A decade ago, a 79 year-old soft-spoken, white-haired German theologian returned to visit a university at which he had spent much of his academic career. On such occasions, it’s not unusual for a distinguished professor-emeritus to offer some formal remarks. Such reflections rarely receive much attention, and are often seen as exercises in reminiscing by scholars whose most substantial achievements are behind them.
In this instance, however, the speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, had immediate global impact. For weeks, even months afterwards, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and even entire books attacked, defended, and analyzed the almost 4,000 words which came to be known as the Regensburg Address. Copies of the text and effigies of its author, however, were also ripped up, trampled on, and publicly burnt throughout the Islamic world. Television screens were dominated by images of enraged Muslim mobs and passionate denunciations by Muslim leaders, most of whom had clearly not read the text.
Also noticeable, however, was the frosty reception accorded to Pope Benedict’s remarks in much of the West. Descriptions such as “provocative,” “ill-timed,” “insensitive,” “un-feeling,” and “undiplomatic” appeared in religious and secular media outlets. Certainly the Pope had plenty of vocal defenders in North America and Europe. Among other things, they suggested that some Muslims’ frenzied reaction to the Regensburg Address proved that Benedict’s gentle query about the place of reason in Islamic belief and practice was dead on-target.
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