Patriarchal Letter on the Regensburg Lecture of Pope Benedict XVI

“Thoughts about the Lecture of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI of Tuesday, 12 September 2006”

by His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and All the East

We were frightened by the reactions in the Islamic world to the lecture of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI given lately at Regensburg, where he was Professor from 1969-1971. He is now known as one of the greatest living Christian theologians.

We read the lecture in the German original, then in French and English, during our trip undertaken to publicize issues arising from the war in Lebanon and continued to reflect on it after our arrival in England on 15 September (2006).

We had the opportunity to read what appeared in the newspapers of different languages and countries about the reactions of Christians and Muslims: some of them violent demonstrations, others reports and analyses, saying that the Pope was insulting Islam and Muslims, that he should apologize or clarify the meaning of this lecture. Then we read reports of Vatican spokesmen and theologians, specialist historians and those involved in inter-faith dialogue.

Arising from these events, from our position as an Arab Christian Patriarch in the Arab world; from our spiritual, pastoral and scholarly responsibility towards our faithful, who were upset about what they heard and saw in the media about this issue; from our responsibility towards our fellow-Christians in the West and in consideration of our Christian ecclesial communion with the Holy Father and the Catholic Church – from all these diverse responsibilities, we think it our duty to make some remarks to help shed light on this issue, by explaining some complex aspects of this lecture, its context and its scientific, religious, spiritual and historical content. It is very important to clarify these things in order to overcome reactions and positions, which may have very bad consequences for Christian-Islamic dialogue, which has covered a lot of ground since Vatican II, where our Eastern Arabic Churches were pioneers in putting forward a very clear document about the position of Christianity in order to develop and deepen that same dialogue in our Arab world.

We our self founded, together with wonderful Muslim brothers, outstanding Palestinian professors and thinkers, the Aliqa’ in Jerusalem in 1983. Since our election as Patriarch in 2000 we also founded Encounter Centres in Lebanon (2003), Syria (2003) and Egypt (2005) and we have continued to explain in our bi-annual Patriarchal Messages our thoughts about our presence and experience as Church of the Arabs and Church of Islam.

There follow some remarks about the lecture of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, given at Regensburg University on Tuesday, 12 September during his pastoral visit to his home country and his birthplace in Bavaria. The title of the talk was “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.”

His Holiness began by pointing out some academic, scientific discussions (disputations) raised in the University in his time there about the relationship between faith and reason – a subject highly topical still today.

His Holiness also pointed out that he profited, when thinking about the problem, from a book by the title of Paléologue: Entretiens avec un Musulman, 7e controverse first published in 1966 by Rev. Prof. Adel Theodore Khoury, formerly Dean of the Theology Faculty of Münster, Germany. Father Adel Khoury is a priest of the Greek Catholic Melkite Church and a member of the Paulist Society, well known for their leading role in the Islamic-Christian dialogue through their quarterly Al Massarra.

The book quoted by the Holy Father dealt with topics of faith in the three structures embodied in the Bible (Torah, Gospel) and Qur’an. t is well known that this last contains several verses common to Christianity and Judaism, so that we may consider that religious dialogue lies at the heart of the three great monotheistic structures and is not extraneous to them. Furthermore, the texts of the faith on which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are based offer in themselves fundamental elements for a dialogue of faith of the broadest possible nature, embracing dogma, rites, devotion, ethics, politics and sociology.

Now we come to the offending paragraph, which caused the huge wave of criticism of this lecture, which began with a discussion of the relationship between faith and reason in the “three structures,” which took place most probably around 1391 between the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologos and an unknown Persian Muslim scholar and quoting a passage where the Emperor referred to insulting suggestions about Islam and its Prophet, relating to the practice of spreading faith by the sword.

The Emperor then added that spreading the faith by force is contrary to reason. “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

The Emperor’s words should be understood neither as an insult nor as a condemnation, but as part of the dialectic of scholarly controversy, designed to provoke his interlocutor to refute the charge of pursuing a manner of thinking likely to lead to violence. In philosophical debate, this is classified as an argument ad hominem, and an invitation to further, more profound discussion. It all happened according to the rules of scholarly debate of the period.

Thus we can see that the Holy Father intended no insult to Islam, but rather to echo the Emperor’s remark in a spirit of urgent enquiry to a debating partner: it is surely impossible for a way of life such as Islam to be a path of violence? It may be read as an invitation to Muslims to frank and open dialogue with Christians on the topic of jihad through the centuries. He too was speaking in the context of a university lecture, aimed at clarifying to his listeners the role of a modern university as a forum for educational and constructive interfaith dialogue.

It is in this same context that the Holy Father quoted another passage from Professor Adel Khoury’s book, citing Arnaldez’s views on the Muslim scholar Ibn Hazm (Ibn Hazn in the papal text) who founded a short-lived school of thought which aimed at a literal understanding of Qur’anic precepts and their direct application to everyday life. That school also favored a narrow approach to the scope and use of Hadith. This school happily did not find favor with mainstream Islam. Its principles therefore should have no place in an assessment of Islam. The doctrine of jihad, which is really to be understood in a spiritual sense, akin to zeal for faith, or a call to war in a casus belli, has nothing to do with general violence.

What then is the Holy Father’s position on Islam? Firstly it is clear that, like the great Christian theologian that he is, he wants to engage in a dialogue with Muslims. He is very far from wishing to insult them. Indeed, he called them to stand up together with Christians in a common position of faith in opposition to atheism when he spoke to the German Muslim community in Cologne in August, 2005.

Then, in what he said about faith and reason and the literalist approach to the Qur’an of Ibn Hazm, he wished to point out that this issue of literalism is a problem commonly discussed over centuries of debate between followers of Judaism (Torah and halakhah), Christianity (Gospel and Christian tradition) and Islam (Qur’an and Islamic thought). These issues were not just topics of debate for the Byzantine Emperor and a Persian scholar but are also relevant today.

In fact, the Holy Father’s principal criticisms are directed at a “Christian” Europe where faith is largely rejected by society in favor of relativism, personalism and individualism, in which a person is the sole arbiter of his own behavior in every sphere – political, ethical and social. Faith is in danger of being entirely lost. The targets of the Pope’s main criticisms then are really current atheism and secularism in a society in which religion has become merely a matter of personal taste, enclosed behind the walls of churches, having little to do with the structures of contemporary society, politics and ethics.

We consider that the Holy Father’s remarks (however inopportune, imprecise and lacking in clarity they may appear) on the controversy between the Byzantine Emperor and the Persian Muslim scholar and on the views of Ibn Hazm, are rather designed to encourage a better understanding of Islam than to malign it. He was in fact insisting on the need for a reading of the Qur’an, which comprises life and structure and dogma, that looks both to the letter and the spirit, to reason and faith.

If any doubt this analysis, they have only to look at the concluding part of the lecture, where the Holy Father’s true intention is plain. Our explanation is not merely intended as an apology for His Holiness or born out of a desire for complaisance to Islam, but the product of logical thought and scholarly analysis of an academic lecture that cannot possibly have been intended as an attack on a venerable faith and its teaching. Remember too that Islam was not the topic of his lecture.

We would like to conclude our presentation on the Holy Father’s lecture by giving the most important passage of his conclusion, in which he calls for “the broadening of our concept of reason and its application.” … “We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way and if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable.” He added, “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

In a clearly critical remark directed at the European position on reason and faith on the one hand and the position of Islam and the East towards faith and reason on the other, he says, showing a remarkable preference for the East, “In the Western world, it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures” – and here we have a clear reference to the East and Islam – “see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions 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.” He concludes, “It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”

We understand the emotional reaction of the Islamic world to the lecture of the Holy Father and through these remarks we have shown that not only was it not his aim to upset Muslims, but that it was a profound, sincere, frank and faithful way to call for furthering the way of Islamic-Christian dialogue.

Furthermore, we as Arab Christians wish to call upon our fellow-citizens in the Arab world to close ranks to preserve our unique model of daily dialogue of life and faith and to continue to live together as we have for the last fourteen hundred years, unshaken by emotional reactions.

We would like to emphasize our unique role, even while facing the danger of the collapse of culture and the clash of civilizations, through continuing our unique model of life-dialogue in the Middle East, where the three great monotheistic religions originated and where the faithful are still living.

This unique model of living together in the Middle East should lead the Arab world to reach through its unity a real solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict in a just, lasting peace. This same model, practiced in the Middle East, should be a help for Jews, Christians and Muslims living in Europe, the U.S.A. and elsewhere to create a similar model for living together and for each other, which is the only future for the world.

Linguistic editor V. Chamberlain