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Author and Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson on the Pope’s Regensburg speech

Monday, September 18, 2006
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HH: Joined now by my old pal and office mate, Peter Robinson. He is the author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. He’s up at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and he’s Catholic to the core. Peter, how are you?

PR: I’m extremely well, Hugh. How are you?

HH: I’m great. I’m calling my Catholic friends today, although I’ll be talking with Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary next hour, since I’m broadcasting from Cal Baptist University today, in anticipation of a debate with Susan Estrich here later tonight, about their reaction to…

PR: You’re debating Susan Estrich tonight?

HH: Yes.

PR: I don’t know which side to pray for.

HH: Just for Susan.

PR: You for strength, or…

HH: No, I’ve actually read the Constitution, so I’m way ahead of her.

PR: (laughing)

HH: And so, I love Susan. You know that.

PR: Of course. Go ahead.

HH: So Peter, the question is, when you read Benedict’s speech, you had the same reaction, and posted pretty much the same thing at National Review Online that I posted, because you haven’t done Peter Robinson’s blog, yet, bad person, that I did at Hughhewitt.com, which was it was a magnificent speech. Neither of us said anything about the 14th Century emperor.

PR: Right. That’s exactly right. It is a magnificent speech. One of the things…well, it’s striking on two levels, in my opinion. One is that Benedict XVI is amazingly learned. There is just no…it’s as if he carries all of Western civilization between his ears. There’s just no…he’s read every important book, thought deeply about it. And then the second striking thing, of course, is the emphasis on reason as a ground for religion. Reason comes from God, religion must comport with reason. We can use reason to access a great deal of what we believe to be true. Of course, ultimately, Christians believe that there is also revelation, something we could not reason out if it hadn’t been revealed to us directly. But the learned, depth of learning in this speech, and the insistence on reason as a ground of religion, I found just tremendously impressive.

HH: I also read it initially, and still read it, as primarily a rebuke to the secular extreme, and not a real conversation at all, except in passing, as explained by Father John Neuhaus at the beginning of this program, to Islam as being necessarily a participant in a rational conversation if progress is going to be made.

PR: Yes.

HH: Did you notice it? Did you even notice the Islamic content when you first read it?

PR: Oh, sure, I did notice the Islamic content, because I was so struck, what other person could you imagine who would actually be familiar with a text by a Byzantine emperor from 1391. I mean, I just thought that’s extremely striking. And of course, once…a day, 24 hours later, when it was clear that the text was going to cause a brouhaha, I actually looked up the emperor Manuel II, Paleologus, online, and discovered that the emperor had a great deal of reason for understanding about Islam. He had been exiled to the Turkish court, he’d spent years reading Islamic text, and debating with Islamic scholars, and then, of course, he devoted his adult life, as Byzantine emperors tended to do, to trying to defend what was left of the empire against the forces of Islam. So I mean, it struck me the Pope was choosing someone who had…who’s thinking and who’s life had been tempered by the effort to preserve Christianity against an armed and expansionist Islam. There’s just no doubt about that. So there was a certain toughness to choosing that quotation. But that was not the central point of the speech.

HH: Now what do you think about the reaction and Benedict’s subsequent statements?

PR: Well, the reaction…you know, we’re talking about a world religion here, so I don’t want to denegrate it. But I have to say it’s almost amusing to me. They are violently saying we’re not violent. That’s just…in a certain sense, it’s almost silly, this reaction. The profound point, though, I think, is that many in the Muslim world do not know their own history. There is simply no question as a matter of historical fact that in particularly in its first three centuries, when Islam went, in effect, from zero, around the year 700, to the entire southern half of the Mediterranean world becoming Muslim three centuries later, largely, not exclusively, but largely, that was by conquest. And then, of course, you get the centuries long struggle with Christian Europe, 1453 they conquer Constantinople. And as late at 1683, this is important for people to remember, as late as 1683, the Ottomans were at the gates of Vienna. As late as 1683, the struggle between the Muslim world and the Christian world for supremacy in Europe was still going on. There is…anybody who knows the history of Christianity understands that there’s violence in that history, as well. But I just get the feeling that the Muslim world doesn’t understand its own history, which is alarming.

HH: And now, Benedict has expressed deep regret for what has happened.

PR: Right.

HH: John Neuhaus saying that is not an apology, and not even remotely the same.

PR: Father Neuhaus is correct, as I read it.

HH: And so, the implication of that is what?

PR: Well, the implication runs as follows. It’s probably, in my judgment, it’s easiest to get to what Benedict is up to, what he understands himself to be up to, by contrasting himself with John Paul II. Now of course, he was devoted to John Paul II. These are men who have immense amount, including their learning, in common. But they occupy different moments in history. John Paul II, to the extent that he dealt with Islam, was constantly emphasizing what we have in common. This pope, Benedict XVI, views, I believe, his principal mission as the revitalization of a secularized Europe…his principal concern is with the secularization of Europe. And the first lesson he must teach Europe is what is distinctive, and particularly precious about Christianity. So where you see John Paul II trying to stress what we have in common with other world religions, Benedict XVI is not to degegrate other religions, but to demonstrate the preciousness, the uniqueness of Christianity, is drawing distinctions with other religions. In his first encyclical, which many dismissed because it was on love, and it almost seemed light, somehow. Well, of course, the Pope is going to talk about love, was the line. But at several critical points in that encyclical, Benedict XVI says this understanding of love is distinctive and unique to Christianity. You will not find it elsewhere. Likewise in the speech at Regensburg, he draws distinctions between Christianity and to some extent, Islam. He’s not being hard on Islam. He’s trying to make a point for the secularists in Europe. But he’s drawing distinctions.

HH: Now Peter Robinson, I also thought that that speech was a salvo aimed at Western, specifically American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic branches, saying that you know, it’s lightweight.

PR: Oh, yeah. You know, I hadn’t thought of that, Hugh. But as usual, you have only to express the opinion for me to say hmm, he was onto something yet again. You’re absolutely right about that, I think. There’s a depth here, and he’s calling…I guess you’d say it’s typical. Let’s put it at least this way. There’s a tendency in American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, toward I guess what would you say? Emotionalism?

HH: Sentimentality.

PR: I beg your pardon?

HH: Sentimentality.

PR: Sentimentality. Thank you very much. And in fact, in American culture, Oprah rules the airwaves, right? And what is Oprah but sentimentality. And the Pope is, not again, he’s not denegrating heartfelt emotion. But he’s saying that’s not enough. It’s certainly not all. God calls us to use our minds. Reason comes from God. It is part of the ground of our being. We have free will, and we have reason. This is an extremely learned man saying to Christians, use your heads.

HH: Peter Robinson, start your blog. I’m looking forward to what John Paul and Benedict changed my life, the successor to How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. And it’s always a pleasure to speak to you, sir.

End of interview.

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