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FIRST-PERSON: Should the Pope apologize, yet again?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (BP)–I am no apologist for the Roman Catholic Church, but I do believe in giving people a fair break and taking them at their word. In this regard, Pope Benedict XVI has been getting a raw deal recently.

I have read a summary of his Sept. 12 lecture given at the University of Regensburg in Germany, and I am satisfied that his remarks were aimed at articulating “a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence,” as a Vatican spokesman has said. Ironically, even though the pope was arguing for the use of faith and reason in inter-religious dialogue, he did not anticipate unreasonable people taking portions of his words out of context to justify riots, violence and murder in the name of Islam.

As egregious as this is, however, there is something more ominous at work. Those who are demanding further apologies from the pope are mounting, whether they know it or not, an assault on a fundamental tenet that has made Western civilization prosper: The free and thoughtful expression of ideas.

Is it not ironic that the pope’s speech was made in the interest of creating an environment for dialogue with Islamic voices? Surely, in any inter-religious dialogue there must be a willingness to restrain personal beliefs and preconceptions at least long enough to understand the other speaker on his own terms. Above all there needs to be an agreement on a shared language and its meaning for any meaningful conversation to take place. The Roman Catholic pontiff, like all his predecessors since Vatican II, has dedicated himself to this task, but is quickly finding out that when dealing with certain sectors of the Islamic community, open and honest language is of little value.

The offense of many in the Islamic world over Pope Benedict’s quotation of Manuel II, a 14th-century Christian Byzantine emperor, is totally out of synch with the tenor of his speech. Most of us in the West understand that his remarks were not aimed at insulting Islamic sensibilities about the prophet Muhammad. Yet so many Muslims in the East behave like they do not understand the spirit of the pope’s speech, or do they? It is rather ironic that the same people who cannot seem to grasp the nuance and intent of his original remarks have no problem grasping his apology and demanding that he has not gone far enough.

Seriously, what kind of dialogue can anyone have with people that reject the give-and-take of reasonable debate? If a Western leader is not afforded the right to use his intellect to express thoughts from the outset, can meaningful dialogue in any sense take place?

The Christian faith is committed to the One who reveals Himself as the eternal Word of God. What else can such a revelation mean but that God is a communicator? As John 1:18 states, it is Jesus who “explains” God the Father for us. Rather than hiding the face of God from us, Jesus brings full revelation and understanding to us.

But Jesus as the eternal Word also has implications for our language — the words we use to communicate with each other. We should have the simple courtesy to allow a person’s speech to stand on its own merits. We have nothing to fear in this. When ideas, good or bad, reasonable or ridiculous, are clearly understood, common sense and reason, the rigors of logic, and, yes, particularly God’s Word, will expose them for what they are. In this we are reminded by the Apostle Paul that “all things become visible when they are exposed by the light,” the light of truth (Ephesians 5:13). If, however, we do not give time for truth to surface — and it can take a while — the lie becomes entrenched as a pseudo-truth allowing darkness and ignorance to prevail.

Sadly, we are living in a time when religious fanatics are not intellectually honest enough to let a person’s “yes” be yes, and “no” be no. Rather than deal with the reasonable substance of a proposition, they demonize a person’s words and whip the masses into frenzy with straw arguments.

As believers in Christ we should stand strong against the insult of pressuring any person to apologize for things he didn’t say. But perhaps more important to our stability as a culture, we should not suffer the erosion of our ability to mount thoughtful, complex arguments in the public marketplace of ideas as a means to solve difficult issues. For if this happens, we will all be left speechless.
Rudolph D. Gonzalez is dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s William R. Marshall Center for Theological Studies in San Antonio, Texas. González and Southwestern Seminary Professor Daniel R. Sanchez co-authored “Sharing the Good News with Roman Catholic Friends” (2003), available at ChurchStarting.net.

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  • Rudolph D. González