Vatican or Vatican’t?

An editorial
by Chris Hibbard
The Meliorist

Vatican or Vatican’t?

It is apparent through the recent example of Mel Gibson, and the Dixie Chicks before him, that no one is safe from putting his or her foot deeply inside their own mouth. Never has this sentiment been more clearly heard ‘round the world than by this week’s outspoken celebrity – his Excellency himself, and leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI.

Unlike Gibson however, who lashed out at Jews and blamed it on the booze, or the Dixie Chicks, who merely bashed George Bush in concert and then ducked their heads down, the Pope is such an icon in the world that there is nowhere for him to hide. Most certainly he can not duck for cover inside his Pope-mobile, for though it is souped-up and bulletproof, it is unfortunately a completely clear and see-thru bubble car. But I digress.

When the Pope suffers from a bout of verbal diarrhea, he not only gets it on himself, but on his church, his followers, and the entire world. He is untouchable, holy, and as close to divine as one can get, so he is expected to act accordingly, speaking words that are righteous and right, kind and considerate. It would seem that this Pope has spoken too soon – or perhaps needs a better speech writer.

Some of you starving students who cannot afford T.V. or even a newspaper may be wondering what the heck I’m rambling about, so here’s a recap of the Pope’s latest shenanigans in the media-oriented realm.

Here at home in Canada, the Pope merely piddled on us, giving us the wagging finger of shame for our positions on gay marriage and abortion. Needless to say, the Pope does not approve of the liberal “freedom to choose” stance which we Canadians have democratically taken, so much so that he said this:

“In the name of `tolerance’ your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of `freedom of choice’ it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children.” The laws we have in place as a result of our tolerance, he calls a result of “the exclusion of God from the public sphere.” Furthermore, he lamented that Catholic politicians yielded to “ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of opinion polls.”

You know what? He’s right for the most part. We have excluded God from the public sphere, and to many this is wrong. But as is obvious from the results of polls, surveys, and a constitutional voting process, there are a few more of us that don’t mind keeping God in the private sphere, keeping him optional, keeping him a matter of choice. Is freedom of religion not truly a right that we have? It seems to me that it is.

Now, I admit to not being a Religious Studies major, nor a clergyman, nor even a true amateur theologian for that matter. In fact, I was brought up in a very Christian home, but have since adapted my views of God to best fit my life, instead of the other way around (much to my parents’ chagrin I’m afraid.) But I am not my parents, nor am I a merely a sum of their parts. I believe in God, but not the one that everyone is fighting over.

Having said this, when stories like this break, it makes me wonder if we’ve really come that far from the days of the Inquisition, the days of Residential Schools, and the days of the strap as a disciplinary tool. For better or for worse, these are Catholic constructs that have been put aside. Would you like to know why? It’s because the Catholic Church itself (not to mention the billion or so members of its congregation) has in fact, yielded to ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of public opinion polls. To put it simply, the people spoke up and said “I don’t wanna get the strap any more. I don’t wanna burn witches anymore.” And the Catholic Church changed its policy.

It’s not outrageous and it’s nothing new. Think back to a year ago, when Pope Benedict “rejected” the Catholic Church’s notion of limbo, that scary in-between place where un-baptized babies go to bounce around for all of eternity, neither in heaven nor in hell. In that case, the epidemic proportions of babies dying from AIDS in Africa prompted an about-face in doctrinal thinking, for the basic purposes of encouraging more Africans to consider Catholicism, or more appropriately, preventing discouragement while letting babies go to heaven after all.

I once heard it said that the church moves in not days or years, but in centuries. If this was once true, the newest Pope is undeniably efficient. But again, I digress. This is old news, last week’s news, and not the latest public relations nightmare. That distinguished honour is reserved for the Muslim world.

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict delivered a speech at a German university in Germany. Largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, and shutting belief in God out of science and philosophy, the speech stirred up a hornet’s nest when Benedict cited the following words: “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.” Benedict also briefly (and bravely, some might say) spoke out about the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as “holy war,” and said that violence in the name of religion was contrary to God’s nature and to reason.

While the quotation he cited was primarily the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, something about calling the gospel according to Muhammad “evil and inhuman” really struck a nerve. And to make a long story short, within hours, the news was circulating the globe, and the results came flooding in. They looked something like this:

“In his speech, Benedict insulted both Islam and Prophet Muhammad,” said Chen Guangyuan, president of the Islamic Association of China. “This has gravely hurt the feelings of the Muslims across the world, including those from China,” Chen said. “Both the Islamic Association of China and Chinese Muslims hereby express their anger and condemnation over Benedict’s words,” he said.

And like this: The supreme leader in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the pope’s remarks “the latest link” in the “chain of conspiracy to set off a crusade.”

And like this : In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, protesters burned an effigy of the pope, and an Iraqi group linked to Al Qaeda posted a warning on a Web site threatening war against “worshipers of the cross.”

Lest we forget the actions of others who were more lost for words. A Turkish man with a fake gun tried to storm a Protestant church in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. He was arrested after worshipers trapped him in the church entryway. A couple of churches were torched in the Middle East, and an elderly nun was shot dead in Somalia.

So why such a backlash some may ask? “It’s only a silly comment, only 14th century words, it’s not like it’s sticks and stones.” This is true. But turn it on its head for a sec. If the Dalai Lama was to appear on national T.V. (for example) and proclaim that Christ was a criminal, a liar and a thief, or something along those lines, I’m pretty sure that there’d be some backlash from the Christian world, one way or another.

This issue is not a new one, nor is it likely to be the last. It is the very same behemoth as the one involved in the Danish “Mohammed with a bomb for a turban” cartoons – that being whether Islam is a religion of peace or not. While there is no doubt that there are a select group of Muslims who truly believe in the ‘live and die by the sword’ mantra, they are a tiny minority. It seems obvious to me that no race can be painted with one brush, and that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are perfectly peaceful and would gladly live in harmony with their neighbors. Most of them say things like this:

“Prophet Muhammad is an emissary of peace who devoted his whole life to promoting the mission of peace and tolerance,” Chen Guangyuan said. Prophet Muhammad also made it clear that his only task is to “guide and exercise mercy” to people from across the world, Chen explained. “We will adhere to the spirit promoted by Prophet Muhammad and hope that different religions and civilizations respect each other, have a dialogue and exist peacefully,” he said.

And like this: “The pope has apologized, and that’s enough, so let’s calm down,” said Hasyim Muzadi, head of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. “If we remain furious, then the pope will be proved correct.”

Now, as a lowly editor of a college “infotainment” paper, I am admittedly somewhat out of my depth, but here’s my thinking.

I think the Pope is correct insomuch as Islam may have an internal issue, that being a matter of doctrine that can be interpreted as both peaceful and violent. But if so, it should be left to the followers of Islam to solve.

I think that this is all seems somewhat hypocritical to me to be accusing another religion of being violent, when the Catholic Church has historically had a negative effect on many innocents around the world over the last 4000 years.

I think that accusations of insensitivity or super-sensitivity regarding different religious groups are a waste of time. I think I’m right and you think you’re right and unless we can agree that we both think we are right and end the debate right there, this problem will not go away.

I think that it would be a terrible shame if World War III was to start because of a poor choice of words, bad speech-writing, miscommunication or at worst, simple slander.

I think that the Pope may have accidentally stumbled into a debate that many would rather ignore, but you know what? We’re in it now up to our necks, and you know what that means. It’s time to sink or swim.

(I also think that the Pope might have wished he was an alcoholic movie star for a moment or two last week, for then he could have just pulled a Mel Gibson, driven his bubble car to rehab, and been considered human, healed, and forgiven.)

Listen up kids, cuz here’s the million dollar question:

Do we want to open channels for intelligent dialogue, acknowledging that there is an issue that is tearing us apart? Or would we rather call each other names, kick sand in each others faces, and continue to merely act and react on our ignorance of each others ways?

I truly hope that the answer is the latter, but if this Pope has taught us anything, it’s that words are dangerous. Since the pen might truly be mightier than the sword, we must tread as lightly when wielding them as we would in a battle.


~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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