A slip of the tongue or an off-the-cuff remark is one thing; words used in a carefully prepared speech to a university audience are another. So one has to wonder what Pope Benedict XVI was thinking when he dredged up the comment of an obscure 14th-century Byzantine emperor who accused the Prophet Muhammad of “things only evil and inhuman.” The quotation, which set off a firestorm in much of the Islamic world, was part of a speech in which the pope was trying to make a case for the use of reason—rather than force and violence—in religion.
The pope is highly trained in academic theology, but he is no longer an academic who has the luxury of coolly laying out issues for debate among the world’s two largest religions. He is spiritual leader and spokesperson for the largest body of Christians in the world. To many non-Christians, he speaks for all Christians. As he has probably learned, he has to choose his words very carefully.