THE HELPLESS ROMANTIC: Advice for a pope

O Pope Benny XVI! Was it some relic of your former university professorships that demanded you use full quotations when citing sources? Did you also offer footnotes or a nice handout about how Manuel II was on the verge of losing his empire to Muslims when he said Muhammad brought only evil? I read most of your speech, and I agree with you about God not being pleased by blood-it’s tough for any major religion to disagree with that and not look like some killer cult-but it’s easy to skirt the issue when they can home in on your insults towards their religion’s founder.

I get what you’re trying to do, and frankly you surprised me with a lot of what you’ve done so far: studies regarding condom use in the face of AIDS, the role of women in Catholicism and the stance on diplomacy and peaceful conduct. It’s all good, agreeable stuff, and it doesn’t matter whose mouth it originally came out of. I don’t doubt some people agree with the benevolent Byzantine, and had it been any other high-ranking religious official who quoted him, I would say they’re entitled to their opinion. It’s like those crazies out there setting effigies of you aflame in the street-they’re entitled to practice their religion however they want so long as nobody gets hurt. It certainly isn’t representative of Muhammad’s message or the religion he founded and you’ve agreed, saying similar things yourself.

But getting back to origins, doesn’t being Pope also make you “Vicar of Christ,” which-in original Latin-makes you God’s lieutenant. So according to Catholicism, you’re about as close to God as any mortal gets. Your word is the official stance. You tell Catholics how to behave and your predecessors got hundreds of thousands of crusaders to do the very sort of sword-or-scripture converting you condemn today. While Islam is decentralized and its followers’ actions are unrepresentative of the core religion they worship, you are Catholicism.

There are perks to this centralization, to be sure. What other Catholics say about Jesus, the Bible or any of that stuff, you get to go over with a big red marker to make the religion’s message clear. You get to grade the theses of Christ’s students while you’re Pope and all the other religions accord you the respect your many years of theological study deserve. You’re the first guy to come to anyone’s mind when somebody says “Catholic.” For not-so-centralized religions like Islam, that isn’t always the case. With its many strains, sects and theo-political leaders, non-Muslims are hard-pressed to name anybody from whom they can be sure to get the “right” answer when they want to know the religion’s stance on any issue. Paradoxically, it’s also why decentralized religions get so much leeway.

Benedict, you have to be infinitely more careful about what you say, regardless of who said it first. Especially since what is said, if misconstrued, can lead to religious persecution. To achieve the goal of greater dialogue between Christianity and Islam, you must shed the lecturer’s robe which has traditionally been the priest’s role. You should not speak less like a politician, as Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants, but more like one. The opening of a dialogue between two major religions is like the opening of diplomatic ties, particularly when both lay claim to God’s kingdom. After all, Manuel also said “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly.”

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