I first became aware of this issue waiting for my plane at Dulles airport on Friday last week, via the scrolling newbars on CNN. I knew I wasn’t missing much, since with CNN it makes little difference whether or not you have the sound on; the story seems to have blown itself out now, but I have just two small points of my own to make on this, and also want to flag up some interesting posts from different parts of my f-list.
My first point is on the nature and character of the Pope himself. It is rather easy to forget that the Papacy, divinely inspired and sustained or not, is a human institution. (For a brilliant take on the Papal investiture as an inhuman institution, see here.) Stratfor, who are very heavily invested in the “clash of civilisations” paradigm, have a long piece about it asserting that:
he could have no doubt what the response, in today’s politically charged environment, was going to be… each of the pope’s public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate.
Well, I’m not at all sure that that claim is true. Some of my reasons for doubt are public knowledge: the speech was actually made literally on the day the Pope’s most senior official, Cardinal Sodano, resigned as Secretary of State, to be replaced by Cardinal Bertone. In normal times, I’m sure the Secretary of State may well be one of those who looks over speeches, if the Pope chooses to let anyone look over his drafts at all. But as he’s clearing out his drawers, waiting for the new guy to come in, knowing only that this is a speech about the relationship between faith and reason at the Pope’s former university – sounds on the face of it like one you can allow to find its own safe landing. Similarly, the Vatican’s press officer for 22 years retired last July, and the new guy is noticeably still finding his feet (though dealt with the fallout from last week’s speech about as well as one can in such a situation). So I think it is entirely credible that the Pope’s advisers let this one through.
Did the Pope himself, as Stratfor put it, “recognise the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate”? I am inclined to doubt it, not least because it is precisely those explosive consequences for which he has subsequently expressed the greatest regret. (
Many scholars, whether in theology and philosophy, or in the hard sciences, tend to feel that the words of previous experts in their field are the only matter of importance, and the social context in which those words were wriiten irrelevant. My own critical academic formation, at the hands of Jim Bennett, Simon Schaffer and Peter Bowler, sensitised me to the sociology of knowledge agenda, that the theories are difficult to understand if separated from the theorists. Scholars in branches of learning that make particular claims of truth find it difficult to accept that the truths they discover might be in any way determined by the environment in which they are discovered.
I would very much expect that the Pope is among those who regard the sociology of knowledge as foolish and wrong-headed. For him, the debate between the emperor and the unnamed Persian scholar (the one named Islamic expert in his speech, Ibn Hazm, was several centuries earlier and several thousand km further west) was, until last weekend, an interesting and mildly funny detail in the history of the discourse between faith and reason, one he felt able to refer to as a shared joke with his former colleagues in Regensburg. I am quite certain that he does not regard it in that way now. Stratfor fall into the trap which we analysts of international politics often do, of over-analysis; in fact the Pope was just being genuinely thoughtless.
My second point is also based on my history of science days, and relates to the wider debate on the nature of religion. (On which topic
The most insightful post I’ve read on this – saving the best for last – is by