Gepost door: Paul | september 19, 2006

A eurocentric pope

I was very happy to find an english translation of the pope’s controversial address at Regensburg on PhDiva’s blog – it is good to see for yourself what the fuss is all about.

Enough has been written and said about the ‘Mohammed’-passage. According to one of the commentaries on the speech, the pope’s rationale behind quoting emperor Manuel II Paleologus was:

…to suggest a Christendom under threat – both from without and within – by quoting the leader of a dying empire surrounded on all sides by Muslims who would, within a century, take its capital and hold that city up to the present day.

If this indeed was his reason, I would only like to add that the pope Benedict XVI here quotes an orthodox (i.e. from a Roman Catholic viewpoint schismatic) Byzantine emperor, who’s Empire was saved not by the Avignon pope’s abortive 1396 crusade, but by the timely intervention of the Mongol leader Timur Lenk – a proud Muslim! So the Christendom-Islam antithesis the pope tries to evoke isn’t that clear. How troublesome can historical niceties be when you are trying to make a point.

The remainder of Ratzinger’s speech contains comparable rhetoric, more based on his wish to conjure an image than to give a balanced view of history. I especially like the following lines:

Given this convergence [of biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry], it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.

Ratzinger makes brilliant use of our preconception that ‘Greek philosophical inquiry’ is something essentially European – hence non-Eastern. Without that preconception his statement doesn’t make any sense. He probably knows that the ancient world is much too fuzzy to allow equations like “Philosophy = Greek = European = Western”. To give you an example: not only was it in Alexandria, in Egypt, that the Hebrew bible was translated into the Septuagint (according to his Regensburg Address “A profound encounter of faith and reason (…), an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion”); a few centuries later, Clement of Alexandria was born and educated in that city, maybe the first to try to reconcile Christianity with notions from Greek philosophy; and last but not least, a few years before Clement died Plotinus grew up there, the founder of Neoplatonism, which was to strongly influence Augustine – of Hippo, in North Africa. So much for the equation. I won’t waste time on his statement that Chritainity “finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe”.

But all such details are of course subsidiary to his main stance: that Europe is, and should be, Christian (preferably Roman Catholic, I guess):

This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

I can’t help wondering if he is alluding to the debate over Turkey’s membership of the EU here.



  1. The Pope was right.

  2. What is the point that you are trying to make?

    The pope is mistaken? His use of Manuel II Pelaeologus as his mouthpiece from history to warn against Islam, is being disqualified, because the very same mouthpiece was saved by a Muslim?

    Or that Timur Lenk who is – according to you – a proud Muslim saved the Christian Byzantine Empire, while ‘the West’ failed to do so?

    In both cases I fail to see the connection.

    The fact that Timur Lenk invaded the Ottoman Empire for territorial reasons only, and thus took ‘the heat’ off of the Byzantine Empire, can, at best, be construed as nothing more than mere a side effect. This in itself it does not effect the argument that the Pope was trying to make one way or another.

    Furthermore this proud Muslim you are talking about, is, according to wikipedia, responsible for the death of millions of people, the annihilation of the Nestorians and the almost eradication of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Assyrian Church of the East.

    I am not an expert, but I think your reference to Timur Lenk only seems to supports the case the Pope was trying to make.

    How troublesome can historical niceties be when you are trying to make a point.

  3. @ World Peace Religion: please explain.

    @ Schipper: You are right. There is much more to say about the events than I did. For example that a few crusades earlier, at the start of the thirteenth century, the Byzantine Empire was al but destroyed by the crusaders… One could even state that this ‘christian’ move created the power vacuum of which the Turks made use.

    But you did miss my point. My intention isn’t to show that the pope is mistaken, merely that he tries to evoke an image in our minds that doesn’t necessarily correlate to reality. I wished to note that history doesn’t teach such simple lessons, the past is much too complicated.

    Coming to think of it, another question one might ask is whether ‘Christendom’ was really under threat. It thrived in the Osman empire for many centuries.

  4. I think you are also making the point that the Pope is picking and choosing snippets of history for political purposes. I suppose namely that he is intelligent and well-read; I suppose he realises that his speeches are subject of great media attention; and that relations between Catholicism and various other monotheisms are in a delicate state these days, since he stands for a return to core values. Otherwise I would deduce merely that he is stupid. The fact that so many apologies had to be made afterwards suggest that he is a bit out of his depth … or was it all an ingenious plan to aid the dialogue between these great monotheisms?

    Personally I think it will be a tragic mistake to prevent Turkey joining the EU. Apparently the French are working on this too, by putting Armenain genocide denial into law.

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