Benedict XVI on Holy War

Benedict XVI on Holy War

Pope Benedict XVI’s message this week condemning violence and holy war as against the natural order of things was quite interesting. The full text is not yet available in English (here it is in German), but reportedly the Pope quoted from a 14th- and 15th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus in his speech.

“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war. I quote, ‘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.’ The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable…. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

His message will not sit well with radical Muslims, who frequently reference the history of Christian crusades and conquest. And it is rather unfortunate that Benedict quoted from a 15th-century emperor to condemn Islamic violence and holy wars. For it immediately conjures up the Christian faith’s own troubled history with holy wars.

Indeed, one of the seminal events in world history was the conquest of the Americas to force native Americans to convert to the Christian faith. Here is a chilling excerpt from an eyewitness account dated November 16, 1532 recounting the victory by Pizarro and his 200 soldiers over Atahuallpa and his 80,000 soldiers at Cajamarca in Peru:


The … battles of the Spaniards–vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord–will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels. For this reason, and for the glory of God our Lord and for the service of the Catholic Imperial Majestiy, it has seemed good to me to write this narrative, and to send it to Your Majesty, that all may have a knowledge of what is here related. It will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His Holy guidance. It will be to the honor of our Emperor because, by reason of his great power and good fortune, such events happened in his time. It will give joy to the faithful that such battles have been won, such provinces discovered and conquered, such riches brought home for the King and for themselves; and that such terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration excited in all mankind…. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolic life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host.


Now, it is one thing for Benedict to invoke natural law to reject holy war. And Benedict may well be right that violence is incompatible with reason. But he should not invoke past centuries to justify the incompatability of violence and religion, much less invoke ancient history to condemn Muslim violence. It all but invites counterclaims by radical Islam against the history of Christian holy wars.

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Non liquet

May not be the complete version, but the homily is available in English here. “But he should not invoke past centuries to justify the incompatability of violence and religion, much less invoke ancient history to condemn Muslim violence.” First, not invoking past centuries would be rather impossible for a Catholic theologian. History and the tradition of the Church is essential for their theology. Nor do I think that’s what Pope Benedict did exactly, he was invoking a dialgoue of the Byzantine and the Persian as a conceit of whether God is inherently rational. Islam and jihad were challenged (and that will get most of the press), but the three modes of the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity were all specifically Western. For example, Pope Benedict challenges reformed Christianity and sola scriptura. He states: “De-Hellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element… Read more »

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

Of course suicide, let alone suicide bombing, is not countenanced by Islam. Be it the Sunni imams who serve as prayer leaders or the Imams of ‘Twelver’ Shi’ism (or other Shi’ite sects), neither is comparable to the priests of Catholicism. Better, although still significantly different in religious function, are the ulama (‘persons of knowledge,’ sg. alim)[diacritics unavailable]. There are also qadis, muftis, etc. In any case, I suspect Muslims would win any ‘intellectual battle’ owing to the significance accorded the ‘intellect’ and reason (‘aql) in Islamic traditions and ‘sciences.’ The closest the Catholic tradition comes to an appreciation of the importance of reason is found in ‘natural theology,’ the irony of course being that such theology owes much, historically speaking, to Islamic philosophy and theology! I would prefer Muslims and Christians competing to live up to the spiritual and ethical prescriptions, counsel and admonitions found in their respective traditions. The Muslims I have personally known have been exemplary individuals. Alas, not a few of the self-described Christians I’ve known and encountered appear to have forgotten what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God, indeed, they seem more drawn to the seven deadly sins than the various theological and moral virtues.… Read more »

Vlad Perju

Thanks for the link to the English translation of the lecture. Note that he starts and concludes with quoting the 15th century emperor Manuel II Paleologus. He concludes, “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God,” said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.”

I read this to be a dialogue based on a syllogism that transcends one particular faith. He suggests (1) God does not act contrary to reason; (2) violent conversion is unreasonable; (3) therefore holy war for the purpose of conversion is incompatible with the nature of God.

Of course the lecture is much more than that, but I think he is hinting at an approach of inter-faith dialogue that rejects jihad based on this logic.

Roger Alford

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

That ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ as stated in the Qur’an is understood to mean that one cannot coerce an individual into becoming a Muslim, let alone resort to the ‘lesser jihad’ for same. Of course the ‘lesser jihad’ is in any case about the defense of the religion from attack, and hence its apologetic invocation is more along the lines of the ‘just war’ tradition in Christianity and contemporary philosophy than that called to mind by reference to a ‘holy war.’ Muslims cannot reject jihad because it is central to their faith and practice, especially as the ‘greater jihad’ that finds them struggling against the passions, the ego, in short, anything that stands in the way between them and God (all such things being a species of idolatry).

An inter-faith dialogue has as its premise or presupposition a sincere desire to know about the religious beliefs, practices, and traditions of one’s interlocutors. Christians have some distance to go if such an inter-faith dialogue is going to rise above verbal pretense or impious gesture.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

We need some clarification as to what constitutes ‘Muslim violence.’ I rarely, if ever, hear the expression ‘Christian violence,’ yet I know for a fact that many putative Christians commit acts of violence, indeed, on a daily basis (think of the recent conflict in Northern Ireland: did we refer to the violence there as ‘Christian violence?’ If not, why not?). What is it about those acts of violence commited by indivuduals who are Muslim, that warrants characterizing their acts of violence as indelibly ‘Muslim.’ The implication is that the motivating factors, the reasons for committing such violence, are principally or determinatively ‘Islamic.’ What if the reasons for such violence have to do with political, economic or cultural questions that render Muslim identity as such secondary, ancillary, or incidental in significance? Violence committed by ‘Muslims’ may not always be perspicuously described as ‘Muslim violence.’ For I think we have here a distinction with a difference. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much that falls under the ignoble heading of ‘religious violence.’ But we might consider the following from Sudhir Kakar: ‘[I]f we look closely at individual cases around the world, we will find that the much-touted revival is less of religiosity than… Read more »

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

With regard to Christianity and the Greek logos, I find the Pope’s account refresing and inspiring. The problem is his characterization of the Islamic understanding of God: ‘But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.’ This is not at all an accurate characterization of the Muslim understanding of God, evidenced for example in the fact that Muslims often invoke the so-called ‘Ninenty-nine names of God,’ in effect, attributes that entail the realization that God is far from ‘absolutely transcendent.’ Muslims have an obligation to determine the ‘will of God,’ an obligation that relies on the intellect (‘aql) the, Muslim equivalent to logos. Cf. the following from my glossary guide for Islam: ‘aql: reason, intellect or intelligence; in Islamic theology (kalām) it refers to natural human knowledge, while in… Read more »

kalki gaur

HEGELIAN POPE BENEDICT XVI STARTS DIALOGUE OF CULTURES FOR INCREASED ROLE OF REASON IN RELIGION AND SOCIETY- KALKI GAUR NewsWireUSA, 9/19/2006. (1) DIALOGUE OF CULTURES: Good Pope Benedict XVI meant well and Muslims should look in the mirror. Good Pope urged in his German address a respect for reason and an appeal to all religions and secular communities to become partners in the Dialogue of Cultures, the very message Jesus gave and Hindus and Buddhists have been giving all these years. Pope set out to define his fundamental, deeply held Hegelian convictions about the rule of reason in religion and society. The Occidental religious cultures, in monotheist Islam, Judaism and Christianity, regard the “exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.” Pope argued, reason and faith must “come together in a new way.” Jesus and Socrates were murdered because they taught because they brought together reason and faith. Gnostic Gospels, Hindu Upanisad, Buddhist logic, Jewish Kabbalah, Shiite Sufism and Taoism taught about the discovery of absolute Divine Brahman Atma through universality of reason, by bringing together yoga meditation and Upanisadic spiritual reasoning together. No wonder the Semite Muslims, Judeo Marxists, Jews… Read more »

kalki gaur

HEGELIAN POPE BENEDICT XVI STARTS DIALOGUE OF CULTURES FOR INCREASED ROLE OF REASON IN RELIGION AND SOCIETY- KALKI GAUR NewsWireUSA, 9/19/2006. (1) DIALOGUE OF CULTURES: Good Pope Benedict XVI meant well and Muslims should look in the mirror. Good Pope urged in his German address a respect for reason and an appeal to all religions and secular communities to become partners in the Dialogue of Cultures, the very message Jesus gave and Hindus and Buddhists have been giving all these years. Pope set out to define his fundamental, deeply held Hegelian convictions about the rule of reason in religion and society. The Occidental religious cultures, in monotheist Islam, Judaism and Christianity, regard the “exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.” Pope argued, reason and faith must “come together in a new way.” Jesus and Socrates were murdered because they taught because they brought together reason and faith. Gnostic Gospels, Hindu Upanisad, Buddhist logic, Jewish Kabbalah, Shiite Sufism and Taoism taught about the discovery of absolute Divine Brahman Atma through universality of reason, by bringing together yoga meditation and Upanisadic spiritual reasoning together. No wonder the Semite Muslims, Judeo Marxists, Jews… Read more »