Harvard Square Observer: The Pope Apologizes - Sort of

Ernest Cassara


As you know, in a lecture at the University of Regensburg, in his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI quoted Manuel II Palaiologos, a Byzantine emperor of the fourteenth century, who criticized Islam for spreading the faith by the sword.  The resultant furor among Muslims has caused him to issue an apology - of sorts.  In effect, he said he is sorry that they were offended, but that’s not really an apology!  Of course, the violent reaction in some parts of the Islamic world did not exactly demonstrate the opposite of what the Byzantine emperor claimed!

We have heard much discussion of late as to whether Islam is, or is not, a religion of peace. As is the case with Christianity, the truth is that it is a mixed bag.  Christians are in no position to criticize Islam.  Most of the death and destruction in the world in Medieval times, and in Modern times, was caused by wars among Christians.  Consider, for instance, the centuries of warfare in Europe - religious wars in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation - each country appealing to the same god to aid it in the killing of its neighbors.

One of the advantages of being married to a member of the International Council of Adult Education, before my Better Half retired, was that I was able to tag along to international conferences.  So it was that we were able to visit the great pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, and, in Luxor, the great temples, and the Valley of the Kings, among other wondrous places in Egypt.  Not to mention the incredible King Tutankhamen (that is, King Tut’s) collection in the Cairo Museum. 

Then there were conferences in Sweden, and, particularly relevant to my theme was our trip to Spain.  That conference was held in Aranjuez, formerly the vacation site of the crowned heads of Spain. The conference center had formerly been the royal stables.  All I can say is that those horses were, indeed, treated royally.  A magnificent building!

After the conference, we made our way to Madrid, to see the sights, such as the magnificent collection of paintings in the Prado Museum.  In Madrid, we decided to sign up with a tour group to travel through Andalucia.  Since then, I have been criticized for not having gone to Toledo, which, I’m told, has magnificent Islamic sites.  But, in Andalucia, we visited various wondrous sites, including an ancient synagogue in Seville, with a statue of the great thinker Maimonides in its center.  But, what was so overwhelming in its beauty was the Alhambra in Granada. This was the Palace of the Sultan. As you know, in Islam, human and animal faces and figures are not represented, so that the rooms of the Alhambra were decorated by artists in intricate designs.  As I remarked to a fellow tourist - from Britain - you think you could not see anything more beautiful than the room you are standing in, until you pass into the next room and are overwhelmed by its grandeur.  (By the way, one of the rooms is dedicated to Washington Irving, who, when part of the American diplomatic delegation to Spain, convinced the government to preserve the Alhambra.)

Why do I mention this?  Because it is remarkable that Spain each year makes an enormous amount of tourist money from the surviving sites of the Jewish and Islamic peoples.  Those were the people whom they drove out in the time of the rule of the Catholic sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, best known to Americans because they supported the efforts of an eccentric fellow who was convinced that he could reach the far east by sailing west!

I’ve often thought that the first - and last - Christian was Jesus of Nazareth, except, of course, that he was a Jew.  But, you get the point. 

It was he who taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and that we should love our enemies.  It was he who said that “blessed are the peacemakers.”

How many Christian nations have you noticed living up to the teachings of the Lord they claim to worship?

On the other hand, I must say that the early Christians were a remarkable people.  They were persecuted in the Roman Empire for being oddballs.  They refused to bring disputes to court, on the ground that they should be settled in their churches. What got them into real trouble, however, was that they refused to serve in the Roman legions.  Remarkably, they obeyed the teachings of Jesus and refused to shed blood.

However, as Christianity spread across the Roman world, and gained many more adherents, it began to adapt to the ways of the Romans and the Greeks. As much as I may admire Saul of Tarsus - that is, our St. Paul - for his courage and dedication, he, never having known Jesus, transformed his teachings in such a way that Christians were primarily concerned to worship Jesus as a Lord and Savior.

I date the fall of Christianity to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 311.  Constantine claimed he saw a vision of a cross in the heavens, as he was about to attack Rome.  (“In hoc signo vinces” - “In this sign conquer.”)  Christianity now became a legal religion and began to compromise its beliefs.  And, then, because Constantine was concerned with the arguments among Christians on the question of the nature of Jesus – was he God or Man, or something in between? ? he insisted on a council of cchurch leaders that, he hoped, would iron out the differences.  It was at Nicaea in A.D. 325 that the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, and the Arian, or unitarian, view of Jesus was condemned. 

Then, there were years of bloodshed, as the now “orthodox” church leaders persecuted the Arians, and other “heretics.”  In the process, the teachings of Jesus were minimized, and the nature of Jesus became the main concern. Worshiping Jesus Christ, after all, is so much easier than living by his teachings.

Then, after the Barbarian invasions of Rome and the fall of a unified empire in the West, we had the rise of competing entities - can’t exactly call them states. In the Dark Ages, as we label them,  various entities struggled against other entities.  Even the monasteries fought to preserve their lands.  Picture, if you will, the Abbott of a monastery donning armor and riding forth in battle, with his friars following him.

Some order was restored by Charlemagne in the eighth century.  But, he thought the best way to convert folks to Christianity was with the sword.  He carried on 18 campaigns, from A.D. 772 to 804, at one point giving the Saxons the choice between baptism and death.  They were not particularly enthusiastic to adopt the new faith, the result being that, on one day, for example, 4,500 of them were beheaded.

So, the corruption of Jesus’ teachings continued.  With the ascendancy of the bishop of Rome, we had the claim to superiority by the Papa, that is, Pope.  Of course, the eastern churches were not too keen on doing obeisance to far off Rome and broke away.

The Christians in the West rooted out all who strayed from the accepted path.  Military campaigns were carried on against heretics, such as the Albigenses/Cathari in southern France. 

The blood that was spilled in the Inquisition, with untold numbers being burned at the stake, is appalling.  Recall that Galileo almost met that fate, for observing that indeed, as Copernicus had written, the earth revolves around the sun - rather than being at the center of the universe.  Galileo was one of the lucky ones. After making a “mea culpa,” he was allowed to live - but under house arrest for the balance of his life.  (It is claimed that as he said he was sorry for upsetting the Papa and the church officials, he added, sotto voce, “But, still it moves!”)

But, we must recognize progress when we see it.  Under the late Pope John Paul it was finally decided that Galileo was correct.

I have often wondered what Jesus, the teacher from Galilee, would think of the horrors that have been committed in his name over the centuries.

And, then, of course, there were the Crusades! Pope Benedict didn’t think to mention them in his address in Regensburg.  Did they slip his mind?  They have not slipped the mind of the Islamic world!



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Harvard Square Commentary, September 25, 2006