Ratzinger’s controversies on Islam: mistakes or strategies?

When Joseph Alois Ratzinger was elected Pope he selected the name Benedict XVI, a direct reference to Benedict XV, a Pope who had to witness the carnage of the First World War. Yet after the beginning of his pontificate, I start to think that Ratzinger’s decision to adopt the name of one of the less remembered popes was not just to celebrate Benedict XV’s human approach to the tragedy of the war, but rather Benedict XV’s late formed idiosyncrasy toward whatever could possibly smell of modernism and relativism. During the first year of Ratzinger’s pontificate we have observed a change in the attitude of the Catholic Church. Karol Wojtyla’s (Pope John Paul II) idea of the Catholic Church had a clear multi-strategy approach, which I may call ‘enlightened conservatism’.

Wojtyla was a conservative pope as far as the Catholic ethics and catechesis was concerned. Yet he was a revolutionary as far as relations with other Christians and faiths were concerned. Wojtyla also clearly believed in the fact that if you want respect, you have to respect first. He recognised the wrongdoing that the Roman Catholic Church had committed during the centuries, but he addressed the responsibility not to the religion, Christianity, or the holy community, the Church, but rather to misled individuals. Likewise he also saw the wrongdoing committed by other religions in the same way. Wojtyla did not believe in ‘evil’ religions. He respected religion per-se as a gift of the Divine. Indeed, his famous kissing of the Qur’an should be read in this way, as an act of love for religion as such and not for Islam as theology, from which Wojtyla clearly kept his distance. Yet his criticism was only ever of the theology and never of the religion in itself, nor of the Prophet Muhammad. Wojtyla, who never had a chair in theology, unlike his successor Raztinger, knew that, though respected and loved, it is not the figure of Muhammad that makes Islam. Criticising Muhammad is not discussing Islam. So, for Wojtyla the most important things were religion, love of God and political pragmatism which however had a soul.

Ratzinger instead is a very different pope. Very erudite, histrionic, and surely clever, he knew that to be a Wojtyla you need charisma. Ratzinger has adopted a different strategy. Being a revolutionary since the beginning of his ecclesiastic carrier, pope Ratzinger has embarked upon what I may call a perestroika aimed to affirm the centrality of a Western, Latin (so white), Vatican. What I suggest to call Ratzinger’s neo-Vaticanism has its centre in the idea of a Super-Macho Catholic Church, ready to engage in the political games and tensions of this new millennium in order to remain ‘European’. If Ratzinger had a motto it could have more to do with Caesar than Jesus: divide et impera.

Indeed, if the rows and controversies which have attracted mass media attention have focused mainly on Islam, the first year of Ratzinger’s pontificate has achieved an amazing collection of disputes. I can mention here:

  1. In July 2005 when he used his Sunday Angelus to condemn terrorist attacks in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Britain he neglected to mention Israel in the list. The following day Israel formally registered disappointment over Benedict’s apparent failure to recognise Israel as “one of the principal victims of Islamic terrorism.”
  2. In a more controversial move, it emerged that the Pope had agreed to a private meeting with Oriana Fallaci, an Italian author whose best-selling books criticise Islam. In her book Forza della Ragione (The Force of Reason 2004), Fallaci is very offensive toward Islam and Muslims as people.
  3. At the end of August 2005, The Observer reported that the Vatican had drawn up a religious instruction which would ban gay men from the priesthood. The document is part of the Vatican’s response to the sex abuse scandal in the American church which has led to hundreds of priests filing lawsuits against superiors who have allegedly abused them.
  4. The Pope quoted a medieval text which said the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only evil, creating one of the most embarrassing affairs with the Islamic world that the Vatican had experienced in centuries. The Pope finally had to apologise for his ‘unwanted’ offence to the sensibility of Muslims.
  5. Pope Benedict has lifted restrictions on celebrating the Latin Tridentine Mass, pleasing some traditionalists. Some parts of the Tridentine Mass have controversial references to Jewish people and Judaism.
  6. The Pope and the Cardinals have highly interfered with Italian politics as has never happened since the 1950s. One of the last examples was the Church opposition to a new legislation regulating the rights for cohabiting couples (DICO in Italian). The legislation, which will cover also gay couples, is urgent but the parties and left-wing government were unable to avoid the defeat on the project.
  7. Pope Benedict has approved this July a new text asserting that Christian denominations outside Roman Catholicism are not true Churches in the full sense of the word, upsetting the protestants.
  8. Just yesterday Pope Benedict XVI’s private secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein has again highlighted Islam as a dangerous religion for Europe (forgetting that more and more European citizens are born Muslims) and affirming that the controversial speech of the pope was ‘prophetic’.

It is clear that the issue is not exactly that Ratzinger and his purple-clothed entourage dislike Islam. Neither are they ready to start a new Crusade, which maybe, like some other holy papal expeditions ended in murdering Christians without a ‘real church’, Jews for which the Latin mass asked to pray, and Muslims, who had to be saved from the ‘evil’ Muhammad. To think so would be extremely naïf. It would be likewise naïf to think that Ratzinger is just a grumpy old man whose eyes and smile scare the children. So, it would be likewise naïf to adduce all these ‘controversies’ to stupidity and ridiculous mistakes.

No, these are not mistakes, this is a strategy, a political strategy for the survival of one of the most endangered religions in the West ‘Catholicism’. Indeed the Catholic Church has very few choices: to try to re-Catholicise the West or accept to become a mainly African Catholic, non-so Roman, Black Church. As the BBC reminds us there are now just 12 seminarians for every 100 priests. Over the last 40 years, Mass attendance has plummeted, clergy has dwindled, parishes have merged and convents have been put up for sale. Many religious orders are also struggling to survive. By contrast, the number of Catholics in Africa has tripled over the last 25 years, rising from 55 million to almost 144 million – 17 per cent of the continent’s population.

Yet try to speak in Italy with some black Catholic priests, as I have done, and you can understand that, at least in Italy, Catholics in Europe are surely not ready for a mainly Black Vatican. They face often racism not only from within their own congregation but also from within the Vatican itself.

Ratzinger through all these controversies wants one thing only, to maintain the debate on the Catholic church alive within Europe, to make it protagonist, even antagonist if needed, of the political tensions existing so to exploit them in the ultimate attempt to affirm a centrality of Rome as not only the Catholic geographical centre, but also as cultural and ‘civilizational’.

If the previous Pope loved religion per-se as God’s gift to humanity, Benedict XVI loves religion as a powerful political instrument to restore challenged hegemony within a Church which is still struggling with the idea that Jesus may have been black.


3 thoughts on “Ratzinger’s controversies on Islam: mistakes or strategies?

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  1. My word, I had no idea I was talking to such an illustrious personage on the bus yesterday, I’m very impressed, and I must admit a little ashamed that my blog is so trivial. I’ll definitely have to keep on reading this one, you never know it might improve my mind a bit. No doubt I’ll see you around campus 🙂

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