Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back to the Twelfth Century: Peter the Venerable and Benedict XVI -- Sightings

Yesterday I posted on Harvey Cox's views of interfaith dialog. Today, Lucy Pick, a lecturer in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago, comments on Benedict XVI's remarks about a 12th century Benedictine being an exemplar of faith and practice -- especially in regards to conversations with other faith traditions. Pick suggests that this choice is a bit odd, for while Peter the Venerable did seek to engage Jews and Muslims in conversation, the assumption was that if the other did not agree then the other wasn't human. So, what is Benedict trying to say by lifting up this medieval abbot?


Sightings 10/29/09

Back to the Twelfth Century: Peter the Venerable and Pope Benedict XVI

-- Lucy K. Pick

In his general audience in St. Peter’s Square on October 14th, Pope Benedict gave an address in which he held up the twelfth-century monk and abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, as a model for contemporary Christians, lay and monastic, praising him for his ability to balance both contemplative spirituality and the demands and pressures of the world. Peter was an unusual choice. Though the pope associated him with the abbey’s canonized abbots, quoting his papal predecessor Gregory VII that at Cluny, “there was not a single abbot who was not a saint,” Peter in fact was never canonized. Why select him as a model over other Benedictine contemplative administrators, not least Saint Benedict himself, who could provide the same example of tranquility in the face of turmoil? What makes Peter stand out from his brethren at this moment in time?

Pope Benedict praised Peter in part because, "He showed care and solicitude even for those who were outside the Church, in particular for the Jews and Muslims: to foster knowledge of the latter he had the Quran translated." His admiration for Peter’s interest in Jews and Muslims was important enough that the pope repeated it in the much shorter English paraphrase that followed the address. Peter is indeed well known for his strong and passionate belief in the power of reason to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity; for his efforts to translate Islamic texts; for his treatises against Jews, Muslims, and heretics – and for his conclusion that those who did not convert when approached with reason were not rational and thus not fully human.

When I read this recent address, I immediately recalled the famous, or infamous, address the pope gave three years ago, at the University of Regensburg. His quotation in this speech of a Christian anti-Islamic polemic that argued that Christianity persuades by reason, while Islam converts only through violence, enraged the Muslim world. But just as disturbing were the broader claims his speech made about the correct nature of reason. Benedict presented a model of right reason and right faith as both intrinsically united and intrinsically Christian. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God," he proclaimed, quoting his medieval Christian polemicist. Though the address was framed as an invitation to dialogue with those of other religions, it is necessarily a dialogue of a very particular kind – not dialogue as a free exchange between equal partners, but a dialogue in which Christian reason sets the parameters and limits of the discussion. It is medieval dialogue, very familiar to Peter the Venerable, used both as a pedagogical genre in which a master instructs a student, and as a way of showing the truth of Christianity in contrast with other religions.

The dangers of a dialogue in which its parameters predict its outcome should be evident. Arguments like these were made in the Middle Ages with horrendous results when Muslims and especially Jews continued in their own paths despite being faced with the “rational” arguments of medieval polemicists. Convicted of irrationality, non-Christians could easily then be labelled as less than human. Peter the Venerable himself points the way to this tragic history in his treatise against the Jews in a passage addressing an imagined Jewish interlocutor that is typical, not exceptional: “It seems to me, Jew, that I have satisfied every man about the questions put to me with many authorities, and much reasoned argument. And if I have satisfied every man, then also you too, if you are a man. For I do not dare to call you a man, lest perhaps I lie, since I know that reason, which separates man from the other beasts, is extinguished, nay buried in you...Why should I not call you a brute animal? Why not a beast, why not an ox?”

This is not dialogue that seeks to widen channels of communication between those of different faiths; this is not even dialogue that seeks to convert. This is a discourse that uses the form of dialogue as a means to define non-Christians and distance them from the community of the faithful. It may be exactly what the pope wants, especially if Ross Douthat’s New York Times opinion column of October 25th is correct that the pope’s recent gesture towards disaffected Anglicans was motivated by his desire to present a united Christian front against the Islamic world. But it is a radical departure from the way the Roman Catholic Church has approached inter-religious dialogue for decades, and a return to a mode of Catholic self-understanding with a very unhappy past.


“On Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny.”

“Papal Address at the University of Regensburg”

Ross Douthat, “Benedict’s Gamble,”

Peter the Venerable. Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem. Ed. Yvonne Friedman. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 58 (Turnhout, 1985)

Lucy K. Pick is Senior Lecturer in the History of Christianity and Director of Undergraduate Studies at The University of Chicago Divinity School. With colleagues Jim Robinson and Malika Zeghal, she is organizing a conference open to the public on “Deconstructing Dialogue. New Perspectives on Religious Encounters: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern,” January 21-23, 2010 at the Divinity School. For more information, see


In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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