“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pope Benedict and Islam. Offense or Defense?

Christianity, although declining, is the largest religion in the world with 2.1 billion nominal members. Islam, growing, has 1.1 billion and that is the size of the heavyweight Christian religion, The Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is organized on a central authority from The Pope down through an unambiguous organization chart to the laity.

With 400,000 priests, a number close to the size of the US Army, it administers one of the greatest and long lasting of human institutions. It is an institution that has know and dealt with scandals, reforms, wars, intrigues and treachery. The Catholic Church knows a thing or two about getting off track and being itself an instrument of injustice and intolerance.

Yet the institution has endured and continues to be a force for good. The Church has many beliefs and institutions that are controversial. That is because it is an institution of human beings. In its flawed state it seeks the improvement of the human condition and teaches tolerance and acceptance. Benedict XVI does not appear to be a radical man, but has he assumed a radical mission to confront an unreformed, an unrepentant and non-centralized Islam? Time Magazine speculates.

The Pope Confronts Islam Time

It was not a laid-back Turkish holiday. The citizens of the proud, predominantly Muslim nation had no love of Popes. To the East, the Iranian government was galvanizing anti-Western feeling.

The news reported that an escaped killer was on the loose, threatening to assassinate the pontiff when he arrived. Yet the Holy Father was undaunted.

"Love is stronger than danger," he said. "I am in the hands of God."

He fared forward -- to Ankara, to Istanbul -- and preached the commonality of the world's great faiths. He enjoined both Christians and Muslims to "seek ties of friendship with other believers who invoke the name of a single God."

He did not leave covered with garlands, but he set a groundwork for what would be years of rapprochement between the Holy See and Islam. He was a uniter, not a divider.

That was 1979. When Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next week on his first visit to a Muslim country since becoming pope last year, he is unlikely to cloak himself in the downy banner of brotherhood, the way Pope John Paul II did during his sojourn there 27 years ago.

Instead, Benedict, 79, will arrive carrying a much different reputation: that of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and interreligious confrontation. Just 19 months into his tenure, the pope has become as much a lightning rod as a moral leader; suddenly, when he speaks, the whole world listens.

And what takes place over four days in three Turkish cities has the potential to define his papacy -- and a good deal more.

Few people saw this coming. Nobody truly expected Benedict to be a mere caretaker pope -- his sometimes ferocious 24-year tenure as the Vatican's theological enforcer and John Paul's right hand suggested anything but passivity -- but neither did church watchers expect surprises.

They generally believed that he would sustain John Paul II's conservative line on morality and church discipline and focus most of his energies on trimming the Vatican bureaucracy and battling Western culture's "moral relativism."

Although acknowledged as a brilliant conservative theologian, Benedict lacked the open-armed charisma of his predecessor. Besides, for all John Paul's magnetism, what had initially propelled him to the center of the world stage was his challenge to communism and its subsequent fall, a huge geopolitical event that the pope helped precipitate with two exhilarating visits to his beloved Polish homeland.

By contrast, what could Benedict do? Liberate Bavaria? Well, not quite. But this year he has emerged as a far more compelling and complex figure than anyone had imagined. And much of that has to do with his willingness to take on what some people feel is today's equivalent of the communist scourge -- the threat of Islamic violence.

The topic is extraordinarily fraught: there are, after all, a billion or so nonviolent Muslims on the globe; the Roman Catholic church's own record in the religious-mayhem department is hardly pristine; and even the most naive of observers understands that the Vicar of Christ might harbor an institutional prejudice against one of Christianity's main global competitors.

But by speaking out last September in Regensburg, Germany, about the possible intrinsic connection between Islam and violence and refusing to retract its essence -- even when Islamic extremists destroyed several churches and murdered a nun in Somalia -- the pontiff suddenly became a lot more interesting.

In one imperfect but powerful stroke, he departed from his predecessor's largely benign approach to Islam, discovered an issue that might attract even the most religiously jaded and managed (for better or worse) to reanimate the clash-of-civilizations discussion by focusing scrutiny on the core question of whether Islam, as a religion, sanctions violence.

He was hailed by cultural conservatives worldwide. Says Helen Hull Hitchcock, a St. Louis, Missouri, lay leader who heads the conservative Catholic organization Women for Faith & Family: "He has said what needed to be said."

But Benedict now finds himself in an unfamiliar position as he embarks on the most important mission of his papacy. Having thrust himself to the center of the global debate and earned the vilification of the Muslim street, he must weigh hard options.

Does he seize his new platform, insisting that another great faith has potentially deadly flaws, daring it to discuss them, while exhorting Western audiences to be morally armed? Or does he back away from further confrontation in the hopes of tamping down the rage his words have already provoked?


  1. 2164th wrote:

    With 400,000 priests, a number close to the size of the US Army, it administers one of the greatest and long lasting of human institutions.

    Not "one of" but literally the longest lasting human institution. And considered as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, one could extend the span of the Church yet another 1,500 years to the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. The numbers are closer to 1.8 billion Christians and 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Two-thirds of Christianity will always have a universal pastor to speak for us as one voice while Islam remains divided, sub-divided and continues to shatter.

  2. And we can always ask the question:

    Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea, quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?

    and if we are lucky get an answer.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. But you have to see that many of the believers are apathetic church-goers. And I would actually classify the various denominations of Christianity as actually being more divided than Islam(Shiite, Sunni, Sufi).

    Islam shattering into many more small pieces would actually be a good thing. After all, tolerance didn't enter the modern world until the various competing Christian faiths realized they were killing potential converts with their wars back in the Reformation amd the ensuing Hundred Years War.

  5. Excellent points wobbly guy. If that is how you wobble, keep it up. Welcome to the Elephant.

  6. The Thirty Years war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which makes it very modern, as that is still the frame for the interaction of nation-states, and is also the legal framework binding our hands in this new type of war we are in.

  7. See Sissy Willis sound off on Time Magazine, re Pope Benedict XVI.

  8. So is the Bar setting up a Sperm Spitoon for the Dec 22 Orgasm for Peace, or do we slum it in the sink as is the custom in Arkansas and more lately DC?

  9. And God said:

    "We got muthaf*ckin' snakes in this muthaf*ckin' Garden of Eden!"

    Bible Audio featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson as God is #1 on Wal-Mart best-seller list.. :)

  10. Problem is, is it possible to bind Islam thought into the same restrictions? We have long hoped for a Reformation of Islam, but we probably should not forget that the original Reformation was bloody and destructive, in some ways a forerunner of the first world war in europe.

    Also, tell me if I'm mistaken, were there threats(real or otherwise) to Christianity in the 16-17th century? The lack of such a threat might have been a strong reason why the Christians felt free to attack those they considered apostate.

    The final ingredient would be opportunistic princes and kings favoring one faction or the other, in the end making a mockery of the whole process. Any hope of that happening in the Middle East?