Papal Politics in New York

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Pope Benedict XVI made an unexpected entry yesterday into the New York Senate race, when John Spencer sent out a release defending the pope in the face of Muslim outrage over a recent speech and called on Hillary Clinton to do the same.

He may have meant it. The message he was really hoping to send, no doubt, was to conservative-minded New York Catholics: namely, that Clinton is an unsympathetic social liberal all too willling to side with the bad guys.

Clinton duly responded — by doing just what Spencer called on her to do.

“It’s just outrageous and offensive that people would be threatening violence against him based on what he said, especially when there is so much they should be working on together,” Clinton said yesterday before a speech at an American Cancer Society event.

But this strange back-and-forth over a complicated issue of ecumenism doesn’t really do the topic justice.

Last week, in a speech at the University of Regensburg, in Germany against the West’s conviction that belief and reason are mutually exclusive, the pontiff cited a Medieval Byzantine emperor who said that the Prophet Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman” to the world.

It was that small portion of his address which was immediately picked up by news organizations and instantly sent to computer screens around the globe. The result, of course, was an outcry in the Muslim world. Judging by the multiple and unprecedented efforts by Benedict since then to quell the furor, he never expected such a quick and angry reaction to his comments. That reflects a certain naiveté about the information age from a deeply intelligent prelate and illustrated the Vatican’s failure to grasp the importance of immediate damage control. (It took months before an official Vatican reaction to the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church.)

But it also demonstrated that after more than a year as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict is still getting used his new role, in which every word and gesture he says is magnified — with potentially enormous consequence.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope was known for his impeccable scholarship and hard line as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While John Paul II spoke inspirationally about brotherhood between the religions, Ratzinger wrote and spoke widely about the condition under which such dialogue between Christians and Muslims could be possible. In the landmark document Dominus Iesus, which his congregation issues 2000, he made clear that only Catholicism offered a path to salvation. He criticized the lack of “reciprocity” in the Islamic world: the idea that while Europe’s traditionally Christian nations made themselves accommodating to Muslims, Islamic countries persecuted or suppressed Christians. He pointed out that while the Catholic Church had a single leader, the Islamic world lacked a recognized interlocutor with whom to speak.

Immediately after his election as pope, Benedict made a clear effort to soften up his image. His first major addresses were about love and peace. But he also brought along his somewhat skeptical view of the benefits of initiating dialogue with Islam. In Cologne last year, Benedict called on Muslims to basically get their house in order and “turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress toward world peace.” In February, he banished to Egypt the soft spoken and liberal president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, (and notably failed to elevate him to Cardinal) and in March convened all of his Cardinals for private talks about issues facing the church. What to do with Islam was one of the hot topics.

Yet at no point did the Muslim world lash out at the pope as they did this week.

By citing the flammable words of a 14th century Emperor, Benedict thought he could make the point without actually saying it.

Kind of like John Spencer.

–Jason Horowitz