Pope Benedict stumbles again over someone else’s quote

January 15, 2008

Students protest against Pope Benedict at La Sapienza University in Rome, 15 Jan 2008/Dario PignatelliPope Benedict’s decision to scrap his planned speech to Rome’s La Sapienza University after protests by professors and students there is the second time he has stumbled publicly because of his old professor’s habit of enlivening lectures with quotes from other sources that function as rhetorical straw men to be knocked down.

In this case, the protesters branded Benedict as anti-science because of comments he made in 1990 about Galileo. Discussing the famous case, he quoted a passage in which the unconventional philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend defended the Church for forcing the legendary Italian scientist to recant his view that Earth circled the sun. Benedict described Feyerabend as “agnostic-sceptic” (certainly not a compliment from the Vatican’s former doctrinal watchdog!). He characterised Feyerabend’s stand as “much more drastic” than another defence of the Church’s view offered by the “Romantic MarxistErnst Bloch. In fact, Benedict said he cited these two views to illustrate “the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology”.

Pope Benedict lectures at the University of Regensburg, 21 Sept 2006In his ill-fated speech in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) as saying that Islam was a violent and irrational religion that had been spread by the sword. In this case, he did not make clear right away whether he agreed with these words or not. Many Muslims assumed he did and rioting — sometimes bloody — broke out in the Islamic world. The Pope later distanced himself from the quote, without apologising for using it.

The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano has run a long front-page story explaining that the 1990 quote on Galileo was actually “a defence of Galilean rationality against the scepticism and relativism of post-modern culture”. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has provided an English translation of Benedict’s original text here.

The veteran theology professor Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict’s real name) often argues on a philosophical level where non-specialists can easily get lost. Given his liking for this style of academic argument and the long paper trail he built up before being elected Pope in 2005, one wonders how many other texts are out there that Benedict’s critics could use or misuse against him.


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Good to know that Reuters is still out there with their “unbiased” coverage.

Posted by Janice | Report as abusive

Thanks for this, Janice. Can you say what you mean by it? I think it’s the students and the professors who are biased, because they insist on misreading that 1990 text to say that Pope Benedict is against science. He’s not — and we say that here. But he does use other writers’ quotes in ways that can be difficult for those who do not read him carefully. Where do you see the bias?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

How about the title of your piece: “Pope Benedict stumbles again….”? And how about this: “… his old professor’s habit of enlivening lectures with quotes from other sources that function as rhetorical straw men to be knocked down.” Where are the “straw men?” The Pope used the quotations from Feyerabend and Bloch to buttress his argument on the Galileo case. I know – I have the original essay (Turning Point for Europe?).

You write like John Allen of NCR – outwardly evenhandedly, yet the contempt for the Pope is always there and it’s not even under the surface.

Posted by Janice | Report as abusive

Janice, this is a very important point and I’m glad you’ve brought it up. You accuse us of contempt for the Pope because we write about him as we do other international leaders, i.e. as an important public figure whose statements and actions are open to analysis by outsiders. As head of the world’s largest church encompassing one-sixth of humanity, what he says and does interests far more than just Catholic readers. In this globalised world, he is a globalised leader par excellence.

There seem to be two related objections here, one to the words used and one to the approach taken. On the style, this is a blog. Blogs are meant to be written in a lively way, as an alternative to the dry style of our news stories. This blog is meant to give some background to our reporting, so it goes into other aspects of the issue that do not get into the news stories. We would not have written the headline on this post on a news story because that is not the style. But it works in a blog.

The charge of showing contempt in our approach, which I reject, is a deeper one. It goes to the fundamentals of how we cover a religious leader, both for the news file and the blog.

Reuters is a secular news organisation. We don’t exempt religious leaders from the critical approach we take to other public figures, such as national leaders. It’s not our job to dissect their profound religious beliefs — to argue, for example, that Jesus was or was not divine or whether Mohammad was or was not a prophet — but to report on what they as public figures say and do. In contrast to the lay religious media, we do not write for a specific community of believers. In contrast to official church media, we do not consider our reporting to be a means of supporting and spreading a religious leader’s views. Those functions are appropriate for them but not for us. We write for all readers, regardless of their belief or non-belief, to inform them of what these public figures are doing.

Working in this way, we approach a speech by Pope Benedict with the same questions we would ask of a political leader. What does he say, what is his purpose in saying it and what did he achieve with his argument? Sometimes, we simply report what he says because it is important to know his position on the issue involved. Thus we cover his major speeches and encyclicals as normal news events. If a speech provokes a reaction that goes against the Pope’s apparent intention, this becomes another story and requires more analysis to explain what has happened. We do this for other public figures and see no reason not to do it for the Pope.

In the case of the two speeches mentioned here, I don’t think anyone will argue that Benedict intended that Muslims should riot after his Regensburg speech or that students should block his visit to La Sapienza because of something he said in 1990. We are defending neither violent Muslim extremists nor intolerant students when we ask how a speech could be so misused. In both cases, the objections were to quotes the Pope used that were taken to be his personal opinion, although he did not say explicitly whether it was or not. In the Regensburg case, he later said the Manuel II Paleologus quote was not his own opinion. In the 1990 text, he described Feyerabend’s position as “drastic” and devalued Bloch’s by describing him as a “Romantic Marxist.” In the end, he clearly says that he cited these two views to illustrate “the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology”. Not to argue for or against the Church’s action in the Galileo case, but to use it as a backdrop for discussing the arguments of these two 20th century philosophers and illustrating those doubts.

Public speakers normally cite quotations that express and bolster their opinion. Pope Benedict does that, but he also uses another rhetorical device that confuses listeners. I called it the old professor’s habit because I saw it frequently when I studied at a German university, back when he was a professor at a different university, and I have seen it many times in his writings and speeches down to this day. It consists of bringing in a quotation to debate some other point. The idea is not to agree with the quotation as much as use it as a tool to advance a different argument. This is a subtle way of arguing, one that is fine in an academic setting, but it can easily be misunderstood outside of it.

This is what happened with the Regensburg speech, which was public and could have been better prepared. The Pope is now a worldwide public figure and his words are listened to by an audience far wider than the academy or the Catholic Church itself. To say he stumbled there means he did not get across his intended message (about faith and reason, not about Islam) across. This time around, his writings have been misused against him — he could not have had the La Sapienza visit in mind when he wrote that, but it has tripped him up in his plan to visit the university. That’s why I asked whether other writings, which also display this rhetorical tool, might also be misused against him in the future.

We wouldn’t go to the effort of pointing out this misunderstanding and misuse of the Pope’s speeches if we had contempt for him. If doing so shows contempt, what would it have been if we had passed over this misuse in silence?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

P.S. Just to avoid any misunderstanding — my unintended silence above on the question of John Allen’s reporting was not meant as agreement with Janice’s charge against him. I got so involved in explaining our position that I simply failed to respond to this point. John takes the same approach as we do, trying to explain what this public figure is doing. In addition, he adds his own expertise and insight and writes mostly for a Catholic audience with more knowledge of and particular interest in the papacy than our readers. I find no contempt for the Pope in his writing.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Your notion that the Pope “stumbled” is pure speculation and it’s hard to see what it is based on. Were you ever in Joseph Ratzinger’s classroom? Do you know how he prepared his lectures? If you don’t, then how do you speculate on his use of quotations?

Your statement that you post on a blog and therefore present your information in a “lively” way is the very thing you’re criticizing in the Pope. It’s also tendentious. Being “lively” in one’s presentation doesn’t mean one takes no care with the truth. No does the fact that you’re “secular” mean you can take liberties with what the Pope said. It’s not clear to me that you even read his discourse on Galileo, or that, if you did, that you understood it.

Posted by Janice | Report as abusive

This is a surprisingly narrow notion of who is qualified to write about a speech by a public figure. If only those who have been in Joseph Ratzinger’s classroom can analyse the speeches of Pope Benedict XVI, then only those who have attended Barack Obama’s law classes at the University of Chicago can analyse the senator’s campaign speeches now. If we followed this logic, Americans could not comment on Europeans and vice versa. Christians, Muslims, Jews and other followers of other religious groups could not express an opinion about any another faith. Men and women could not even seriously discuss each others’ views. Everything one disagrees with could easily be dismissed as “pure speculation.”

I don’t think we want to descend into such radical relativism, especially when discussing a Pope who himself preaches forcefully and repeatedly against relativism.

As for his discourse on Galileo, I have read both the 1990 text and the defence of it against the La Sapienza critics that the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano published in Wednesday’s edition (“When Ratzinger defended Galileo at La Sapienza”). Both are linked in my post. The L’Osservatore Romano analysis fully backs up my reading of the 1990 Ratzinger text. I agree with it 100%. How can you read that and then say that I did not understand the discourse on Galileo or took liberties with what it said?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

That’s good coming from an organization that is the very definition of relativism. By the way, you aren’t defining relativism correctly, anyway. But it’s useless to argue with people who are predisposed to “misunderstand” the Pope in any case. It’s not that you should have sympathy for him; it’s that you have antipathy for him. This showed itself in your headline and in the way you configured your column.

Posted by Janice | Report as abusive

My post defends the Pope against his critics, agrees with his official newspaper’s defence of him and you say I’m “predisposed to misunderstand” him. Clearly that’s not where the misunderstanding lies. It’s between you and me, or between you and the organisation you call “the very definition of relativism.” Either way, there’s no need to continue this.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

[…] is also strong. His thoughts on Aristotle and the relationship between philosophy and religion, particularly revelation, inspired a renewed interest in the interpretation. Between the religious right and […]

Posted by religion » Blog Archive » Photgraphically It would be ‘good’ if there were free reign to present anything that won’t get us clapped in jail but usually there are some compromises it. | Report as abusive

This is a grim hatchet job. Please, if you have in interest in this subject, read the Pope’s Regensberg speech. His argument is that Faith comports with Reason, that God’s creation is rational and understandable and that God created this world and mankind, not because he needed us – not for himself – but out of love. The typical, virulent gloss offered in this article will sadly drive away people who in good faith would appreciate this Pope’s writings.

Posted by Jim Stevenson | Report as abusive

Jim Stevenson, I have read the Pope’s Regensburg speech at least half a dozen times, including three times before it was even delivered just to make sure I saw it in its entirety. We journalists covering that trip had it under embargo at least 6 hours before he delivered it, so the reports that came out were not just instant analysis. What you describe is the body of the speech and I agree that he said that there, and said that well. But he started out that speech with a quote from a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was violent and irrational. This came as a surprise to anyone who heard the speech that day and, since Islam was not central to the main argument you cite, it was an element that he clearly wanted to bring into this speech. The fact that this was a mistake can be seen in the way he responded to the protests that followed by saying he was sorry for any misunderstanding, by making a point of praying alongside a Turkish imam in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and by restoring the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as an independent Vatican dicastery after subordinating it to the Pontifical Council for Culture. Popes don’t admit making mistakes, but a clean-up job like that certainly showed Benedict recognised that his speech had not had the desired effect.

You say this is a “grim hatchet job” with a “virulent gloss.” I do not agree with such glib criticism. In fact, I must say that I am surprised to see how many Catholics defend Benedict unquestioningly on this when he himself clearly acted in the following months in a way that showed he had to make up for a misunderstanding that arose from that speech. The faith and reason part of this speech was very well argued and presented. But if the purpose of the speech was to present the argument for the compatibility of faith and reason alone, why did he add the Islam aspect that caught everyone’s attention? Any why, at the end of his argument about faith and reason, did he invite Muslims to a dialogue with Christians?

There was more to this speech that just the faith and reason part. Those who insist the speech was only about that either fail to understand his remarks about Islam or are defending him against the evidence.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive