Benedict’s “blunder” was partly media-enhanced-UPDATED

I am not especially saddened to see the brouhaha that is gaining strength over Benedict’s speech. Whether he is “media savvy” or not, Benedict has managed – in his very scholarly fashion – to apply a very hot drawing poultice to the enormous and festering boils of both radical Islamism and rampant secularism. At the very least, it will cause some Muslims to insist that distinctions be made between them and their more extreme co-religionists, and it may rouse the West to examine how cavalierly it has tossed off the “shackles” of Christianity only to open itself up to the scimitar. Perhaps some will look at the spires of their great cathedrals and wonder if they really want to see them replaced with minarets.

Lancing a boil or two is messy work, so no right-thinking person can think we are headed for days of sweetness and light, but I am a little peeved at the way Benedict’s speech has been presented by some – I say some – in the press.

Benedict’s speech is not easily compressed into a 30-second soundbite, I grant you. And the print media must pluck the ripest phrases from any speechmaker’s text and build a story around it. But the headlines count. They matter. And some in the press – not all, but some – could not resist the urge to provoke precisely these violent and angry reactions and these predictable, camera-ready burnings in effigy from a people the press knows they can rouse to fury in less than three notes.

I mean, when isn’t the “Muslim world” furious, enraged, raising its sword and setting fire to flags or images? When isn’t some Muslim cleric demanding a retraction of what he perceives to he “harsh” words? When a few cartoons can be turned into worldwide protests, resulting in death to too many and literally cowing the media into relative silence, does the press not understand that a snarky headline or a careless phrase can cost lives?

Well, actually of course they understand that. I’m quite sure that some – again, not all – in the press count on it, hence we see these sorts of headlines: Pope Enjoys Private Time after Slamming Islam and Pope Benedict, in inflamatory speech, assails all: secularism, Jihad, Islam and the Prophet Muhamad.

Headlines have a powerful effect on the world. Busy or incurious people rarely read past them. For some, the headline tells them all they will ever know about a thing. The second piece, by NY Times writer, Ian Fisher, found its headline in a Lebanese newspaper. Fisher’s text is pretty good, and I suggest you read it. The headline, though, is meant only to inflame.

Just so we’re straight – Pope Benedict made a speech in which he invited Muslims to dialogue, criticized terrorism as a means of movement and then quoted a 14th Century Byzantine to make the point that Islam and the West have had rather a long history of struggles. Three paragraphs of the speech covered all of that. The rest of the speech was about faith and reason, and a criticisim of secularism in the West. The pope was basically doing the job of the pope, and doing it the way a scholar, teacher and theologian – that would be Benedict – would do it.

Now, we read Benedict blunder shows he has failed to master media machine. This is Benedict’s blunder, you see. As if he has any control over how the press presents a story:

In clinging to theology and orthodoxy, the bookish Benedict has shown little regard for media management in getting his message across, unlike the communications-savvy John Paul II.

A pope clinging to theology and orthodoxy instead of boning up on his media skills – the very idea! A pope trusting that the press would seriously reflect his thoughtful and deep words without sensationalizing them – the very idea! What a naive innocent is bookish little Benedict.

John Paul was an actor and a philosopher. As an actor, he understood the usefulness of the stage and camera. As a philosopher who had worked as a slave under the Nazi’s and had lived under the jackboot of communism, he was media-savvy because he had seen firsthand how easily media could manipulate or be manipulated.

Because he is not John Paul II, Benedict hasn’t quite figured out that he needs a pithy six-word pronouncement around which to center his pontificate. “Jesus loves you, be not afraid,” worked very well for John Paul. When the press either did not like or did not understand JPII, they could fall back on that mantra. Poor Benedict never really had to mix it up with the press the way John Paul did. He simply trusted them to present him and his words fairly. But he’s a smart man. He’ll learn.

Or maybe he won’t learn. Maybe Benedict will just trust the Holy Spirit to use his words as the Spirit will – which can get pretty messy, and scary for some. Even for Christians, casting one’s work to the wiles of the Holy Spirit can be scary. But then we can have faith that everything will work out for the best. And that’s a powerful lesson, a tremendously frightening obedience to learn.

I wonder what the press will learn, though. Too many of them seem to take a page from Rosie O’ Donnell and think there is some equivalence between fundamentalist Christians who will shake their heads at you if you put a crucifix in a bucket of urine, and fundamentalist Muslims who will kill your ass for dropping a Koran. That morally relativistic perception is not only dangerous, it’s decidedly adolescent.

What was it Benedict said, again? Oh, yeah: Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an “Adult” means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth. We must become mature in this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – which creates unity and takes form in love.

Gerald has photos of the outrage

UPDATE: Ali, a moderate or progressive Muslim (I am not sure what the least-offensive term is) has sent me this post by Aisha at Eteraz

It is convenient to the point of imbecility that adherents of these faiths are so willing to forget their own history as soon as the violence that put them in power allows them to relax and reap the fruits of their conquest. I can promise you that if the jihadis ever did manage to take over the world, the first thing they would do is hang up their guns and ask why the enslaved nations took up arms against their just and peacable rule.

So Mr. Pope, I have one thing to say to you: Pot, meet kettle.

I would only add that while Christianity had its dark moments with the sword, we do seem to have grown out of it and progressed a bit. The Christian church has long since put away the sword; she is not currently rampaging through the streets at every real or perceived slight or insult. She is not blowing people up. The Christian church is not issuing invitations for the rest of the world to “convert or die.” The rest of the world would like nothing better than to see Islam put away the swords and simply get on with the business of living life, which is a gift from God, and already much too short. History and ancient grievances aside, please advise us what that will take, short of our surrender and conversion?

Professor Bainbridge has more thoughts.

Ed Morrissey has a terrific, well thought-out commentary.

Related: For Popes and Presidents, it feels like 1981 out there.
Tina Brown on Benedict; Our Lady of the Air Kiss
Faith and Reason and Forced Conversion

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Fausta

    I wonder what the press will learn, though
    Probably nothing.

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  • Beth

    I find it particularly rich that they’re whining about him talking like a “Crusader” (um, no) when THEY are the ones who still can’t get past something from a thousand years ago. Methinks they project a bit. ;-)

    I guess the truth hurts, no?

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  • pendell


    Can someone point me to a transcript of his remarks? Muslim acquaintances of mine will be agitated, and I’d prefer to address what he actually *said*, not what the media has him saying after they carefully cherry-picked his remarks for the most newsworthy — i.e. inflammatory — bit they could.


    Brian P.

  • http://yargb.blogspot Terrye

    Considering what happened to the Byzantine Empire they are in no position to be talking about the Crusades, after all Istanbul used to be Constantinople.

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  • TheAnchoress

    Beian, I link to the text of the pope’s speech twice in there. Do I have to walk it over to you? ;-)

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  • PatrickKelley

    This was a very interesting and welcome explanation over this controversy. No doubt the press likes to stir things up with more regard for selling papers than for any concern to the potential consequences. Still, even if Bendict said what the press inferred he said, he would have been one hundred percent correct, in my opinion.

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  • KIA

    Is it just me, or does anyone else of faith see a connection between the timing of Oriani Fallaci’s (an athiest antifacist who always ageed with P.Benedict on Islam)death and the “faux paux” of P. Benedict? I see it as God sending the message loud and clear to both sides; left/right, believers/nonbelievers. WAKE UP before it’s too late and we all die a PC death.

    I also don’t think for a minute Benedict didn’t know there would be “outrage.” But then, aren’t they making the exact point he “referenced?”
    Yes, I believe he is also “sorry” for any violence, but not as much as he is for any lost soul. This is a pope who often hints at a “short stay”, calls a spade a spade, and has the moral authority to do so. Besides, he just reports for duty, the Holy Spirt runs the show. Stay tuned!


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  • gadean

    I do not see this speech as being “about Islam” nearly to the extent that most imply. Benedict explians that reading the debate between Manuel and the “learned Persian” were the inspiration for his conclusions about a similar conflict today between the church and secular rationalism. The bulk of his talk addresses how Manuels beliefs inform our thinking about the modern scientific world. Perhaps, however, there is a subtle message in the fact that such a debate between Christian and Muslim is not possible today. Apparently, “learned Persians” are in short supply.

    As I read it, the critical point in the Manuel quote is not his opinion of Islam, but rather his complete faith in reason. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pope was deliberately using an old quote to say things he does not choose to say himself at this time. The tactic seems to have worked. By calling attention to Manuel’s critique of Islam, Benedict has drawn out an adversary without making any direct attack himself.

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  • rdowhower

    Cardinal Ratzinger spent years dealing with the media as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This was no gaffe. This was calculated wisdom. And JPII was hardly media-savvy. The media hated him and looked for every opportunity to criticize and degrade him. It’s safe to say that Jesus himself couldn’t comment on today’s world without the press twisting and manipulating his words. But that’s probably the point.

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