The Rev. Joseph Fessio recounted on a talk-show on January 5 that, in a private seminar, Pope Benedict XVI said that Islam cannot change, a startling piece of information that I wrote up in a column, "The Pope and the Koran." In response, another participant at this Ratzinger-Schülerkreis seminar, Father Christian Troll, on January 17 sent a comment to my website disputing what Fr Fessio attributed to the pope. I posted Fr Troll's entire letter; its key element is the statement, "I cannot remember at all the Holy Father having said the words … that 'There's no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it'."
In response, Fr Fessio wrote a letter to the Washington Times, published on January 21, making key changes to the record.
The most important clarification is that the Holy Father did not say, nor did I, that "Islam is incapable of reform." What I did say — and it contains an unfortunate ambiguity — is that
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.
Note first that it was the Koran that was referred to, not Islam. The comparison was between the Christian Bible and the Koran, not between Christianity and Islam. I said, paraphrasing the Holy Father, that "there's an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted to new situations." Then I maladroitly alluded to this comparison, referring to "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."
Fr Fessio then addresses the point raised by Fr Troll, agreeing with him:
I made a serious error in precision when I said that the Koran "cannot be adapted or applied" and that there is "no possibility of adapting or interpreting it." This is certainly not what the Holy Father said. Of course the Koran can be and has been interpreted and applied. I was making a (too) crude summary of the distinction that the Holy Father did make between the inner dynamism of the Koran as a divine text delivered as such to Mohammed, and that of the Bible, which is both the Word of God and the words of men inspired by God, within a community that contains divinely appointed authorized interpreters (the bishops in communion with the pope).
He concludes with an explanation and apology:
The meeting was an informal one of the Holy Father and his former students. The presentation and the discussion were in German, and the Holy Father was not speaking from a prepared text. My German is passable but not entirely reliable. My later remarks in a live radio interview were extemporaneous. I think I paraphrased the Holy Father with general accuracy, but it was an indiscretion for me to mention what he said at all, and my impromptu paraphrase in another language should not be used for a careful exegesis of the mind of the Holy Father.
Comment: This is major news, especially that part where Fr Fessio writes "Of course the Koran can be and has been interpreted and applied." It points to the pope's views being like mine, namely, that Islam can change. (January 21, 2006)
Jan. 23, 2006 update: An article by Sandro Magister, "Islam and Democracy, a Secret Meeting at Castelgandolfo," adds an 835-word excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth. The Church at the End of the Millennium, an interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), that elaborates usefully on the pope's views on the rise of radical Islam:
I think that first we must recognize that Islam is not a uniform thing. In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and for this reason dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with certain groups. No one can speak for Islam as a whole; it has, as it were, no commonly regarded orthodoxy. And, to prescind from the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, it also exists in many varieties. There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the King of Morocco, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which, again, one must not identify with Islam as a whole, which would do it an injustice.
An important point, however, is [...] that the interplay of society, politics, and religion has a completely difference structure in Islam as a whole. Today's discussion in the West about the possibility of Islamic theological faculties, or about the idea of Islam as a legal entity, presupposes that all religions have basically the same structure, that they all fit into a democratic system with its regulations and the possibilities provided by these regulations. In itself, however, this necessarily contradicts the essence of Islam, which simply does not have the separation of the political and religious sphere which Christianity has had from the beginning. The Koran 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. In this sense, it can exploit such partial freedoms as our constitution gives, but it can't be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, it would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself.
Islam has a total organization 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. When one represents the situation in those terms, as often happens today, Islam is defined according to the Christian model and is not seen as it really is in itself. In this sense, the question of dialogue with Islam is naturally much more complicated than, for example, an internal dialogue among Christians.
The consolidation of Islam worldwide is a multifaceted phenomenon. On the one hand, financial factors play a role here. The financial power that the Arab countries have attained and that allows them to build large Mosques everywhere, to guarantee a presence of Muslim cultural institutes and more things of that sort. But that is certainly only one factor. The other is an enhanced identity, a new self-consciousness.
In the cultural situation of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the 1960s, the superiority of the Christian countries was industrially, culturally, politically, and militarily so great that Islam was really forced into the second rank. Christianity – at any rate, civilizations with a Christian foundation – could present themselves as the victorious power in world history. But then the great moral crisis of the Western world, which appears to be the Christian world, broke out. In the face of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness – which was suddenly opposed by a new economic power of the Arab countries – the Islamic soul reawakened. We are somebody too; we know who we are; our religion is holding its ground; you don't have one any longer.
This is actually the feeling today of the Muslim world: The Western countries are no longer capable of preaching a message of morality, but have only know-how to offer the world. The Christian religion has abdicated; it really no longer exists as a religion; the Christians no longer have a morality or a faith; all that's left are a few remains of some modern ideas of enlightenment; we have the religion that stands the test.
So the Muslims now have the consciousness that in reality Islam has remained in the end as the more vigorous religion and that they have something to say to the world, indeed, are the essential religious force of the future. Before, the shariah and all those things had already left the scene, in a sense; now there is a new pride. Thus a new zest, a new intensity about wanting to live Islam has awakened. This is its great power: We have a moral message that has existed without interruption since the prophets, and we will tell the world how to live it, whereas the Christians certainly can't. We must naturally come to terms with this inner power of Islam, which fascinates even academic circles.
Jan. 26, 2006 update: Sandro Magister records comments by three other participants (Stephan Horn of Germany, Gerald E. Nora of the United States, and Stefano Ceccanti of Italy) at the September 2005 seminar, all of whom confirm what Fathers Troll and Fessio now agree on.
Feb. 4, 2006 update: I received a note from Diana West, whose fine article on January 20, "Silence that speaks volumes," prompted Fr Fessio's letter to the Washington Times. I quote it in full:
After my column ran in the Washington Times, I spoke to Father Fessio. Our very cordial phone conversation took in the following point, which I would later read in his letter as published in the paper:
Note first that it was the Koran that was referred to, not Islam. The comparison was between the Christian Bible and the Koran, not between Christianity and Islam.
According to Fr. Fessio's interview posted on the Internet, the pope was responding to a seminar presentation that suggested Islam's road to modernity was to remove those elements of the Koran that add up to anti-modern Sharia practices. The pope jumped in, according to Fessio, to say you can't just remove these elements from the Koran because the Koran is taken by Muslims to be the revealed word of Allah and is therefore not open to human interpretation (as opposed to the Bible, which, the pope explained by way of contrast, is the product of human interpretation inspired by God). Fr. Fessio told me he wanted to make it perfectly clear in his letter to the Washington Times that the pope had spoken only about the Koran, not Islam.
I call this splitting hairs—a way to try to put some space between the reported comments (which had hung out there for a couple of weeks unchallenged) and the logical conclusion: Namely, if you can't change the Koran, you can't change Islam. When I replied to Fr. Fessio to that effect, that if the Koran is immutable/unchangeable/unreformable, then so, too, is Islam immutable/unchangeable/unreformable, he agreed with my logic.
On the possibility of interpretation of the Koran, he mentioned by way of example that it was "interpreted" every time it was translated into a different language—which, it's worth noting, is not the definition of "interpretation" that conveys the kind of new emphasis or application that is usually associated with reform.
His concluding point:
I think that I paraphrased the Holy Father with general accuracy, but my mentioning what he said at all was an indiscretion, and my impromptu paraphrase in another language should not be used for a careful exegesis of the mind of the Holy Father.
"General accuracy"? Such a phrase hardly connotes an emphatic retraction of the pope's words, regardless of whether Fr. Fessio committed an "indiscretion" via "impromptu translation."
Of course, whatever Fr. Fessio says is not in the end significant because the pope, regrettably, remains silent on the matter. Meanwhile, media silence on these reported comments—a sharp contrast to the media frenzy over what the last pope reportedly thought or didn't think about a certain movie about Jesus—I think, remains highly significant, reflecting an overall Western inability to engage in a rational debate about Islam.
March 3, 2006 update: According to an AGI news item, the pope has just used roughly the same words ascribed to him by Fr Fessio:
The Koran, according to the Islamic faith, is the word given directly by god, without human mediation. The prophet doesn't count in this: he wrote the word and spread it. It's the pure word of god. Whereas for us, God gets in touch with us, he makes us cooperate, he creates the individual and wants his word to grow and develop with him. In Christianity the human role is crucial, and gives us the opportunity to see how single words can really become the verb of god only with the unity of all writs.
May 4, 2006 update: More on what the pope said at that now-famous seminar from another participant, Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. He has been described as an Egyptian Jesuit "very familiar with both the pope and the Muslim religion."
In a closed-door seminar, held at Castelgandolfo, September 1-2, 2005, the pope insisted on and stressed … the profound diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic conception of revelation: the Koran "descended" upon Mohammad, it is not "inspired" to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think himself authorized to interpret the Koran, but is tied to this text which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century. This brings to the same conclusions as before: the absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.
Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Oct. 31, 2007 update: Another ramification of the Koran being seen by Muslims as written by God: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, recently appointed president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has this exchange with an interviewer:
Peut-on avoir des discussions théologiques … ?
Avec certaines religions, oui. Mais avec l'islam, non, pas pour le moment. Les musulmans n'acceptent pas que l'on puisse discuter sur le Coran, car il est écrit, disent-ils, sous la dictée de Dieu. Avec une interprétation aussi absolue, il est difficile de discuter du contenu de la foi …
Can one hold theological dialogue … ?
With some religions, yes. But with Islam, no, not for the moment. Muslims do not accept that one can discuss the Quran, because it was written, they say, as dictated by God. With so absolutist an interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith …
Mar. 4, 2009 update: For information on Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., his book 111 Questions on Islam, and his key role in Benedict's papacy, see "The Jesuit Who Inspired the Pope's Ideas on Islam." One quote: "It is not that he is inspired by me," Samir says of the pope. "We just have the same line of thinking on this subject. Without being a specialist of Islam, His Holiness has a vast culture and knowledge in human and world religious affairs that allows him to analyze the Muslim world."