Politics & Policy

Rereading Regensburg

Questions that need to be asked about Islam were asked by Pope Benedict nearly ten years ago.

On a plane ride between Sri Lanka and the Philippines this week, Pope Francis made headlines while talking with reporters about the moral limits to free expression. The issue came up, of course, in the wake of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, which Pope Francis has strongly condemned. The attacks in Paris — including one at a kosher deli — along with the slaughter that Boko Haram inflicts in Nigeria, the terrorist attack in the Lindt café in Sydney before Christmas, and so much other violence inflicted in the name of Islam brings to mind the famous/infamous address that Pope Benedict XVI delivered at the University of Regensburg in 2006, where he raised questions about faith and reason and Islam, which of course drew ire. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author of Becoming Europe and has written about both the address and the future of Europe. He talks with National Review Online about faith, reason, Regensburg, and violence in the name of Islam. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do you make of the controversy over Pope Francis’s comments, on the plane ride to the Philippines, about free expression? 

Samuel Gregg: The context, of course, was his remarks about the unacceptability of violence in the name of religion. The pope affirmed that such violence is indeed unacceptable. Pope Francis also indicated that he thinks freedom of expression is essential. The difficulty, to my mind, surrounds his comments that freedom of expression cannot be a basis for offending other people with regard to religious matters. We all know that freedom of expression isn’t absolute. There are good reasons why we have laws against, for instance, child pornography and defamation, and why neither can be justified on free-speech grounds. As we all know, courts, governments, and philosophers have deliberated at length about the limits to free speech. But in the case of the pope’s particular remarks — which, as is evident from the transcript, aren’t the most precise — much pivots on his use of the word “offend.”

In much of the West today, we increasingly live in societies in which even expressing a view, religious or otherwise, on any number of subjects is considered “offensive” because it (a) might question something that someone else believes to be true and/or (2) it may raise questions about the morality of others’ actions or the manner in which they live their life. In short, “offending someone” — or even the potential to offend someone — is becoming a basis for shutting down free speech and the free exchange of views. If, for instance, we can’t have an open conversation about the respective truth claims of, say, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or atheism because such a conversation might offend someone, then “offending someone” becomes a basis for terminating important discourse about some rather fundamental questions. We need very, very robust protections of freedom of speech, precisely because free speech enables us to engage and pursue questions of truth: theological truth, philosophical truth, moral truth, and economic truth. The possibility that you might offend someone, to my mind, isn’t a very strong basis for inhibiting free speech about all of these subjects and more. A side effect is that we all have to put up with views and opinions that we consider stupid, ill informed, or even offensive. That, however, is inevitable if we value free speech and the good of truth-seeking on which it is based — the very same free speech that, by the way, allows me to inform people who say something stupid why I think what they have said is erroneous.


Lopez: What Pope Francis said last weekend about perverted religion — is it anything like what Pope Benedict was talking about in his infamous Regensburg lecture?

Gregg: What Pope Francis said about perverted religion was spelled out in very clear, precise, and sophisticated terms by Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg address: a talk whose relevance looms ever larger nine years later. But fewer people know that Benedict narrowed in on what he called pathologies of religion in an article published in 2012 in the Holy See’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Here Benedict observed that, over time, it had become apparent that Vatican II had been insufficiently attentive to the fact that there are “sick and distorted forms of religion.”

Take, for instance, the pre-Christian pagan religions. These religions viewed the gods as mere hedonists who treated humans as playthings in their various games. The same religions also deified the state, exhibited a profound contempt for human life, and viewed women and children as virtual subhumans. These features made such religions, from a Jewish and Christian standpoint, irredeemable — not just because of what Jews and Christians believe to have been divinely revealed by God to man but also because Judaism and Christianity viewed such positions as thoroughly incompatible with human reason. And this was important for great Jewish minds such as Philo of Alexandria as well as for Christians ranging from Augustine to Aquinas, because they believed that man’s unique capacity for reason reflected God’s nature as Logos: Divine Reason itself.


Lopez: Why is Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture as relevant as ever after the Paris attacks?

Gregg: Benedict’s lecture is ever relevant because one of its central arguments is that a religion’s understanding of God’s nature has immense implications for its capacity to live peacefully with those who do not share the same faith or, for that matter, have no religious faith. A religion that regards God as sheer Will, operating above and beyond reason, cannot ultimately object to the notion that such a God may command its adherents to do unreasonable things. For if God is ultimately unreasonable and the Creator of the universe, then so too are the people created in His image. Hence, if such an unreasonable God commands equally unreasonable humans to do something utterly irrational — such as slaughter cartoonists, fly planes into buildings, axe to death Jews praying peacefully in a synagogue, behead Christian children in the Middle East, kill Nigerian as Boko Haram has done, the list is endless — not only can we not object on grounds that such actions are unreasonable and intrinsically evil, but we must simply submit to the irrational Deity’s desire for blood. In other words, whether we like it or not, there is a theological and religious dimension to what happened in Paris — and what is happening in Syria and Iraq, what occurred on 9/11, and what Islamic jihadists keep doing all around the world — and we ignore this at our own peril. That’s another reason why it is so embarrassing and self-defeating for people like President Obama, President Hollande, and Prime Minister David Cameron to go on repeating, mantra-like, that Islamic jihadism has nothing to do with Islam. Of course it has something to do with Islam. That’s why it’s called Islamic jihadism.


Lopez: Why was Regensburg so controversial at the time?

Gregg: It was controversial because in one relatively short address (one that I think will be remembered as one of the 21st century’s most important talks), Pope Benedict managed to upset a number of groups. First, by highlighting the central theological issue — Is the Islamic understanding of God that He is primarily or purely Voluntas? — that must be addressed if Islamic jihadism is to be countered, he annoyed not just some Muslims but also those liberal Westerners who want to treat Islamic jihadism as if theology and religion have nothing to do with it. Many professional interfaith dialoguers also didn’t like the Regensburg address because it highlighted just how much of their discussion was utterly peripheral to the main game and consisted in many instances of happy talk that avoided any serious conversation about the real differences that exist between many religions. It also annoyed those who believe that all religions are ultimately the same and of equal worth. That’s obviously not true, but saying such things in a relativistic world that is increasingly “uncomfortable” with reasoned argument (let alone logic) and more at ease with feelings talk is bound to make you plenty of enemies today.


Lopez: What do the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher deli in Paris last week mean for Europe? For all of us?

Gregg: Where does one even start? I’d say this: First, the attacks of French-born Muslims killing their fellow citizens in the name of foreign Islamist terrorist entities was yet another testimony to the failure of the multicultural project to which so many of Europe’s political and intellectual classes are wedded. Second, the kosher-deli incident is an unnerving reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and flourishing in Europe, especially within many European Muslim communities. The degree of violence being directed against Jews in Europe, and which goes often unmentioned in the press, is rising and deeply worrying. But so too is the relative indifference of a good many Europeans and others to this fact. Third, the attacks reminded us that there are significant numbers of Muslims in Europe and around the world who are adamantly opposed to anything close to Western notions of free speech and tolerance. Fourth, the attacks illustrated that European governments of right and left have refused to face up to these realities because it means admitting all these failures. Now we are seeing the consequences of their neglect and, in many instances, cowardice.


Lopez: It was a moving display to see the walk in solidarity Sunday. But what are we unifying against? Is it Islam?

Gregg: It was a moving display and it wasn’t a march against Islam. Alas, I don’t think either the march or what happened in Paris will really change the approach of a good number of Western governments and politicians to addressing the problem of Islamic jihadism. As long as they insist on treating it as an issue of unemployment, of alienation, of a lack of social justice, of victimization, of insufficiently generous welfare states, of anything and everything as long as we don’t discuss the theological and religious side, then political correctness will continue to prevail and suffocate any meaningful attempt to tackle this matter in a sophisticated and comprehensive way.


Lopez: Is Islam the problem? Is it a “religion of peace”?

Gregg: I’d limit myself to saying that some elements of Islam are a part of the problem and that it is not at all clear that Islam — based on the actions of some Muslims and Muslim states throughout history and particular Islamic claims about the nature of God and the world — is a religion of peace, either in theory or in practice. But in my view, the very best analyst of those questions is the Jesuit priest Samir Khalil Samir, whose thought informed Pope Benedict’s approach to these issues. Father Samir has written widely, deeply, sympathetically, and critically about Islam, and without a trace of naïveté or pollyannaish sentimentalist do-gooderism. His 111 Questions on Islam is what people like President Obama, President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron, and, I dare say, Pope Francis would benefit from reading. The other person who I think has a completely realistic grasp of the issues is Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.


Lopez: Can Catholics help Muslims reform?

Gregg: Ultimately, the only people who can deal with the theological problems besetting Islam are Muslims. This assumes of course that Islam can change, which I think one would have to say is an open question at this point. The best thing that Catholics — and Jews, for that matter — can do is to keep pushing the question of how Islam understands the nature of God, and what that means for Islam’s relationship to the world and to non-Muslims. The second thing for Catholics to do is to point to the way in which orthodox Catholicism’s intense respect for natural reason — the natural law — has allowed it to work its way through any number of questions, ranging from religious liberty to just-war theory and bioethics, to which Divine Revelation doesn’t provide an immediate answer. Again, it’s not clear to me that Islam can replicate this, given some of its fundamental theological claims about God and man, but I certainly hope some Muslims try.


Lopez: Is there a uniquely Catholic view of all of this? ​

Gregg: Of all faiths, Catholicism is the religion that has most consistently explored and developed the relationship between reason and faith. For Catholicism, reason purifies faith, wipes it clean of superstition and irrationality, and aids humans in understanding the content of Divine Revelation and in applying it to our lives and the world in which we exist. Faith, however, points to the ultimate horizons from which man derives his reason, highlights the great questions that human reason cannot help but ponder, and reminds us that, as powerful as our reason is, we are not God. What’s become evident is that, more than ever, this has to remain a central endeavor of Catholicism in the 21st century if it is to contribute to how societies address the rising tide of Islamist jihadism or any other form of religiously motivated violence.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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