Did Benedict XVI bury the lede?

ratzingerPaulII webEvery now and then, you get to see a reporter gently suggest that a major religious leader — take Pope Benedict XVI, example — has tried to pull a fast one. That may be what’s happening in this story earlier this week by New York Times reporter Ian Fisher about the pope’s complicated address on faith and reason, which included a highly significant illustration linked to Islam.

Actually, I think that Fisher did a good job of getting at the heart of this one.

Let’s face it: Popes are not sound-bite-friendly speakers. They have been known to float a policy balloon or two in the midst of a doctrinal tidal wave (how’s that for a mixed metaphor). I have seen bishops, in a debate here in America, lapse into Italian or Latin during public remarks so that journalists cannot quote them. It’s a nice trick.

In this case, the Times even got both angles into the headline: “Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad.” Here is the rather tortured lead, which must have been a bear to write.

REGENSBURG, Germany, Sept. 12 — Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Tuesday on the delicate issue of rapport between Islam and the West: He said that violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God’s plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it.

But the following section of the story gets to the heart of the matter, including the nice factual aside by Fisher that lets the reader know that the news lead was not the main topic of the pope’s actual address:

He began his speech, which ran over half an hour, by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a “learned Persian” on Christianity and Islam — “and the truth of both.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached,” the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty. He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus “contrary to God’s nature.”

But the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of the speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith — leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict’s worries.

As Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher notes, the Times take on this is certainly a lot better than the headline on the Agence France Presse account of the speech: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Rod, by the way, also has a link to the actual text of the pope’s remarks.

Here is my question: Does Fisher realize that Benedict XVI may be opening the door into discussion of a controversial issue linked to the church’s teachings on salvation? To put it into GetReligion terms, the pope is touching on doctrinal issues linked to one of the “tmatt trio” — the question of whether salvation is found through Jesus, alone.

pope koranIt does appear, as Fisher notes, that this pope is trying to take a more conservative, traditional stance on issues linked to Islam and, perhaps, other world religions, in general. It is certainly clear that Benedict’s views on interfaith worship — as opposed to ecumenical worship with other Christians — are different than those of the late Pope John Paul II, who infuriated many conservative Catholics when he kissed a Koran, an act normally reserved for the Gospels.

What journalists have to realize is that, for traditional Christians, taking part in formal worship services involving other religions is a totally different issue than participating in forums and seminars. A service blending prayers from clashing world religions implies, at the very least, that these prayers are addressed to the same God, god or gods. Some would argue that this statement is true and some would say that it is false, but fierce debates would result no matter what.

This leads us to the loaded question of whether Allah and the God of the Christian Trinity can be called “the same” God. Those famous Koranic inscriptions inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock are there for a reason, the ones declaring that Allah “begets no son and has no partner,” that “he is God, one, eternal” and that “he does not beget, nor is he begotten.” See you later, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Forget those speeches by President Bush for a moment. Ask traditional and progressive Muslims if the Christian God is their God. Now ask conservative and liberal Christians the same question, then listen to the debates and the logic. You know, that issue would make a great Times piece.

To me, it seems that this pope is asking if Christians have the right to raise questions about Islam and then, if need be, demand the right to debate them candidly with Muslims. Benedict also seems to be more open to stating claims of Catholic authority in ecumenical talks with other Christians, a fact that may soon make a major impact on life in the Church of England.

GetReligion readers may want to dig into “The Year of Two Popes,” that interesting Paul Elie cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. One of its major themes is that Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger had major differences on the style and content of the Vatican’s interfaith and ecumenical work. Check it out. This story isn’t finished.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Tom Breen

    By the same token, of course, these questions could also be raised of Christianity and Judaism. I think many Christians and Jews are used to platitudes about worshiping the same God, but you have essentially the same distinctions as you do with Christianity and Islam – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One” precludes, at least for the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Jews, the Trinity.

    These are the kinds of distinctions – beyond the blather about “Judeo-Christianity” and the “Abrahamic faiths” – I’d like to see reporters dig into more.

  • Jens

    I disagree that this speech was about the exclusivity of salvation.

    After all, the pope goes on to argue against a narrow secularism by saying there is wisdom in many faiths: “For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.”

    It seems to me he’s staking out something of a middle ground position between empiricism alone and fundamentalist religious expressions not bounded by reason. Or, more specifically, European secular societies and Salafist Islam (and perhaps fundamentalist Christianity too?).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I know. I know the Vat II documents and I know what the modern Catholic position is there….

    But any attempt to note where Benedict thinks Christianity is right and other religions are wrong will raise concerns amoung Catholics who are, in fact, Universalists on salvation issues. Meanwhile, there are those who want INTERFAITH worship — period. They will freak out.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Oh, do read the Atlantic piece. I think you’ll see where I’m coming from in my post.

  • Jens

    Thanks, I will.

  • Dhanishta Devi

    Its a shame all the worlds religions dont realize that they are worshiping the same GOD. There is only one GOD – but how GOD chooses to present Himself to humanity in different ages is His business. Wake up world and stop playing these stupid dogmatic and sectarian games. We are all the children of GOD. Its a shame we dont act like the real brothers and sisters we are. If we did, then maybe the world will be a better place and the poison in our religious doctrines eliminated once and for all…

  • Jonn Mick

    The whole question and debate about who and what God is is a futile and wasteful act of energy and time.

    Stephen Hawkins comes closer to the fact than anyone today when he allegedly said that, “God is humanities attempt to explain the dynamic energy that formed and expands the universe”.

    God in any form is humanities mega imagination run wild, motivated by runaway fear and desperation and hopelessness.

    Christianity and Islam and Judaism have been so corrupted and distorted from their origins that instead of beautifying humans they create the most horrendous evil of belief, bringing out the worst possible behavior in humans that believe.

    The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying that, “The world is a Prison-house for a believer and Paradise for a non-believer.” (Sahih Muslim -Book 42, number7058).

    Jonn Mick

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    Your Eastern Orthodoxy shows at the seams.

  • Steve

    The distinctions between Yahweh, Allah and the Christian Triune God — “Father, Son & Holy Spirit” are real & puzzling. As a Catholic, I was taught that the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh) is actually the Christian “God the Father”. Christ, God’s Son was begotten of the Father. — The fact that Allah, begot no son & was not begotten is in direct conflict with the Christian teaching of the Trinity!

    To Jonn Mick:
    Regarding your statement,
    “Christianity and Islam and Judaism have been so corrupted and distorted from their origins that instead of beautifying humans they create the most horrendous evil of belief, bringing out the worst possible behavior in humans that believe.”

    I think Mother Teresa, St. Francis (and there are many others) are examples of the best possible behavior in humans.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, I deleted some comments.

    Let’s please return to a discussion of the actual post and the New York Times report on the papal address.


  • Micah Weedman


    With all due respect, it seems that you are suggesting that JPII was somehow “liberal” in his interfaith approach. I know you are tired of me saying this, but might this be where the Culture Wars typology fails as well–it seems that JPII’s interfaith activities were more reminiscent of a rather conservative sense of hospitality–perhaps most famously embodied by, ironically, the Benedictines.

    Futhermore, take the second paragraph of the story–B-XVI suggesting that “reason” is the basis for common dialogue. Come on–can you get more liberal than that? Sure, what he means by reason–and I think this is well put in the story–is reason which “listens” to God.
    But this still highlights the primary difference between JPII and BXVI. Benedict is the true liberal: reason is the common ground for all dialogue. For JPII, prayer is. This is hard to map on a Orthodox vs. Progressive scale, I think.

    (ps–while having worked in interfaith campus ministry alonside a Benedictine nun and some Methodists, I still claim no expertise in interfaith dialogue or the Roman Catholic approach to said dialogue).

  • Corban

    The pope’s whole lecture, available on zenit.org, is brilliant and profound – on the synthesis of the biblical and Greek spirit and the ‘Platonic (cartesian)’ nature of science – a beleif in the rational structure of matter, tied with empiricism.

    I wonder if the immediate background to his remarks about forced conversion in Islam – quoting Manuel II Paleologus – was the Fox journalists in Gaza.

  • Dileep

    Papa benedictos XVI was just making a statement of fact on Islam and the same is his obligation as long as he remains to be a Christian. But the most interesting fact would be that Christianity had a past worst than that of Islam and that Christianity fell into the “great apostasy” the very day that Emperor Constantine the great decriminalized Christianity in his portion of the empire in AD 313. But now that his predecessor lamented mea culpa for all what Christianity has done through the last two millennia, Catholic Christianity has set a right precedence for a peace loving world and Muslims too should follow the same in admitting their mistakes and in proclaiming that they will never be repeated for the time and age to come.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Liberal in the sense of reason, or liberal on the doctrine of the unique nature of Jesus and what that has to do with the Catholic Church?

    Please read The Atlantic piece. You’ll see the material that I am talking about.

  • Alexei

    Ironic morning-after headline: “Muslim fury over Pope’s remarks.”

    This is probably biased media coverage, but, it seems that a great number of Islamic organizations united to decry the pontiff’s speech. Where were they to decry the forced conversion? The terrorist attacks?

    Can someone please tell me if this is just (lack of) media coverage?

  • Whistlblwr

    For a man of his stature to utter such contempt filled words even under the veil of “quoting” an old emperor, and the obvious ignorance of the islamic faith’s tenets is simply shameful! I won’t go into a lenghty expose but I am sure that he is well aware of the early church’s violent establishment and the horrors of the crusades perpetrated in the name of… anyhow, a careful and honest browsing of history will show that the violence historically associated with the spread of christianity knows no equal compared to the other 2 truly monotheistic faiths. Furthermore in these volatile times threatening to degenerate into something unprecedented in the history of man, one would expect a man in his position to be a voice promoting understanding and peace rather than spewing such erratic, ill advised inflammatory words.

  • http://www.archden.org Francis X. Maier

    I love this website, but the comments on this story, as articulate as they are, seem to miss the point. B-16′s remarks on Islam are extraordinarily adroit and blunt at the same time, and also demonstrate the need for what most Westerners now lack — a knowledge of history and its implied lessons. The real story here is the systematic muscle of the Muslim bullying machine that quickly brands any questions about even the ugliest Muslim behavior as bigotry against Islam.

  • Micah Weedman


    I’m not a subscriber, so I can’t get the story. I’ll look around and see if I can find another way to get.

    I mean just that–liberal in the sense of “reason.” I don’t doubt that he’s more vocal than JPII about he exclusivity of Christ (though I hardly think you can accuse JPII of being a inclusionist); still though, he is attempting to ground dialogue with Muslims (and I’d wager by extension, Jews) in a notion birthed in the Enlightnment. Even if he is critical of reason as a cultural force in Europe (and rightly so), he still sees it as some kind of “neutral” table that everyone can come to.
    JPII, on the other hand, thought everyone should just pray together. In other words, on in our practices can we come together (or not).

    I’m painting with broad strokes, I know, but I think all this is worth noting.

    I’ll look for the article.

  • Martha

    I thought it was a case of editors finding “Pope Slams Islam” a sexier headline than “Pope Addresses Academics On De-Hellenization Of Theology”.

    The advantage being that Day One you can run your “Slams!” headline which guarantees you that you will have on Day Two your “Fury!” headline. And of course, the Vatican *always* “slams” things; it never ‘comments’, ‘critiques’ or ‘rebukes’ and in turn, the respondents always react in “fury”, never ‘calmly answer’ or ‘respond reasonably’ or ‘rebut using logical argument’.

  • Corban

    If the pope’s comments were untrue (and note, he is talking about Christian perceptions of Islam from over 600 years ago), then the leaders of Islam would sigh, shrug their shoulders, and get on with quietly spreading the Religion of Peace.
    But the fact that people decry his comments with the warning that Christians in Muslim lands will now face violence indicates that he has correctly identified the bully.
    It’s long past the hour for the west to wake up and deal with the huge civilizational threat it is in. Maybe it’s too late for Europe, if demography is one’s destiny, but Africa and the Americas must make a stand.

  • http://www.archden.org Francis X. Maier

    Amen brother.

  • H Weldon

    As I understand it, BXVI taught religions at the University. If correct, how can anyone say he spoke in ignorance?
    Muhammad did advocate the spread of Islam by the sword. But, only to those who had no god. Only the irrational generals would harm a Jew, as they were “children of the book.” Historically Jews have been treated far better by Arabs than by Christians.
    Muslims are Jihadists to the same extent that Germans were Nazis.
    Were BXVI’s comments aimed to defame Muslims, or to invite true believers to reason together that violence, in the name of, any or either, God is not reasonable.
    Were his comments a bold confrontation against Islam, or a subtle proclamation that he knows first hand fascism when he sees it.
    Why did Germans cheer Hitler? Why do Muslims follow Jihadists? Where is the reason in their actions? If no one asks, how will we know? If no one asks them to stop and think, will they?

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    The NY times has posted a correction.

    Correction: Sept. 15, 2006

    Because of a transcription error, an article on Wednesday about a speech by Pope Benedict XVI in Germany, in which he addressed the concept of Muslim holy war, rendered incorrectly a phrase from a quotation by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. The correct quotation reads, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.” — not “to spread the sword by the faith he preached.”

    I wondered about that when I read a BBC article on it.

  • Maureen

    “Only the irrational generals would harm a Jew, as they were “children of the book.” Historically Jews have been treated far better by Arabs than by Christians.”

    You are aware that Mohammed slaughtered an entire tribe of Jews? He only spared the women and children so he could sell them into slavery. (Of course, he also took one of the women himself to be a sex slave. Convert and marry, or don’t convert and be a sex slave. Such respect for the Jews.)

  • http://www.movermike.com Mike Landfair

    The headline “Did Benedict XVI bury the lead?” should read “Did Benedict XVI bury the lede?” It is lede not lead!

  • Art

    Benedict XVI is far from ignorant of the tenets of Islam, he knows them quite well. And yes, there have been violent periods in Christian history but it has never been promoted as a means of spreading the faith. Islam was primarily spread through the sword, its founder preached violence and practiced it, while the founder of Christianity never committed violence or preached violence.

    Islam’s entrance into India, forced conversion of thousands and murder of those who refused to convert is one of the most violent episodes in history and dwarfs any comparable incident in western history.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin Jones

    Has anybody analyzed the role of the Western media in fanning the flames of Islamic rage? Did some Western editor think “let’s you and him fight, that’ll sell newspapers!” and frame the story in such a way that would be sure to tick off the Islamic media, or did this story get its wings in the Islamic world first?

  • H Weldon

    re: Muhammad’s slaughter of an entire tibe of Jews.
    So then the real source of this unacceptable story of slaughter was the descendants of the Jews of Medina, from whom Ibn Ishaq took these “odd tales”. For doing so Ibn Ishaq was severely criticized by other scholars and historians and was called by Malik an impostor.
    The sources of the story are, therefore, extremely doubtful and the details are diametrically opposed to the spirit of Islam and the rules of the Qur’an to make the story credible. Credible authority is lacking, and circumstantial evidence does not support it. This means that the story is more than doubtful.
    Against these late and uncertain sources must be placed the only contemporary and entirely authentic source, the Qur’an. There, the reference in Sura XXXIII, 26 is very brief:
    “He caused those of the People of the Book who helped them (i.e. the Quraysh) to come out of their forts. Some you killed, some you took prisoner.” There is no reference to numbers.
    Exegetes and traditionists tend simply to repeat Ibn Ishaq’s tale, but in the Qur’an the reference can only be to those who were actually in the fighting. This is a statement about the battle. It concerns those who fought. Some of these were killed. others were taken prisoner.
    One would think that if 600 or 900 people were killed in this manner the significance of the event would have been greater. There would have been a clearer reference in the Qur’an, a conclusion to be drawn, and a lesson to be learnt. But when only the guilty leaders were executed, it would be normal to expect only a brief reference.
    From Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland,
    (1976), pp. 100-107.

  • Julia

    When did reference to the lead of an article become “lede”? I’m 62 and I don’t recall when the change occurred. My brother is a new reporter and he doesn’t remember the change either.

  • str1977

    H. Weldon,

    so a common feature of Islamic expansive wars over the centuries was “diametrically opposed to the spirit of Islam”? And this practice was in fact started by none other than Muhammad?

    Actually, in a way you repeat what Pope Benedict (and Emperor Manuel over 600 years ago) said: such acts are diametrically opposed to God and true worship of him.

    But whether this is to be identified with Islam as a historical phenomenon started by Muhammad is another question, you yourself must answer.

  • Pingback: basun » Blog Archive » PÃ¥vens tal om islam sÃ¥rar känslor

  • Dennis onyango

    I think the Pope’s remarks were right.If people deny it, what is about those people who relate terror with Islam, like Osama himself.

    Thus the Pope’s comments were right.