Defending the Pope?

You may want to print and frame this post after you read it. Why?

Because I am about to defend the Pope in his row with Muslims over a speech he gave last week when he quoted a medieval text which had some sharp words about Islam.

Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg, entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. He did quote the medieval ruler Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus who did describe Islam in less than flattering terms.

What outraged Muslims and others failed to note is the context the quote was used. Like most leaders of the world, the Pope released a text copy of the speech to the press. Here is the offending part:

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read… of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

In the seventh conversation…the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.”

Key excerpts: The Pope’s speech

Back in medieval times Islam and Christianity tried to convert each other by the sword so maybe the Pope’s mistake is he didn’t mention that fact.

Another blog, by Russell Shaw, pointed out Christians forced other cultures to convert.

After reading Pope Benedict’s apology, I then thought of the predominantly Catholic conquistadors who forcefully invaded the Americas five centuries ago. On horseback, subjugating and plundering the great cultures of the time by means of swords, guns, and perhaps unintentionally- germs as well.

That’s Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas, at the top of this post.

After the conquests of the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs and so many other wonderous cultures, the priests did the conversions to the church of the time. And while the priests did not carry swords, their actions were facilitated by those who did.

Sadly, a similar process was repeated in North America. Primarily Protestant Europeans came here, stole the land from the Native Americans, subjugated and in some cases destroyed their cultures. And while the missionaries did not carry swords, the ones who paved the way carried swords, guns, and germs. Don’t even get me started on the slave dealers, and slave owners.

Pope Benedict, Now Who Converted Who “By The Sword?”

The point I’m trying to make is that in context of his speech, the Pope was correct in what he was saying “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” Islam shouldn’t get a free pass now. In fact it seems Islam hasn’t give up its violent ways in keeping its faith – noting the churches burned in the West Bank and a nun was murdered in Somalia.

Not that I give the Pope a free pass either even if I don’t agree with the outrage in the Muslim world. I have a problem with this bit of his speech:

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 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.

Well, no that isn’t true. To do so would be to elevate religion where it doesn’t deserve to be. It also seems even trying to discuss the history of religion causes a block on a dialogue of cultures.

The time of religion has passed and when people finally come to that conclusion we will all be better off.


This blog transitioned to a podcast in April 2020.

Even after the transition there maybe an occassional blog post that isn’t a podcast like this post.

Listen to our podcast for free HERE or on your favorite podcast app.

Secular Left Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts,

Doug Written by:

Founder, editor and host of Secular Left - please be gentle For media inquiries see our "About" page.