Benedict at Regensburg:
Islam, War, Death, Apostasy, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Poverello
by Michael D. O’Brien
The world grows more complex and inflamed, violence erupts everywhere, evil seems to be spreading. I think of the massacre of students a few weeks ago in Montreal by a youth who left a message declaring his hatred of Christians, and the massacre of Amish children in Pennsylvania a few days ago by a man who proclaimed he was doing it because he hated God. I think of the wars in the Middle East, and the rage of Islamic extremists over an academic paper delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg, and the murder of a Catholic nun and burning of churches in reprisal for his talk. The list goes on and on and where it stops only Christians know — because the only place it stops is on a Cross on Calvary.
Looking closely at what is happening in the world, or for that matter only superficially, we see murder in the human heart, violence as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Lately I’ve been pondering those two brothers, and it seems to me that in a sense we are like a third brother: We are witnesses to the scene (through the hindsight of history) and yet somehow participants. When radical evil strikes, our instinctive response is to defend and deflect — especially to protect the innocent and vulnerable. This is a necessary and just thing to do. Our response to evil, however, becomes problematic when we consider the ways in which we are to defend the good. In one form or another this is the test we all must pass through.
When you see a man “angry against God” slaughtering innocents, or a man slaughtering innocents “in the name of God,” do you not feel, as I do, an instinctive flash of horror, rage, and desire to kill the killer? Is there not a corollary instinct to seek out and find anyone like him, thus making preemptive strikes against more atrocities? When you see hate-possessed Islamic extremists killing and spreading “blood and chaos” as a messianic mission (the stated objective of the current leader of Iran) in the name of Allah, do you not want to eradicate this danger in a bigger and more decisive way? Such feelings are usually overcome quickly, transformed into prayer for the victims and their families, and a less easily prayed invocation of divine mercy for the souls of the killers. Reason takes over, offering all the crucial qualifications and reflection on strategies. Yet the shock and its residual fear persist. Then the temptation grows and grows to definitively solve this murderous tendency in human nature by applying radical therapy of a socio-political or military-political or geo-political nature. Is there not a niggling little voice inside us suggesting that if we kill enough of the killers, then the world will become safe for nice people like ourselves, good people like ourselves? Or in less violent scenarios, do we hanker for a world-system of absolute control over all aspects of life, public and private, presuming that in such a world there would then be no more room for violence?
I don’t know about you, but that is how I feel in my very lowest moments. I say feel, not think. These are feelings quickly come and quickly gone, but symptomatic nonetheless. If there had been a third brother back then on the terrible day when Cain’s rage and jealousy drove him to murder, would he not have been put to this test? Driven by powerful instinctive feelings, would he have picked up a rock and killed Cain in turn? Would he have called it justice? Would he have seen it as a necessary act for the preservation of the peace and security of the lands east of Eden?
Since the invasion of Iraq there has been a great deal of discussion in Catholic circles about whether or not the war constitutes a just war by moral standards. In the months leading up to the invasion, Pope John Paul II warned that the criteria were not fully there. His position, that of the Church, and the subsequent position of our new pontiff Pope Benedict has been argued, assessed, sliced this way and that to molecular thinness by learned commentators, and still it is not clear. That the West faces an aggressive enemy is undeniable; that this enemy posed a radical threat to world peace is now not so certain. Indeed Colin Powell recently admitted that he had lied to the public about the U.S. administration’s “knowledge” that “weapons of mass destruction” were in the hands of Sadaam Hussein. Now, however, the leader of Iran has taken the state of fear to a new level, for he brags about his capacity to produce a nuclear weapon and has stated his intention to use it.
Nevertheless, the question of “just war” criteria remains unresolved. I will not attempt to restate the arguments here. My intention is to ask a question that is applicable in all human situations, be they an individual’s impulses to violence or be they the foreign policies of nations. The crucial question is abiding and universal: What is this “thing” at the heart of man that sometimes erupts and compels him to take the life of another human being? I am speaking of both enemies and friends, for the impulse is in all of us, however latent it may be. To nod “yes” to a doctor who wants to give grandma a lethal injection to end her suffering is morally no different than aiming a rifle at a child and pulling the trigger. One murder is condoned by society, sanitized, rationalized, its sensory horror minimized to practically nothing; the other is condemned by society, irrational and gory, the sensory horror maximized. Yet they are in essence the same act.
Sacred scripture tells us that this part of human nature will continue to be active until the final consummation of the world. Sin and death will be at work until Satan and Death itself are hurled forever into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:10-14). Until then, we live in a world that is physically and spiritually fraught with evils which we must constantly contend with, both the temptations to personal sin and the assaults of enemies visible and invisible, and the moral chaos created when the sins of a people manifest themselves in national and international affairs. We are warned by sacred scripture that there will come a time when God’s chastisement will fall upon all mankind because the weight of its sins is so great. Throughout the history of God’s people all such chastisements occurred as a direct result of apostasy from faith. Repeatedly during the Old Testament era, Israel went from victory to victory, strength to strength against impossible odds — as long as they remained faithful to the Covenant they had made with the Lord. In the Christian era, the people of the New Covenant built an entire civilization of hope for mankind, the development of working democracies and advancement in culture, law, education, agriculture, technologies and so forth. But whenever they drifted into apostasy, tyrants arose in their midst and vicious wars resulted, always pushing the nature of war itself to new levels of evil.
The learned and prophetic Cardinal John Henry Newman once said in a lecture he gave in Dublin, titled “Forms of Infidelity of the Day,” that the heresies of Modernism and neo-Modernism, which were then just beginning to sprout in the Church, were a virulent form of apostasy that would have dreadful consequences. Later, in his Tracts for the Times, he warned that all periods of persecution suffered by the Church from the fourth century onward were preceded by a falling away from genuine faith through outright apostasy, widespread heresy and schisms, and also through the general laxity of believers and their shepherds. The Emperor Julian the Apostate, the false prophet Muhammad, the French Revolution were forerunners, he believed, of the coming of the ultimate Antichrist, the “man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” as scripture calls him. (see also John Henry Newman’s Sermons in Advent, 1835, in Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, Longman’s, Green, & Co., London, 1899).
Are our current troubles in the world not due in large part to the abandonment of Christian faith within the now-guarded borders of our homelands? And in those few Western nations where Christianity is still lived to some extent, even if no more than a vague guide, a cultural matrix — can such nations long survive with one set of morals for its internal life and another for its foreign policies? At stake in our present situation is not only the survival of civilization but fundamental principles of humanity, God-given principles. Western nations, which are the inheritors of what remains of Christian civilization, must be extremely careful about resorting to “lesser evils” to stamp out great evils. A “limited nuclear strike” on Tehran, for example, might stop or delay the agenda of an obviously monstrous ruler such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it could open the path for other and greater evils, not to mention the countless innocent lives that would be taken. God can open up an unexpected alternative way, just as he parted the Red Sea, but if we continue to abandon him (or merely pay him lip service while following our own determined will), he will permit us to live with the consequences of our disobedience.
There has been much controversy over the Holy Father’s speech at Regensburg, and I needn’t recount it here. Suffice it to say that his remarks about Islam were intended to promote the cause of genuine dialogue and authentic justice, teaching us with historical references and his own inspired insight that men of good will must forever abandon any notion that force or violence is compatible with religious faith. One might call this a Third Way. His remarks were taken out of context, thrown in the face of unstable, heavily propagandized Islamic nations, then the sparks caught in the stubble and became a wild fire. I find it interesting that the crisis was engineered largely by one of the more influential power-brokers in the “free world”, the BBC, which enjoys its liberty to spread its anti-Christian worldview only because it is living on the last dwindling resources of Christendom.
See the report on this at:
The West has freedom because of Christ — the civilization that grew out of the first wave of evangelization, which grew out of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Now at this late stage of history, the West is using its freedoms to destroy the principles of freedom in the name of freedom, democracy to destroy the principles of democracy in the name of defending democracy. Recall the consistent pattern of history: apostasy leads to tyranny. Now, even atheist demographers are admitting what the Popes have repeatedly warned us about: materialist Europe has contracepted, sterilized, and aborted itself into a condition of extreme vulnerability to totalitarianism — imported and/or indigenous. And we in North America are only a few steps behind.
Disgust over the blindness of Late Western Man (as C. S. Lewis called us) does not prompt me to hit the executives of the BBC or the CBC or the New York Times with a Coke bottle or to throw an iPod at them — let alone a bomb. But I confess that I must resist an un-Christian and atavistic urge to unjust anger, and especially anger against “practicing Catholics” of great infuence who have publicly declared to national news media that Benedict XVI at Regensburg was guilty of “gross stupidity.” Yes, there is lots of shrapnel flying about in the atmosphere, more than enough to make anyone and everyone angry. Fear and rage — Siamese twins joined at the heart.
So, after ten deep breaths, let there be no ranting. But the situation does prompt me to wonder why anyone bothers to read what such people write or to watch what they choose to show us ever-so-selectively, or to listen to their endlessly nuanced and frequently manipulative death-filled babble. Is it not long past the hour when we should have stopped sending our children to their colleges and disconnected ourselves from their polluted media? Is it not time to write to our government representatives and ask them to stop funding such dissemblers? Let’s never forget that liars spread death, wittingly or unwittingly. Falsehood and death are always allied in one form or another, even if sanitized by plausible denial or distancing or the grand cover-story of the modern media — their objectivity — and the grand cover-story of many educators — their academic objectivity?
A short parenthesis here: Because the issues (war, terrorism, security, violence, death, guns, bombs) are volatile and we all have an emotional investment in these questions due to the state of fear in the world, I would like to point out a few personal facts. A member of our extended family is with the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. The son of a close friend is also in our army and may soon find himself being shot at by Taliban forces. The son of another close friend is with the American forces in Iraq. Another has just returned from a tour of duty there. Each of these lads is a devout believer in Christ, three of them are newly married. Not one of them wants to kill anyone. All are praying for peace, justice, restoration of order, containment of the radical Islamic habit of unrestrained murder. These are good young men — the best! I do not subscribe to the Neville Chamberlain theory of international relationships — “peace in our time,” by which he meant peace at all costs. Quite the contrary, I believe that Hitler must be stopped. One must not hope to placate a crocodile by feeding it a little bit of one’s body (or someone else’s body) piece by piece, which only whets its appetite. I am not a Pacifist, neither am I an Agressivist nor a Preemptive Striker. I believe in defending my family and my homeland with reasonable and just means. But I’ve grown cautious about simplistic notions of “stopping Hitler.”
The history of the previous century taught us very painfully, very brutally, and with measureless human damage (which we’re still living with), that the spirit of evil has many faces and complex strategies: Make careful note that Satan raised up a monster like Hitler and we rightly responded to him. Take note at the same time how we allied ourselves with Stalin in order to defeat the Nazis. Note, as well, how at the end of the war the free West simply gave away half of Europe into the hands of a much bigger and more subtle monster. Note, as well, that it was mainly Catholic Europe that fell into the hands of that beast. Ponder the subsequent crucifixion of the Church (indeed all true Christians) in Czecho-Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the republics of former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia. Consider that a Communist government under Tito was made possible with approval and funding by the Allies, and that Tito’s Partisans committed mass murder of more than a quarter of a million unarmed civilian Croats and Slovenes at the end of the war, and imprisoned countless more during the following decades. Tito was known in the West as the embodiment of “Socialism with a human face.” Western governments loved him and made economic ties with his government in Belgrade that continue to this day because he was, they thought, a “nice communist.” Nicer than Stalin, that is. Consider, as well, that Marxist strategists grew bolder by these acquisitions and began to spread modified Euro-communism into Italy, Greece, Austria, Portugal, and elsewhere (Italy, for example, retained its democracy only by a thread, only by the emergence of Christian democratic movements encouraged by Pope Pius XII).
My point is, let’s go more carefully when we assess current situations, and especially let’s do some self-examination when simplistic bad-guy versus good-guy scenarios are presented to us. That’s my context. Now more than ever we need to consider what God always asks of us: To examine the current state of the world from as broad and deep a perspective as He desires us to. One might call it a cosmic perspective — the “mind of Christ” as St. Paul says.
Where do we find the mind of Christ on these matters? We find it where we have always found it, by praying, fasting, sacrificing and asking Him for light. Then we must listen carefully for what he says in reply —in the “quiet breeze,” “the still small voice” of the Spirit of truth. And part of this listening is an attention to the guiding voice of the chief apostle of the Church, Benedict XVI.
Many commentators are now saying that Benedict’s Regensburg speech was misunderstood, and this is true. But there lingers in the commentary of even some loyal Catholic columnists a hint of reproach. The speech was “perhaps untimely” they say, or it was “not sufficiently informed” or it was “counter-productive.” I disagree entirely with these qualifiers. I believe that the Pope’s brilliant, spiritually discerning talk was perfectly timely and potentially quite fruitful. Whether or not the Pope was aware of the furor that would ensue from his talk, the Holy Spirit was guiding it and divine providence is working it to the good. Above all, Benedict is a man of charity and of truth, and rarer still, he is a man who has integrated both within his life and teaching. In a sense he is like St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1219, during the Crusades, walked into the midst of the Saracen camp and preached for days, and eventually spoke with the Sultan of Egypt in the hope of converting him. It was a miracle that he got through the battle lines, and a very big miracle that he engaged the Sultan in a dialogue, and an unthinkable miracle that this mortal enemy allowed Francis to go home unharmed. He was a sign of contradiction to all parties in the wars. He was unarmed. He was a presence of Christ to the major adversary of Christian civilization in those times.
So, too, Pope Benedict continues to be a sign of contradiction. He has crossed the lines of our normal categories of thought regarding the world situation. He has made possible a dialogue with Islam. He is unarmed. He speaks the truth in a spirit of love. He calls all mankind to turn to the only true source of peace, to Jesus Christ himself. He is not naïve about the nature of radical Islamics, and indeed his Regensburg speech has been the catalyst of clearer vision about the nature of militant Islamism — its irrationality, its spirit of relentless hatred and contempt for human dignity. Yet we must remember that neither is the Pope naïve about the other beast — the one that is killing us from within the parameters of our civilization, the secular humanism of Late Western Man. Neither is he naïve about that most subtle and corrosive beast, the spirit which would compromise the Church from within, the legion of people who betray Christ in the name of Christ.
For each and all of God’s enemies, the Church preaches repentance in the name of Jesus, and bears witness to the promise of divine mercy if they repent. Like our Lord before us, men such as Benedict do not force anything upon anyone. They invite. They stand up in the war zone and expose themselves to the malice of all sides. They open their arms like Christ on the Cross. And more often than not, they are “signs that will be rejected.”
The fruitfulness of our chief shepherd’s mission during his pontificate will depend much on our prayers, our sacrifices, and our sufferings offered to God for his sake. Equally it will depend on our avoiding the temptation to grab at hasty solutions to the problem of fallen human nature. If the third brother allows himself to become Cain in turn, then evil wins another battle.
Michael D. O’Brien
The text of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech is available at: