or a Presbyterian session will always drag people into sectarian violence and unthinking prejudice. It has killed the person who embraces it long before they get around to burning effigies of an old German and raining profanities on Anglican priests on the streets of Jerusalem. The outcome of all of this in Ireland is likely to be a further private withdrawl within individuals from “organised religion”. The quote at the end of the Pope’s speech captures their position perfectly when Socrates says to Phaedo:

It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being

But if you are in that position I would encourage you to consider the tight reasoning presented in the largely unread text of the Regensburg lecture and the end of that quote from Plato:

but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.

Your Correspondent, What I do, I don’t want to do.

4 Responses to “All You Need To Know About The Pope”

  1. Lucas says:

    I have to disagree a little bit.

    I think as Pope, Benedict must be aware that all his comments are going to be subjected to unfriendly interpretation; this because he is a world leader of importance, with opinions about controversial issues. I mean, his statements will be interpreted through a political mind frame, and therefore if anything he says could be construed to suggest a certain thing that is controversial, that meaning will be pulled out of it.

    Yet it seems that he expected to be only subjected to the fair and methodical interpretation of an exclusively academic audience.

    Now, in a book I read on the popes, by Eamon Duffy (not Dunphy), Ratzinger while developing ‘prominence’ in the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, all the while longed for retirement to Bavaria, to his old university, Regensburg. This retirement was to be an academic one, where he would have time to pursue his studies, far away from any harsh public spotlight.

    Perhaps then what happened just recently, in it being his last visit to his home, was a slip in which the world-weary Ratzinger had convinced himself that by returning to his home, he had somehow returned out of the role of Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, where he then indulged in the liberties of the abstract Academic, whose comments would only ever be treated as provisional musings for disinterested academic rumination -totally free of any emotion.

    But the Pope is burdened with being the Pope, and he can’t ever get away from that. So although it clearly was unfair about how his words were interpreted, he could yet be accused of a kind of negligence under the enormous pressure of the office he holds. Now I’m not saying ‘oh he’s a shit pope, he’s incompetent’, rather he should be admired for not fucking up a lot more in having wholly given up his own life to his faith.

    Is this fair?

  2. zoomtard says:

    The answer is: YES!

    The pertinent question now stands as: When will we be able to read a book by Eamonn Dunphy about the Popes?

  3. I think Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams said it best with this:

    “In response to being labeled evil and inhuman by a dead Byzantine emperor, a group of Muslims did what anyone would do in that situation: They firebombed two churches in the West Bank.

    “This is funny on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. But let me begin by saying WHAT THE HELL ARE CHURCHES DOING IN THE WEST BANK?????????”


  4. zoomtard says:

    The correct question is: When will Eamonn Dunphy explain why there are anything except churches in the West Bank?