Yesterday I interviewd Father Jospeh Fessio, Provosty of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and student and friend of Benedict XVI. (Father Fessio is also the founder of Ignatius Press.) The entire interview should be read, and the transcript is here, but the most fascinating part concerned a gathering at Castle Gandolfo with the Pope and his students this past September, where the subject was Islam:
HH: Oh, you bet. Yesterday wouldn’t be too soon. Let’s go back to this meeting, because I’m fascinated by this. And to the extent that you can, obviously, without violating confidence, who was there? And how did it unfold? And what was the idea behind it?
JF: Well, Joseph Ratzinger as professor was very, very popular, and had many, many graduate students. And as part of the graduate program, you’d have these seminars called Hauptseminare, major seminars, or Proseminaren, and there’d be eight or ten or twelve of us graduate students with Cardinal Ratzinger. Then, he was Father Ratzinger leading it. And they were so rich, so fruitful, that when he became archbishop of Munich in 1977, the students decided that they would want to try and continue some kind of regular meeting to discuss theological issues. And he was very happy to do that. So from that point on, every year, we have met for a weekend, usually at a monastery. We’ll pray together, we’ll read scripture together, we’ll do fellowship together, we will study together, we will eat together, and have a couple of presentations from scholars on a particular topic, and we’ll discuss it. They’ve always been very, very enriching and very beautiful. And so, we had planned last year, in 2004, that in 2005, we would discuss Islam. And it was all agreed upon. We had two people picked out to come. When he was elected Pope, we figured well, it’s going to be all off now. But he said no, no. He said I’m Pope, but I want to keep my relationships with my friends in the past, and I want to continue this. That’s why we had it again.
HH: And the other speaker, who would that have been?
JF: That was another Jesuit, actually, from Germany, a Father Christian Troll, who is an expert on Islam in Europe.
HH: And what were the natures of their presentations? That it is an ominous time for Christendom, because it simply cannot keep pace, either population or with zeal, compared to the reach of Islam?
JF: Let me divide my answer into two parts, and you can interrupt me at any time, because I realize it’s your show. I’m taking all the time.
HH: Oh, no. I’m fascinated.
JF: But as background, I want to say without exaggeration, and without trying to become histrionic here, I see the trends…I’ve seen them for years, in Europe, of depopulation as you’ve mentioned. And their immigration is coming from the South, which is mainly Islamic. And there are, I think there are 98 Islamic countries in the world, and 97 of them do not have religious freedom. The only one that does is Mali, where Timbuktu is, you know. It’s in a desert, so you can hardly count it. Sorry about any Malians who are listening to this program. And that’s what’s going to happen to Europe. Once there’s an Islamic majority, it is going to not…it’s going to eliminate religious freedom. However…and therefore, Western civilization as we know it. However, in the United States, we also are not having children. There’s abortion. There’s contraception. There’s the ideal of a one or two child family. But where is our immigration coming from? From Ecuador, from Mexico, from Cuba, from Guatemala. And these people are Christians. And so, I believe without being…you know, having hubris as an American, I believe that Christians in the United States are the ones who will be able to save not just Christianity, but Western civilization, if we maintain our fidelity to the scriptures, our fidelity to Christ, our fidelity to family life, and our fidelity to fertility and fruitfulness in marriage. So I believe we are in a world historical century, which is going to depend upon the strength of Christianity in these United States. I say I think that’s…I may raise my voice. I may get excited. I might waive a Bible or something like that, but I believe this is the hard facts, unless God…He could always…He’s in charge. He could perform a miracle. He could do something we can’t possibly have foreseen. But I see that as what’s happening. Now, that’s part one. The second part is shorter. The main presentation by this Father Troll was very interesting. He based it on a Pakistani Muslim scholar names Rashan, who was at the University of Chicago for many years, and Rashan’s position was Islam can enter into dialogue with modernity, but only if it radically reinterprets the Koran, and takes the specific legislation of the Koran, like cutting off your hand if you’re a thief, or being able to have four wives, or whatever, and takes the principles behind those specific pieces of legislation for the 7th Century of Arabia, and now applies them, and modifies them, for a new society which women are now respected for their full dignity, where democracy’s important, religious freedom’s important, and so on. And if Islam does that, then it will be able to enter into real dialogue and live together with other religions and other kinds of cultures.
HH: Is he an optimist about that happening?
JF: He is, but interesting, Hugh, you know, all the seminars I recall with Joseph Ratzinger, Father Ratzinger, he’d always let the students speak. He’d wait until the end, and he would intervene. This is the first time I recall where he made an immediate statement. And I’m still struck by it, how powerful it was.
HH: We only have thirty seconds, Father Fessio.
JF: Oh, I can’t do it.
HH: Then I want to come back after the break.
JF: Okay. Hugh, we’ve got to come back to this after the break.
HH: That’s the greatest bridge ever.
JF: That’ll keep your listeners.
HH: You betcha. No one’s going to go away. And here’s what the Pope said…
HH: Father Fessio, before the break, you were telling us that after the presentation at Castel Gandolfo by two scholars of Islam this summer with Benedict in attendance, as well as his former students, for the first time in your memory, the Pope did not allow his students to first comment and reserve comment, but in fact, went first. Why, and what did he say?
JF: Well, the thesis that was proposed by this scholar was that Islam can enter into the modern world if the Koran is reinterpreted by taking the specific legislation, and going back to the principles, and then adapting it to our times, especially with the dignity that we ascribe to women, which has come through Christianity, of course. And immediately, the Holy Father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said well, there’s a fundamental problem with that, because he said in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to His followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations. I was…I mean, Hugh, I wish I could say it as clearly and as beautifully as he did, but that’s why he’s Pope and I’m not, okay? That’s one of the reasons. One of others, but his seeing that distinction when the Koran, which is seen as something dropped out of Heaven, which cannot be adapted or applied, even, and the Bible, which is a word of God that comes through a human community, it was stunning.
HH: And so, is it fair to describe him as a pessimist about the prospect of modernity truly engaging Islam in the way modernity has engaged Christianity?
JF: Well, the other way around.
HH: Yes. I meant that.
JF: Yeah, that Christianity can engage modernity just like it did…the Jews did Egypt, or Christians did to Greece, because we can take what’s good there, and we can elevate it through the revelation of Christ in the Bible. But Islam is stuck. It’s stuck with a text that cannot be adapted, or even be interpreted properly.
HH: And so the Pope is a pessimist about that changing, because it would require a radical reinterpretation of what the Koran is?
JF: Yeah, which is it’s impossible, because it’s against the very nature of the Koran, as it’s understood by Muslims.
HH: And so, even the dialectic that was the Reformation is not possible within Islam?
JF: No. And then a second thing which he did not say, but which I would have said, I might have said at the time, is that…and this is from a Catholic point of view, there’s no one to interpret the Koran officially. the Catholic Church has an official interpretor, which is the Holy Father with the bishops.
HH: Right. Well, let me ask you then. If, in fact, that reformation within Islam is not possible in the eyes of the Pope, and the demographics do not change, as they are unlikely to change in Europe, the last time Christendom went under the waves, so to speak, in Europe, there were the monasteries, beseiged as they were by the barbarians, sacked as they were by the Vikings, they endured.
HH: That doesn’t happen in modernity, because of the technology of oppression. And you’ve just noted the reluctance of Islam to accept religious pluralism, or to embrace it and celebrate it.
HH: And so what happens in Europe?
JF: Well, Hugh, I’ve got one of the very few things that I’ve said, which I’m proud of, because it’s become kind of almost a slogan to some, is that home schools are the monasteries of the new dark ages. That is…and you non-Catholic Christians have a lot more of them than we Catholics do, but we’ve got a lot. And I think that is where families are having children. They’re passing on the faith to their children. They’re giving them wisdom and the knowledge of our culture. And we have an advantage here, because the homosexuals, and the pro-abortionists, and the pro-contraception people, are not having children by definition.
HH: That’s in the Steyn article as well.