It was no gaffe

By 
  • October 6, 2006

The immediate furor in the Islamic world over Pope Benedict's University of Regensburg speech has abated, thanks largely to the Vatican's efforts to reassure Muslims that nothing has changed in the Catholic Church's attitude toward Islam. What continues, however, is the universal media characterization of the Pope's reference to Islam and violence — The Quote — as a gaffe.

Gaffe is an interesting choice of words. It usually refers to a statement by a politician that unintentionally reflects what he or she really thinks. It is often a statement of truth, something that those in the upper echelons of media punditry and political strategy believe should be avoided at all costs. After all, when truths are told, people are often offended. If you offend people, they might not vote for you. Ergo: don't tell the truth and you won't lose votes. Tell the truth and you commit a gaffe: then watch all hell break loose.

By that definition, what Pope Benedict XVI said was a gaffe. Fortunately, however, popes are not elected. Even more fortunately, the Catholic Church tends to take rather a longer view of history than the next day's headlines.

Who knows whether the Pope thinks The Quote was a gaffe? Perhaps he thinks in hindsight that he could have bracketed The Quote with a humble reference to the Catholic Church's own chequered past when it comes to violence, along with a statement that he wasn't adopting the provocative words of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus — that Islam is spread by the sword — as his own. But his own apology a few days after the Sept. 12 speech was not for the words he chose, but for the reaction.

More to the point, in his follow-up meetings with Islamic leaders, Pope Benedict repeated points he had made elsewhere about Islam's responsibility in a modern world to deal with violence. In his Sept. 25 address to the ambassadors of 22 Muslim nations, though respectful of his guests, the Pope called on Christians and Muslims to work together "to oppose all manifestations of violence." Quoting the late Pope John Paul II, he also again called for reciprocity from Muslim countries: "Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom."

In other words, yes, Muslims deserve to be treated with respect and dignity in the West. However, Muslim countries lag far behind the West when it comes to according Christian minorities even the most basic rights that Muslims take for granted here.

As a result, we might begin to see Benedict's speech as a turning point in Christian-Muslim dialogue, and even between Muslims and Western secular society. Already, Christian-Muslim dialogues in North America have taken on new urgency in response to the global protests and many moderate Muslims are working to battle the fundamentalist minorities in their fold. If this is the result, we could use more gaffes from Pope Benedict XVI.

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