Reconstruction of a Global Crisis How the Pope Angered the Muslim World

Part 2: Part II: A Muhammad "evil and inhuman"


By this time, Lombardi had received anxious calls from his office in Rome. "There are problems. You must speak with the Holy Father." Lombardi's response was that one cannot tell a pope what to say in his own speech. He told the journalists: "The pope certainly has no intention of telling anyone here that Islam must be characterized as violent." Lombardi's comments were businesslike and he showed no sign of concern.

"We had the same situation in Krakow when he visited Auschwitz," says Marco Politi. "The word Shoah did not appear in the text of the speech that was handed out. Navarro-Valls probably spoke with the pope, and the word was inserted at the last minute."

But Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who ran the Vatican's press office for twenty years, had just retired, and there was no one with sufficient authority to tell Benedict XVI that he would be better off deleting the passage about Muhammad. Indeed, a minor bit of legitimate editing to delete the words "only evil and inhuman" would have been sufficient to deflect the impending storm.

No one knows whether Federico Lombardi mentioned the matter to the pope on the day of the lecture. The affable Jesuit is no longer willing to comment on the Regensburg affair.

Under Pope Wojtyla, every speech was read by at least two other people, including the Vatican's chief theologian and a deputy in the office of the secretary of state, usually Argentinean Leonardo Sandri. But Benedict dispensed with this procedure. After all, a German university professor is not about to submit one of his lectures to anyone else for review.

But at the very least, Archbishop Paolo Sardi -- an official responsible for papal speeches and who passes them on to translators -- must have read the lecture previously. Ratzinger's private secretary Prelate Georg Gänswein was probably also in the picture. But apparently no one believed it possible that a quote from Byzantium could reignite the still-smoldering controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The infallible needs spin doctors

The Vatican has no "war room" where officials take care of damage control when a media catastrophe occurs, nor will one be created after Regensburg. The logic? Someone who has already been judged to be infallible enough to be made pope doesn't need spin-doctors. Indeed, Lombardi himself had just told the Catholic News Agency CNA that the pope's thinking was completely clear, and that this explained why he had no need for a personal spokesperson.

But managing public relations has become a more difficult task under the new pope than under his predecessor. "It is easier to communicate with gestures, whereas speeches must be read in a number of different ways," Navarro-Valls said after the Regensburg lecture. "If I had remained in office, it's quite possible that none of this would have happened. It was a wonderful text, but a few press agencies packaged it in misleading ways. No one in the audience, which included a few Muslims, understood the lecture the way it was characterized later on."

On that Tuesday in Regensburg, no one seemed to have any idea of the storm of outrage it would unleash. If the text of the speech about to be given was distributed to a few senior officials traveling with the pope (and if they read it), no one decided to intervene. Indeed, the prevailing sentiment might have been that by that point only prayer could help, and that perhaps no one would notice the comments about Islam.

At 5:00 p.m. Benedict XVI walked down the steps between the rows of seats in the auditorium at the University of Regensburg. He was in a festively-decorated room full of likeminded individuals and scholars. Heckling was clearly not to be expected. When the pope mounted the stage, everyone in the room stood up and applauded, and everyone felt moved and deeply honored to be in his presence. Professor Joseph Ratzinger was about to deliver his last lecture ever at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught. He was expected to revisit the topic of his inaugural lecture in Bonn, close the circle, separate and then interweave the poles of reason and faith. It was his favorite topic, his life and his university. Joseph Ratzinger had entered his own Garden of Eden. The pope was in paradise.

Benedict XVI likes to begin his speeches with something tangible -- a passage from the Bible or a reference to something topical -- before moving deeper. He likes to speak about the main topics that interest him -- and perhaps spur on the debate within his church a little. He is not interested in starting a crusade. Ratzinger is no politician, nor is he a fundamentalist. He's a fundamental theologian.

"Spread by the sword"

Dr. Pope, the professor, began by remembering the good old days at the bishop's seminary, when lectures were still written by hand and the concept of universitas scientiarum (or of the essential unity of science) was a lived, everyday reality -- an "internal coherence of the cosmos of reason." Then he quoted the book whose pages have been cut open -- a book he says he "recently" stumbled upon again. He quoted Manuel II Palaiologos, a Byzantine emperor that none of the journalists in the audience is likely ever to have heard of before.

He addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed 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.'

Ratzinger improvised the phrase "a brusqueness that we find unacceptable" -- it was not in the original manuscript. Perhaps his secretary convinced him to change his speech after all. But the quote stayed -- it was important to him. And he was too much of a German professor to refrain from quoting the passage in full in Regensburg.

Cardinal Walter Kasper was sitting at the very front of the lecture hall. He hadn't seen the text of the lecture either. (This man never shows anyone anything, he'll tell a guest later. Sure, he may be "gscheit" or "clever" -- but not even a pope can know everything.) When Benedict XVI got to the part about Muhammad, Kasper cringed: This is going to mean trouble, he thought. It had been a long time since a pope had publicly questioned one of the central concepts of another world religion -- such as Islam's concept of jihad -- so directly. It had also been a long time since a pope had quoted a statement as critical of Islam without clearly distancing himself from it.

But no pope had ever presented as lucid and well-argued a hymn to reason either. Benedict's lecture was a song of praise for the university as a site of dialogue. He said: "The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature."

Ratzinger was still speaking when the Italian news agency Ansa issued a wire at 17:28 p.m.: "Pope: Islam's Holy War is contrary to God and reason." A more comprehensive summary of the "densely worked and elaborate lecture" followed at 17:36. The passage on Palaiologos was quoted, and the general context -- the fundamental importance of logos for faith -- was sketched, but only in the wire story's last sentence.

Dispatching the good news

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Soldano, was sitting right next to Cardinal Kasper, but his German isn't so good. "What was that quote at the beginning?" he asked Kasper when the final round of applause finished. The man who virtually governs the Vatican discovered he didn't have the faintest idea what one of the Pope's most important texts was about.

At the time, Soldano had only three more days in office. He would have liked to remain in office for another year, but Benedict decided to replace him and had appointed one of his confidants, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, as Soldano's successor instead.

Victor Simpson, the bureau chief of the Associated Press in Rome, was impressed by the lecture. "He wanted to say it, and he said it," Simpson said afterward. "You can't have a dialogue if you're trying to stay politically correct. He's taken the heat." Simpson is from New Jersey and he lost a daughter in a Palestinian attack on the Roman airport Fiumincino in 1985. He knows what the Pope was talking about.

God 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.

During the speech, Simpson leaned over to one of his colleagues and said, "I knew he's a mentsch." The word, in Yiddish, is great praise. Afterward, Simpson made his way to the press room in order to dispatch the good news.

But Phil Pullella from the Reuters news agency saw things a bit differently. He began his report by noting that Pope Benedict XVI invited Muslims to engage in a "cultural dialogue" on the premise that the Islamic concept of jihad is unreasonable and contrary to God's nature.

Already in the a.m., editors knew that something was up. They had the rest of the day to develop the story: to ask Muslims what they think of the Palaiologos quotation. Having actually read or listened to the speech was not a prerequisite for answering the question. And so the ball got rolling.

Alessandra Borghese has a papal ancestor herself. Her surname stands chiselled into the front of St. Peter's basilica in giant letters. Years ago, the princess was already called "Little Ratzinger" because of her sympathies for the current pope. On the day of the pope's speech, she was visiting her friend Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in Gloria's castle in Regensburg.

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