The Idler: Defending Reason

Pope Benedict XVI ap­parently triggered fresh “days of rage” among Muslims worldwide with his speech at the University of Regens­burg in Bavaria. I say “apparently,” be­cause it was no remark of the pope’s, but a quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, that made the spark. The line, from which the pope carefully distanced himself, seemed to accuse Muslims of preferring violence to reason. The worst you could say is that it was amenable to being taken out of context by malicious persons.

It was so taken by the BBC World Service. Two days after the speech, the network suddenly led with the offend­ing line, given maliciously out of con­text, in “news” stories that predicted Muslims would be upset. Thanks to the British taxpayer, this “news” was distributed internationally not only in English but in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Bengali, and Malay. At the time of this writing, the full speech still is not available in any of those languages.

Only one person is known to have been killed—a saintly Italian nun, who nursed in Somalia. And it is still not es­tablished that her murder (she was shot in the back, and died saying “forgive”) had anything to do with the pope’s speech. Catholic priests and religious had been murdered before the pope spoke, in Turkey and elsewhere. Those who bring Christ to the Dar al-Islam—usually in the form of food, medicine, and elementary schooling—are rou­tinely threatened by Muslim fanatics.

The pope’s speech was only tan­gentially about Islam, and that part of it was tied in to scholarship that had been done at Regensburg. His theme was instead the Western and universal heritage of reason. His most obvious point was that without an acknowl­edgment of that common ground, no dialogue is possible between religious believers and unbelievers, nor for that matter between the adherents of dif­ferent religions or religious factions.

The pope was further offering, as the non-Catholic Lee Harris has brilliantly expounded, a “critique of modern reason from within.” Without resorting to the authority of the Mag­isterium, he explained the breadth and potentiality of reason itself. He reminded intellectuals that reason is not so narrow as it becomes when it is constricted within pure “science,” that the human mind is capable of knowing much more than can be measured with instruments. For if it isn’t, then even science is an illusion. As I would put it, Benedict is laying the groundwork for a new Summa Contra Gentiles, wherein we may show what is reasonable about the Catholic Faith, and what is unrea­sonable in the denial of it.

It is interesting that, in my own mail, the most enthusiastic responses to the pope’s speech came from intel­ligent and thoughtful Jews, Calvinists, other Protestants, a couple of athe­ists—and yes, one Muslim. All felt drawn toward the Catholic Church—as if the pope were warmly inviting them to a discussion of what is most important in life.

Uncharitable responses came from many politically correct, self-styled “rationalists” and multiculturalist “postmoderns” who do not even em­brace reason rhetorically. Taking me as an apologist for the Vatican, such correspondents condemned the pope’s “mischief.” None of them showed any familiarity with what he had said all relied exclusively on what they’d heard in the media. Several then gloated at the pope’s “apologies,” without grasp­ing that his “sorry that you’re angry” statements did not retract anything he’d said at Regensburg.

There you see the line drawn through Western society, between rea­son and insanity, and there you see what the pope is doing. He is reaching out to all those who, whether or not they have glimpsed Christ, know that reason is also of God, and therefore salvific.

David Warren


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is