Catholic
 Apostolic
 & Roman
Christian Order
Read Christian Order
Contents
Editorials
Editorials
Current
2017
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1990s
1980s
Main Page

 

November 2006

Transcript of a 20 September 2006
interview with Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.,
conducted on Australia’s National Radio service.

"God is Love: God is Rational"

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: Welcome everyone, to "The Religion Report." But first to the story of the week: the Pope’s speech in Regensburg, and the now-famous quote from an obscure late Byzantine emperor. (Interpreter: He says, and I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and now you’ll find things only evil and inhuman; such as his commands are spread by the sword, the faith he preached.’)Well in a week when a nun has been killed, churches have been attacked, and Pope Benedict has apologised, there are still questions about what he was up to, whether he was poorly advised, or speaking with some sense of the effect his words would produce.Today on the program we’re joined by one of Pope Benedict’s former students, and a member of his annual schulekreis, the circle which gathers each summer at Castelgandolfo, American Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio.This time last year the topic of conversation at Castelgandolfo was Islam, and Father Fessio got himself into trouble when he gave an interview later, in which he revealed that the Pope had said in private that he believed Islam was incapable of being reconciled to the modern world.

Father Fessio also runs Ignatius Press in the United States, and in 1996 he published Salt of the Earth, a book by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as he then was. Here’s a short extract:

"The Qur’an is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes society from beginning to end ... Islam has a total organisation of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything ... There is a very marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal law, indeed a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern ideas about society. One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.

Well Father Joseph Fessio, welcome to "The Religion Report." Is there any doubt that in that extract the Pope is saying that Islam is totalitarian and incompatible with a pluralist Western society?

FATHER FESSIO: He’s a man of principles who sees deeply into things, and he recognises that the Qur’an first of all is presented as the unmediated and uncreated word of God which cannot be changed, for which there’s no magisterium to interpret it, and that therefore if you try and see what society will be, if it’s going to be consistent with the Qur’an, then you end up with this principle of political life as you’ve enunciated, as you’ve said. And you cannot have a society based on that principle integrated into Western pluralism which is antithetical to that principle.

What do you think about the Pope’s comments of last week? Do you think he has anything to apologise about?

Well he did apologise for the fact that people reacted the way they did; he was sorry, he regretted that. He also did say that the opinions which he quoted of Paleologos about only evil and inhuman things were the new things that Muhammad brought, he doesn’t subscribe to that position, at least in its entirety. So that was fair enough, but the point is he made it very clear in that lecture, which I think was a defining lecture and perhaps will be one of the great documents of his pontificate, he says the decisive statement is that not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.

God is rational?

God is love, and God is rational. And the challenge to Islam that he’s posing is, ‘Look, is God so transcendent, that he transcends irrationality, or not?’ And I haven’t seen any response which addresses that question. In fact most of the responses are an implicit denial of the freedom of God, of the rationality of God, because the responses have been violence.

Would you say in fact that the Pope has in some senses, successfully demonstrated the problem he was talking about?

Absolutely. Yes.

One other issue that you raised just there that I suspect is important to emphasise, is the academic context in which this speech was made, raising the questions of whether Muslims accept freedom of speech in relation to any issue of importance to Islam.

Well I think there’s no question they don’t. When we say Muslims, we do know that because of the nature of the media, that a small group can make itself heard and make itself feared and become intimidating, and so you get a network of people who if you publish a cartoon in Denmark, or you make a slip perhaps in Regensburg, all of a sudden you get a world-wide network of protest going on, and it’s on the front pages of all the papers. I mean this is a calculated way of addressing the West and intimidating the West through the media. So it doesn’t matter whether it was a university forum, the words were said, that’s all that’s needed. And in fact when the protest took place I doubt that any of the protesters had actually read the Pope’s remarks because they had not been translated into Arabic.

It strikes me also that the image of a conversation between a late Byzantine Emperor and an educated Persian is an image of real inter-religious dialogue, and that’s something that maybe the media has missed, that the Pope is opening up an argument which it’s necessary to have if there’s going to be meaningful inter-religious dialogue as opposed to dialogue which is meaningless or dissembling. So it’s an invitation to a different kind of inter-religious dialogue.

Stephen, I want to tell you, you’re the first journalist or media person I’ve heard make that remark. It’s clear that there’s an irony here. The Emperor was in Constantinople, or in Ankara, during the time of these conversations, at a time when Byzantium was being besieged by the Ottoman Turks, the Islamic force. They were losing territory after territory, and even then, and of course it was only 50 years later that the final victory was won by Islam and Constantinople became Istanbul. But even in the midst of that aggressive attack by a military enemy, here are the Emperor and a learned Persian having a debate, and what do they talk about? The truth claims of Christianity and Islam. And I think the Pope was telling us (and you just said it well) it’s useless to have dialogue on anything else if we’re going to conceal the fundamental associates we’re operating on, the truth claims of our religion. So I do think the Pope is trying to make it clear that we do need dialogue, but we have to have dialogue about what we really believe and come to an understanding in respect of each other, even in our differences, but to pretend that doesn’t exist I mean that’s just delusion.

So you think that with a single short quotation the Pope is raising questions that go to the status of Islam at least from the point of view of the Christian churches. I mean does the Christian church regard Muhammad of Mecca as a Prophet of God?

We cannot regard him as a prophet, and I expect any good Islam to consider me as a Jesuit priest, and as a Catholic, to be both a blasphemer, because I introduced plurality to God, and as an idolater, because I hold that worship is due to a man like us, named Jesus, who completed and fulfilled all prophecy. We must believe, as Christians, that Muhammad is not a prophet, and that therefore whatever comes from Muhammad is either coming from his own imagination or his own reflection, or from borrowings.

It’s not a true revelation.

No. Or it’s coming from the Evil One. I mean those are the only sources there can be from the Christian point of view.

And what about that very interesting phrase in the quotation from Manuel Paleologos, where he says "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new." Is he saying perhaps, ‘Take the violence out of Islam and there may not be much left to your religion.’

That’s right. Let’s transpose this. Suppose that some famous or well-known Muslim leader makes the statement that there’s nothing new that Jesus brought which is not evil or inhumane. Well, what is my response to that? Am I going to burn some mosques, or am I going to shoot a Muslim nurse in the back? No, I want to compile a list and talk about why we call it The New Testament, because this is the first revelation of the Trinity and God, it’s the first revelation of Incarnation, it’s the Sermon on the Mount, they’re the parables. There’s the resurrection of the body, and as Augustine, no, not Augustine, Irenaeus said "he brought all newness bringing himself." [Latin] And so it would be easy for us as Christians to show that Jesus brought something new which was good. So why don’t the Muslims, instead of taking offence, show us what’s new?

I guess the point of this line of questioning is that I’m implying that the Pope, in a very few words, is jangling his fingers around in a very raw place indeed.

Yes, and of course it’s dangerous. I mean he’s not going to feel himself responsible for nuns being murdered. He did apologise for the grief he caused, I mean they had special armed guards and snipers and plainclothes detectives taking videotapes at Castelgandolfo, I mean that itself to me speaks volumes.

Is there any question that Pope Benedict is adopting a more sceptical and perhaps more demanding approach in relation to Islam, than John Paul II’s approach of symbolic gestures.

I don’t think there’s any question about that. I don’t think you’re going to find Benedict kissing the Qur’an. Benedict is a man of truth, but he is the most gentle and serene and unaggressive person you’d ever want to meet, but he will carefully and clearly enunciate the truth. Notice what he did in his first encyclical. He did not speak about the controversy of homosexual unions or promiscuity or divorce, he talked about the love of Eros, he was showing that God is love, and that Eros is participation in God. Now in Regensburg, he’s showing that God is Logos, that God is reasonable, and of course it gets him into problems because that contradicts the prevailing opinion about Islamic view of God’s transcendence.

Not to mention I guess the prevailing secular view that faith and reason have a great big highway sort of dividing them completely. Would you say that John Paul’s approach to Islam was successful in the end, that it paid off?

Well, how do you measure success? I don’t think we have to calibrate consequences here. The point is, we are disciples of Christ, we believe that he’s the Son of God, he’s the fullness of truth, salvation comes through him, and we have to proclaim that. We can respect those who disagree with us, we can try not to offend them or disparage their own beliefs, but the fact is, to try and have a relationship of respect and collaboration, while hiding your most fundamental beliefs, that’s just an illusion, so I do think that Benedict XVI’s approach to this is much more realistic, and will have much more chance of success because it’s closer to the truth. But what is success? Success for Jesus was speaking the truth and being crucified, and it may be that success with the Catholic Church is proclaiming the truth, and suffering terrible persecution.

Finally, you were part of the schulerkreis, the symposium of former students held at Castelgandolfo last summer when the topic of conversation was Islam, and you got into a bit of hot water afterwards when you gave an interview in which you said that Pope Benedict had remarked in private that there is no possibility of interpreting the Qur’an to enable Islam to adapt to the modern world, and I think you had to issue a clarifying statement then.

I did, pointing out two things: One, it was a private and informal conversation with the students and I made a mistake, I shouldn’t really have spoken about the concrete details of it on a radio program, but I did. And then secondly, because it was an interview like this, I was not sufficiently precise in what I said. But I do believe that what I said, even though the Pope didn’t say it, is a consequence of what he did say. And he said it elsewhere besides that schulerkreis meeting, and that is that the very structure of revelation as seen in Judaism and Christianity is radically different from the structure of revelation in Islam, namely in Islam, you have Muhammad claiming to receive the Angel Gabriel, the uncreated word of God, unmediated. This is God’s word for all time, never to be changed. Whereas in Christianity you have God working with his people calling a community together, and it’s not just God’s word, it’s the word of Isaiah, the word of Mark, the word of Paul, the word of Luke, and when God becomes flesh in Jesus, he does not write sacred writ, he says ‘Here’s you, here’s me’ and he gives his disciples authority to speak in his name. So there’s a whole different dynamic there in which within the Catholic Church, those who are authorised as successors of the apostles appointed by Jesus, are able to interpret sacred scripture for the times, consistent with its original meaning.

And perhaps even however difficult it is to admit it, and however painful the process, Christianity can actually change.

Yes, it must be true to its principles, but the way God is working with us is to allow us to co-operate with him in manifesting the fullness of his truth, but in Islam you’ve got the Qur’an and you can’t change the Qur’an. So there’s no internal dynamism to the kinds of revelation which would allow them to adapt it or interpret it.

One more question. Let me take you back to that passage that we began the interview with from Salt of the Earth where he talked about the difficulty of Islam, the impossibility of Islam adapting to a pluralistic Western society. Let me put this question to you: in recent decades the Catholic Church from time to time has sounded a very negative note about the secular world. We heard John Paul speaking about the culture of death. Let me put it to you that if this is going to be the approach to Islam, it is going to have to follow that the Catholic Church is going to have to adopt a more understanding view of the secular world.

Well I disagree with you on that, because I think it already has an understanding view, and I believe that that was the beauty, the power of that statement at Regensburg, he wasn’t just criticising Islam, not at all, the main criticism was the West, not to say the West is [ ...] he’s very clear, we should accept all the positive attributes and accomplishments of the development of the West, but the idea in the West that reason, which is part of God and part of man, can be restricted to the merely empirical, or that faith can be divorced from reason as the reformists tried to do, that is a limitation of reason which must be overcome. So this speech was a criticism of the West, but not the kind of radical criticism it was of Islam.

I take that point, but I guess I’m making a different point, that in this battle, secularism and Christianity are actually allies, are they not?

Well it depends what you mean by secular. [If] you mean abortion and same-sex marriage, and cloning and euthanasia, I’d say no, we’re not allies. But if you say that secularism which comes from Christianity, which respects the personal, individual human freedom, and the right to make a choice in religious matters, of course we’re allies, but we created secularism. I mean Jesus is the one who says "Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." Muhammad didn’t say that.

Thank you very much for being on the program.

All right. God bless you.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: Father Joseph Fessio, who teaches at the Ave Maria University in Florida.

This week I received an email from an Indian listener with an interesting perspective on the Pope’s comments about Islam:

"If Muslims around the world are claiming hurt or insult at the Pope’s comments about the sword being used to spread religion in mediaeval times, then how should Hindu Indians react to what happened to their culture in the name of true religion?

"This is what the American historian Will Durant wrote in his first volume of The Story of Civilisation: Our Oriental Heritage, published in 1935" [And of course this was before the Second World War and Maoist China]:

The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilisation is a precarious thing. The Islamic historians and scholars have recorded with great glee and pride, the slaughter of Hindus, forced conversions, abduction of Hindu women and children to slave markets and the destruction of temples carried out by the warriors of Islam between 800 AD and 1700 AD.

"Just imagine putting up with a 9/11-style event every decade for a few hundred years, and you get a sense of why many Hindus are not surprised at all by the latest jihad activities. They have seen it all before.

"When the Hindus made their last big stand at Vijayanagar in the 16th century, local Muslim historians themselves recorded how it took five months to destroy all the kingdom’s sculpture and art. They described how, loaded up with loot and slaves, the Muslim armies marched home proclaiming that there was not a breathing creature either man or beast, left in a 50 miles radius of Vijayanagar."

[He concludes] "Perhaps the Hindus also deserve an apology."

 

Back to Top | Features 2006