The Pope Without His Sting

This article appears in today’s online NY Times. My running commentary is in [square brackets in bold.] Note that this article is about Islam, and specifically about the pope’s trip to Turkey. The better part of the trip was spent in worship and prayer with the Orthodox Church. But there is nothing political about this–no controversy of any kind that the Times would be interested in–so you hear not a word about this part of the trip.

Okay, here’s the article:

The Pope Without His Sting [ambiguous title, and potentially misleading]

HAS the pope gone wobbly? [Nice leader: keep secularists reading out of hope that he has gone wobbly, and keep Catholics reading praying that he hasn’t. Not sure how to keep a Protestant reading this kind of article.]

The question might matter less if he weren’t the man he is — and if the images of his facing Mecca in prayer on his trip to Turkey weren’t fresh. Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear. But his was never mere blunt confrontation. With his big brain [his big brain marks him out as highly evolved, and yet he adheres to what Richard Dawkins calls Bronze Age myth?] and the heft of Roman Catholic tradition behind him, Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it. [This is true.]

That penchant for truth-telling found its date with history two months ago in the pope’s now-famous speech in Regensburg, Germany. Rare for a mainstream leader [the pope is a “mainstream leader” HAAAHAHAHAA!!!], he planted a steely marker in the struggle against terror and militant Islam, quoting a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had brought only things “evil and inhuman.” Islam, he seemed to say, was distant from reason and thus prone to violence.

But in his visit to Turkey last week, the face of confrontation, and perhaps the hold on certainty [yes, that’s it. The pope, aged 79 years, now begins to question his core beliefs], seemed to soften. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged happily from his meeting with Benedict, saying that the pope had endorsed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and so reversed his long-held personal opposition. [Ah yes, the pope “reversed” his opinion. And note that the author does nothing to remind the reader that this was an uncorroborated statement of Erdogan’s, or that the Vatican issued a statement to clarify its position on Turkey’s EU bid after Erdogan “emerged happily”.]

In the place of tough talk, Benedict suggested “dialogue” — a concept, with regard to Islam especially, that he had not seemed completely open to before. [This is only so because the author knows nothing about Benedict XVI. He’s always insisted on dialogue to bring out all the necessary facts in making any decision.]

And so a new and ever more interesting chapter in this young papacy [it’s always “young papacy,” as if to say that since BXVI has only been pope for a little while, he has no idea what he’s doing yet. Nonsense. He’s been in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican for a long time], as well as in the larger issue of how to engage the Muslim world, including those elements of it that resort to violence, seemed to open on Benedict’s four days in Turkey.

The questions are many, starting with whether or not Benedict, the doctrinal purist, has somehow gone soft. To some of his most hard-core supporters, that, indeed, may be the lesson of his visit to Turkey.

“He has signaled to Islam that there are concessions he can make, and reactions other than outrage in the face of intimidation and violence,” one conservative blogger wrote in an emblematic posting that found echoes in the concerned Catholic blogosphere. “It is a shame. We needed Benedict, and his withdrawal from the debate is a considerable loss.” [Withdrawal from the debate? Who is this “conservative blogger”? His name is Douglas Murray, author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It. His blog post admits that Erdogan’s claim is suspect, but then criticizes Benedict as if it’s not. He also seems to long for the pope to wade into temporal affairs. I thought that mentality died out in the 19th century.]

But other commentators, with varying views of the pope, put the question another way: can one’s idea of truth be expressed differently, especially when reality gets in the way? [what does this mean?]

By many accounts, the Vatican was deeply shaken at the reaction to the pope’s speech, which was at its heart a criticism of the West for being so beholden to reason that it had blocked out other values, like religion. [Not quite: What the pope actually said was ” A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” The Times author uses “reason” as if there is only one possible interpretation of that word.] The section on Islam was short, and Benedict made clear he was quoting others in his criticism of Islam.

But the reaction — and here the Vatican officially blames the news media [I wonder why?]— focused on the sharp, if brief, critique of Islam. And the Muslim world reacted with rage. Demonstrations broke out in many Muslim countries; firebombers attacked churches in the West Bank and Gaza; gunmen [“gunmen”–I love this word. It papers over any useful knowledge about the person holding the gun] killed an Italian nun in Somalia. The pope himself was threatened, accounting for the heavy security on his trip to Turkey. [Of course it accounts for the heavy security. Had he not given that Regensburg speech, the pope could have gone to Turkey with light security. Please . . .]

“This is a pope who hasn’t really understood that what he says has consequences for Christians elsewhere,” [WHATEVER] said Sergio Romano, a columnist for Corriere della Sera and the former Italian ambassador to NATO. “He can put them in danger. He has had to adopt a more diplomatic line.”

This new phase in Benedict’s papacy, then, is seen by many as a transformation from his understanding of his role primarily as a theologian, concerned with a specific truth, to a greater appreciation of his role as something of a diplomat, who seeks to balance various truths in the service of a greater interest; in this case, that of the church and its believers.

David Gibson, author of “The Rule of Benedict,” published in September by HarperSanFranciso, described the pope’s performance in Turkey as a crucial moment. With his silent prayer in the mosque and general warmth, he showed himself to be every bit as adept at politics as theology. [Here’s what the media is always looking for, and will invent if they can’t find it honestly: the political churchman. Religious churchmen are not interesting.]

“We have seen to some degree the transformation of Joseph Ratzinger the cardinal and theologian to Benedict XVI, pope and statesman,” Mr. Gibson said. “He said and did some things that obviously go against his personal grain.”

But, he added: “It was really smart. And it cost him nothing.”

Like any good politician [yep, you’ve got him figured out. He’s a politician.], Benedict gave a bit to everyone and kept his words vague enough (he himself never came out and explicitly endorsed Turkey’s entry into the E.U.) [Finally . . . way to bury this confession near the end of the article. I wonder how many people read this far.] that people could read into them what they wanted. Indeed, the Catholic chattering class was working full time on whether he actually did endorse an E.U. entry or whether he said an actual prayer at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. [What difference does it make if he prays to the true God in the Blue Mosque or in St. Peter’s? Or on the moon?]

The question for the many longtime supporters of the pope is whether this new Benedict is really the same man, whether the straight talk that distinguished him will be recognizable in a more political outfit.

Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an influential conservative Web site, says he believes that it will be. While he acknowledged that some of Benedict’s supporters were not happy about the comments on the European Union or the mosque visit, Benedict continued to raise in Turkey the same issues he always has: concern for religious freedom; respect for religious minorities; denunciation of violence in the name of God.

“I haven’t seen any backtracking since Regensburg,” he said [Amen. Neither have I.]. “I’ve seen questions posed in a different manner. And I’ve seen a concern that he doesn’t want to offend people by the way in which he poses the questions. But he’s still determined to have those questions posed.”

The Rev. Thomas V. Berg, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics, a conservative Catholic research group, said, “Pope Benedict will hold to principle, but he will do so with a gentle smile.”

“That approach has allowed him to be so amazingly clear about the problems he has with militant Islam, and at the same time walk right into the heart of one of the epicenters of the Islamic world and emerge as a hero, a mender of fences, a great humanitarian, a man of dialogue,” Father Berg said. [This guy gets it. Right on. The pope rules!]

But however well Benedict’s new approach seemed to go over in Turkey, Mr. Gibson, who described Benedict as a polarizing figure in his book [ooh, “polarizing figures” are bad. Good people never elicit strong reactions.], issued a warning: The clash of East and West, Islam and Christianity, is not over. Benedict’s role as conciliator is young, untested and does not come as naturally as his older role as a man of certainty.

“I don’t think he wants to play Mr. Touchy-Feely with world Islam,” Mr. Gibson said. “I think there are going to be some difficult moments.” [Way to go out on a limb, Gibson.]

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