(RNS) — In a barbed valedictory, my colleague Tom Reese portrays the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as the quintessential German professor, a brilliant theologian “who was not interested in listening to people who had other views.” I couldn’t agree more, and, as Reese points out, few episodes from his papacy show that better than the controversy Benedict stirred up by taking a swipe at Islam in the lecture he gave on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg in 2006.
What follows is an updated version of a look I took then at how Benedict stepped wrong.
It is hard to resist seeing the commotion stirred up by Pope Benedict XVI’s speech as an example of the perils of putting professors in positions of power. The temptation to value provocation over discretion, to wing it on subjects outside your proper ken, to show that you’re the smartest guy in the room — these would appear to have gotten the better of a pontiff returning to the academic podium where, 35 years earlier, he discoursed on theology to all comers.
What got Benedict into trouble was his quotation of a nasty put-down of Islam by the learned Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, delivered in a debate with a Persian professor on the relative merits of Christianity and Islam near the end of the 14th century. But even before trotting out the quote, the pope took aim at the principal proof text used today to claim Islam is committed to religious tolerance.
Manuel, Benedict mused, must have known the Koranic verse (Sura 2.256) that proclaims, “There must be no compulsion in religion.” Explained the pope, “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat.”
Actually, the pope’s own expert begged to disagree. “The consensus of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is that Sura 2 is from the Medinah period, when Muhammad had increasing political power,” said Kevin Madigan, S.J., president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in an interview with “Commonweal Magazine.”