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Former Cardinal Ratzinger student, Joseph Fessio, on the Pope’s speech last week at Regensburg University

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HH: Joined now by Father Joseph Fessio, SJ. He is of course, the Provost of Ave Maria University, professor of theology there, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, and a former student of Benedict’s. Welcome back, Father Fessio. Always a pleasure.

JF: Nice to be here. Good to be here, Hugh.

HH: Last time we spoke, we talked about Islam and the Church…

JF: We did, yeah.

HH: And now, a year later, maybe you didn’t get the German wrong, Father Fessio. What was the Pope saying on Wednesday last?

JF: Well, he said a lot of things. It was a long address. I think it was a defining address, a very important one. And it was really a critique of the West, a self-critique of the West, as well as a critique of any attempt to link violence to religion, by showing that the fundamental principle here is that God is not only love, as he showed in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. But God is also logos. God is reason. And he shows the difficulty that’s going to exist for societies to live together peacefully if that rational element of our faith is lost.

HH: Now does the reaction surprise you? Or is it simply the inevitable by-product of a jihadist propaganda machine that’s hooked 24/7, prowling around, trying to instill hate and violence?

JF: It does not surprise me. I don’t know whether or not that machine you speak, does speak for the majority of Muslims. I don’t think it does. I hope it does not. But clearly, this is an orchestrated way of maintaining, fanning the flames of hatred towards the West and towards the Church.

HH: Now Father Fessio, the Vatican has long been on the hit list for al Qaeda and other Salafist elements. Does it cause you concern now for the Pope and his well being, more than you already had?

JF: Well, of course, the security level’s going to go up now, because clearly, there was calls out to assassinate him, to take him out. So I’m concerned about that. It’s hard to protect people who are public figures. But I don’t think it’s going to stop him from speaking clearly, and speaking the truth. What will be an intimidating factor is what they do to others. I mean, he doesn’t want to have nuns shot in the back, or Churches burn down, just because he suggests that we should discuss whether or not violence is reasonable.

HH: And so how does he proceed? What do you think he’s thinking about right now? You’ve known him a long time.

JF: Well, I’ve known him for a long time, but he’s a very transparent man. I don’t have any access to his thought that others don’t have. I mean, he’s written a lot, he’s written a lot about this topic. I think his talk at Regensburg was very clear. He didn’t have to make his point by that citation from the emperor. And by the way, just to get it straight, you know, while we’re here on the record, and on the radio, if you read the German text, and listen to him speaking it in German, you’ll see that where the first English translation came out said the Pope says the emperor turns to his interlocutor, somewhat bruskly, with a central question. But in the German, it’s…in very harsh form. And Ratzinger, actually, the Holy Father, actually added…he said it’s amazingly harsh, even an astonishingly harsh form.

HH: Oh.

JF: So then he says…I cite. So he knew that the person he was quoting was expressing something in a very crude or a rough, or even harsh way. But his point was the second part of the sentence, you know? Yeah, there’s things evil, inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. And there’s the whole point. In fact, I mean, if they actually read this thing, they see that in the next paragraph, he begins the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversions, is this, not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. I mean, anybody giving a fair-minded listening to what he said would not be upset. And by the way, your listeners are mainly Protestant, right?

HH: Oh, no. We’re all…we’ve got so many Catholics, you’d be amazed.

JF: Okay. Well, but let’s say you’ve got a lot of them out there.

HH: You bet, yeah.

JF: I mean, he criticized the Protestants twice here. First, he said that reason is a part of Christian faith. Logos, theology’s not just Hellenization. And when did that union of faith and reason begin? Have you lost the first phase, he says, is the 16th Century reformists with sola fides, you know? And then, he says the 18th and 19th Century liberal Protestant theologians, who tried to reduce the study of theology to merely imperical, historical science. So…but I didn’t notice any Episcopalians burning Catholic Churches, or any Baptists out there hanging the Pope in effigy on this thing.

HH: Now that’s a few centures ago.

JF: Yeah.

HH: (laughing) Now Father Fessio, my question, though, is how does the project to engage the vast majority of Muslims who do not embrace violence proceed, when any effort to do so is caught up in this constant search for a means to inflame the situation, which, by the way, if you read The Looming Tower, the new book by the New Yorker reporter, Lawrence Wright, is their game. That’s what they want to do, the Salafists, the al Qaeda.

JF: Of course. It’s very intelligent. And look, because of the media, you know, it takes one remark by the Pope, and then, it’s not that difficult to organize 300 people in Pakistan and a couple of hundred on the Gaza Strip to burn this or make a protest. That goes on the front pages of every paper in the world. It was on all the news stations, all the radio stations. So a few people can intimidate an enormous population. So if this is what the Pope gets for suggesting that we have to ask a question whether the Islamic concept of God as transcendent, means he transcends rationality, as well as other categories, if that’s going to cause this reaction, what do you think it’s like if you’re living in Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan.

HH: Right.

JF: Are you going to ask a question?

HH: Right.

JF: No.

HH: It’s a very intimidating, intellectual wall that’s being built in some of these countries. Father Fessio, did you go to the Summer retreat that discussed intelligent design?

JF: No. I went to the retreat to discuss creation and evolution.

HH: Okay. I thought it was about intelligent design. That’s more media. You know, we’re all victims of what gets reported. And what was the tenor of those conversations? Again, is this all a theme? Is this…

JF: Again, I got in trouble last year, Hugh…

HH: Yeah, I’m not going to ask you what the Pope said.

JF: …but I’ll be in less trouble this year, because amazingly, at the end of the day, we spent a full day with him, with four presentations and lots of discussion. And at the end of the day, Cardinal Shoenborn informed us that the Pope thought it was so good, that he proposed that we publish it all, including the intervention. So this will be published in various languages.

HH: Oh, excellent.

JF: Since it will be published, I think I can say a few things. First, nothing new emerged. Secondly, the question of Creationism versus intelligent design, which is a misplaced question, as I’ll say in a minute, really isn’t on the mind of Europeans. This is generally a German group, okay?

HH: Right.

JF: And a European group. They’re pretty far beyond that. I believe, and this may be something worth discussing on your show, where you’ve got Catholics and Protestants. I believe the Dover Case was misargued. In fact, I told the lawyer who was arguing for the defense it was. The intelligent design people claimed that intelligent design is science. The opponents, the ACLU and others claimed no, no, it’s religion. And I think a better case can be made for saying it’s not either. Religion is acceptance, or faith is acceptance of truths beyond human reason on the authority of God who reveals. Modern science, as it can see itself, limits its scope to looking for natural causes for natural phenomenon, material measurable, quantifiable causes. But there’s another use of reason, which is reflecting on all our experience, and looking for ultimate final causes, and that’s called philosophy. And philosphy of nature. And precisely because that middle element is missing, we’ve got this debate in which one side says intelligent design is science, and the other side says no, it’s religion, when I think by and large, it really falls into the class of philosophy. And this, of course, is what the Pope is getting at in his talk as well, because he’s saying when science has limited its use of reason to the material and imperical, that’s an atrophying of reason, which we have to overcome by expanding it to a wider view of science.

HH: Oh, that is fascinating. Now when will the publication of the proceedings come out?

JF: Well, it’ll be a while, probably a few months.

HH: Oh, well then…

JF: Because we’ve got to translate and get some different publishers involved.

HH: Well, then we’ve got to come back to you, Father Fessio. I know you’ve got to go to dinner tonight, and try and get you to expand on the proceedings and give us a tip on what is coming, because I know there’s a vast and interested audience in that. Father Joseph Fessio from Ave Maria University, a pleasure always to have you. Thank you for joining us. Have a good dinner tonight, Father.

JF: All right. God bless you, Hugh.

HH: Joseph Fessio, just back from a seminar with Benedict. Last year, he came and briefed me on the seminar a little too much, from the point of view of the Vatican. And they were not happy with what he told us last year. When the transcript of this arrives, perhaps we can link back to the transcript of the original Father Fessio interview to see why he got in trouble. It was about Islam then. It’s about Islam now. It’s about the Pope then. It’s about the Pope now.

End of interview.


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