What are the reasons for the murderous rampage currently being undertaken by the jihadist troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?
A decline in moral values in the West, coupled with a history of violent conquest within Islam, is behind the “diabolical” atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria by these Islamic militants, many of whom are uneducated and at the mercy of fundamentalist preachers.
This is according to Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a leading scholar of Islam and a former student under professor Joseph Ratzinger.In this extensive Aug. 30 interview with the Register via telephone from Beirut, Father Samir, a native Egyptian, discusses how secular and Islamist intolerance are exacerbating a “clash of civilizations,” how education is crucial to eradicating the scourge of extremism and whether ISIS has a future.
To what extent is the hedonism of the West and a decline in moral values fueling this brand of Islamic extremism?
This is a very important point, and people are not aware of it in the West. If we go back a little bit, the West was, for a long time, associated with modernity and technical innovation. Egypt, for example, entered [its modernistic] period in the middle of the 19th century up until, more or less, the middle of the 20th century. The Egyptians were trying to adapt themselves to Western culture. They viewed it as modernity because everything they used and wanted to have came from the West, which was seen as Christian.
But in recent times, the West has given a very bad image of itself, mainly regarding the questions on sexual liberation. Homosexuality, for example, is considered normal today in the West. It’s considered as a variant of heterosexuality, and sexual relations between men and women are no longer sacred.
When I used to go back to Egypt, I was asked: “Is it true that men and women are having sex in public?” I said: “No, this is not true.” But this was the image they had.
Then came the Gulf and Iraq wars, which were seen as anti-Islamic.
Do you think these wars have often been viewed as defending the increasing immorality in the West?
Yes, it has been seen as the West imposing its superiority; and the wars, whether just or not, are always seen as coming from the hands of the United States and Israel. But the reaction to the immorality of the West is clearer. Everything about modernity is seen as wrong for these people — I mean the Islamists.
Do you believe this trend is also linked to a kind of latent anger within Islamic extremists against the West for not being true to its Christian roots? Would they respect the West more if it was?
The image of the West is combined in the minds of the Islamic extremists with sin and the wrong things and the wrong power. But at the same time, everyone is using Western products, especially technology. You have a kind of aggression because the West is seen as dominating the world, which could be a force for good, but they see it as domination and not progress. So the tendency is to regress to the seventh century, which they feel must be the best thing, because that was the time of the Prophet [Mohammed].
I was looking at some YouTube videos of ISIS, and it’s incredible. They do everything saying, “Allahu Akbar” [God is great] before doing it, putting everything under God and the call of Islam. Even when killing an innocent, they scream, ‟Allahu Akbar.” These Islamists are going back to the seventh century, especially in a radical way and with war.
One video I saw said the caliphate is the only solution and will be achieved by the sword. So it’s a rejection of the West’s moral values and its domination. The absurdity is that they are using violence against themselves, because Islamists call kāfir (infidel) anyone who disagrees with them and are then allowed to kill him.
To what extent is the fanaticism also due to the clarity that extremism provides, both in doctrine and perceived moral strength, in contrast to predominantly secular societies dominated by moral relativism and agnosticism? Is this a clash of contrasts?
The question of relativism is certainly behind this. These groups are radicals; that means they pretend to know exactly what is right and wrong, and they define it. It includes even the smallest things, ways of behaving and also a lot of sexual promises for those who go to paradise. It’s incredible! I’ve seen this morning a YouTube clip showing hundreds of people listening to a preacher in a mosque, who was describing how heaven will be. Every good Muslim will have his wife there for 70 years, but he will also have 72 girls of the highest quality, and each girl will have 72 slave girls that he could use, and so on. The preacher was smiling and saying, “This is our heaven.” It’s incredible to hear. …
Everything is very clear [to them]: “You do it this way.” Anybody who is a little bit outside of this vision is a kāfir.
Some years ago, seven years ago, there was a meeting in Saudi Arabia organized by the king to reform Islam. The main point was, first of all, to stop the takfīr — that is, saying the other is a kāfir, an infidel. The takfīr is used every day in everything. Anybody who is not doing exactly as these people want to do is a kāfir, and they say, “We have the right to kill him.”
Would you say this correlation between growing moral relativism in the West and this fanaticism is, in a sense, what Benedict XVI was warning about in his famous speech in Regensburg in 2006?
Secularity [civil society, religious freedom and liberty of conscience] has been around for maybe two centuries in the West. To understand it, you need to have experienced a little bit of Western culture where religion, state, ethics and politics are distinguished. But the amalgam of these: This is the weakness and the force of Islam. Everything is, and can be, Islam. You eat Islamic, you dress Islamic, so that it gives you a strength, an incredible strength, but also puts up barriers. You cannot understand another approach, and this is the problem.
Secularity, as Pope Benedict also underlined in his famous speech in Regensburg, is something universal, where there is room for everyone and for other faiths or absence of faith. It includes liberty of thinking and freedom of conscience, liberty of changing your faith, etc. This is unknown in Islamic culture and unacceptable. But it is fundamental for living together in a civilized society.
People don’t understand it. They [Muslim extremists] say: “We respect and defend freedom of religion,” but then they oblige a Muslim to remain Muslim, and he cannot convert. But I say: “But then where is the freedom of conscience?” And they say: “Yes, but not the freedom to do something wrong.” So we are speaking two different languages and living in two different worlds. Also, within Islam, you have liberal Muslims, whom the extremists laugh at or react violently towards. The liberal Muslims are only intellectuals and could be about 1 million, but that is nothing in comparison with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
The other important thing to note is the lack of education. In Egypt, we have 40% who are illiterate, which means around 35 million Egyptians. They cannot write their names. It’s the same in Morocco, and it’s 50% in Yemen. So their only guideline is religion, as expressed by the preachers who are able to quote the Quran and hadith (Mohammad’s sentences), which is regarded as the authentic Islam.
The majority of Muslims are shocked by the actions of these terrorists, but many see them as authentic Muslims, and so few speak clearly against them.
Would you say that growing secular intolerance of religion in the West and anything that doesn’t match secular values, together with a growing lack of respect for conscientious objection, is mirrored in Islamic extremism and that this intolerance and disregard for freedom of conscience on both sides is leading to an inevitable clash?
Yes, both positions are becoming more radical. In France, for instance, the smallest sign of Islamism on the street is seen as a provocation, and they treat it juridically. And this makes these Muslims become more radical. The question of the veil, for example, is used on both sides as a symbol of the true Islam for radical Muslims and as an aggression of Islamism for the French people. So the clash of civilization that has been predicted by Samuel Huntington is growing because those who are reasonable, or moderate, are not reacting.
There’s also something that’s internal to them — that radicals are ready to do anything: fight on the street, go to prison; they do whatever their conscience tells them to do. Moderates say they’re stupid people and that one cannot discuss anything with them. So moderates are not speaking; they’re not writing; a few are reacting in private journals. The radicals, who are few, much fewer, are more aggressive.
Would you say ISIS is in any way representative of true Islam?
We hear, very often, Muslims say: ‟This has nothing to do with Islam.” This is a spontaneous reaction of Muslims on the street. But, in fact, it’s a false reaction. This is a part of Islam, and we can find it in the Quran itself and much more in the life of Mohammed, who had a very strong and violent attitude toward unbelievers.
Mohammed was somewhat tolerant towards Jews and Christians. But he was absolutely intolerant to those who were neither Jews nor Christians. The only solution for them in the Quran and in the life of Mohammed was to convert or die.
So these fanatics are following this line, with one difference: They call ‟unbeliever” (kāfir) anyone who is not like them, even the Shia, the Yazīdi or the Christian. In this case, the fanatics are not following the Quran and the sunnah [a Muslim way of life based on the teachings of Mohammed and the Quran]. But when they say, ‟We have to kill unbelievers, unless they become Muslim,” this is part of the teaching of Islam.
The main thing to note is that violence is an element of Islam. Violence is not an element of Christianity. When Christians were using violence in wars and so on, they were not following the Gospel, nor the life of Christ. When Muslims are using it, they are following the Quran and the sunnah and Mohammed’s model. This is a very important point.
Muslims have to rethink Islam for today’s world. We have a similar problem in Christianity, Judaism and in all religions. In the Old Testament, we have a lot of violence: When Jews entered the so-called Holy Land, they used violence under order of God, not because they were fanatics, but because God ordered it. They had to use it, and when they refused, they were sinners.
This is the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God. But the question is, “How do I understand it for me today?” And this is the main question for every religion and the main problem for Islam. They are not doing any kind of interpretation. In the past, they did it. There’s a principle well known in Islam that we have to look at, the so-called maqāsid al shari’ah, i.e. ‟the intention of the sharia” [Islamic law].
Let us take an example: When the Quran says we have to cut the hand off of a thief, those who say, ‟We have to follow the maqāsid,” they ask: ‟Why?” And they answer: ‟It means: to stop him from doing this again.” So now, the aim (the maqāsid) of the question is this one: the intention is not to cut off the hand, but to forbid him from doing the same thing again. If today we have other means, then we use them, and we should look at the intention of the Quran’s order.
This is what Christ did with adultery, when he said, ‟Whoever is without sin, start stoning the woman caught in adultery.” By so doing, he saved the heart of this woman, so that she could convert to another way of life; and he saved the hearts of the men who wanted to kill her, inviting them to examine first their own consciences: Are they so perfect? This is the true way of interpreting God’s word.
Is this the only way ISIS will be beaten, do you think?
They cannot change the text of the Quran, as we cannot change the text of the Bible. The problem is that they consider the Quran not as inspired by God, but as the literal word of God. That’s the theological problem.
I speak with them very often about this problem, and I tell them: ‟We have had the same problem.” The word of God, when we read it in church, we say: ‟This is the word of God.” But what does it mean? Does it mean that God wrote it literally with his hand? The Bible also says the Ten Commandments were written with the finger of God. It’s a way of speaking, to say that this is divine.
Muslims did this in the Middle Ages: Avicenna, for instance, has a philosophical treatise on the so-called pleasures in heaven to explain that it cannot be physical pleasure. So they reinterpreted the Quran’s words on heaven’s pleasure a millennium ago, but, today, they developed with plenty of details all the so-called physical pleasures the mujahid [a Muslim engaged in the struggle to follow the path of Allah] will enjoy in heaven. It means that, now, they have regressed.
To overcome this problem, the Islamic world needs to overhaul its education system. Islamic education is very, very poor. It’s based on memorizing everything: the Quran, the sunnah, thousands of sentences of Mohammed, and you have to memorize them again and again. It’s wonderful when you hear a good teacher quoting the Quran and sunnah every second sentence. People admire this. They say this is the true Islam, but, in fact, this preacher is choosing only one aspect of the Quran, and the people don’t know it.
So a rethinking of the Quran and its rules, as well as a theological or philosophical or spiritual interpretation, is needed. The present interpretation is nothing more than a simple repetition, without any reflection. Learning to interpret a text should start at school — should start already with small children, as well as at home and in the family.
With all this in mind, do you think ISIS and these extremists have a future?
They will have success for a while, but I hope for not too long. It’s unthinkable what they are doing. It is so inhuman that people don’t know how to react. It will last, and it could be some years. They are operating exactly as the Prophet did at the beginning, with war and conquest. Once you conquer a country, you do what you want with it. This is very, very dangerous, especially if these terrorists still receive money and weapons — then they won’t fear anything. In each case, they are “winners”: If they kill, they win; if they are killed, they win, because they believe they have won paradise. So they are “winning” in both cases, whatever happens. They have no principles or norms or values or standards, other than to literally apply sharia.
The astonishing thing, as you said at the very beginning, is that they are fighting the immorality of the West and Western hedonism. But they are doing many more immoral things in the name of Islam.
I don’t like to say this word, but, in a way, what they are doing is diabolical; it’s something the world has never seen in history. We’ve seen a lot of cruelty, but this is a planned cruelty. This is why I think there’s no future for them in the long term. But in the short term, they will win more and more, and we have to stop them. Now.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
ROME — Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako I has drawn criticism from some quarters for insisting that, although Iraqi Christians have an absolute right to self-defense, protection must come from the state — despite the Baghdad government failing to provide adequate security.
Fides news agency, quoting Lebanese sources, said the Baghdad-based patriarch believes defense of the attacked is an absolute right, but only “the forces of the state should take charge of this defense.” The creation of differentiated militia on an ethno-religious basis “can destroy Iraq,” he said.
The patriarch, speaking last week in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, was responding to comments made by President Masud Barzani of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. The Kurdish leader had said he was willing to provide weapons to Christian volunteers to form self-defense militias with a mandate to defend their villages currently in the hands of Islamic State jihadists.
But Patriarch Sako and others fear prevalence of such groups would lead to sectarianism and an escalation of violence, play into the hands of the Islamists who want a fight and bring back the specter of the Crusades.
Critics, on the other hand, point out that the Iraqi government has been ineffective in providing adequate security, and the international community has acted too little, too late.
‘Something Has to Be Done’
“I understand why the patriarch doesn’t want to see Christian militias in place of the state’s protection of all its citizens, as it is a fundamental duty of a state to do so,” said Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “But the problem is that [state protection] isn’t happening, and something has to be done to stop the gruesome attacks of the Islamic State.”
Currently, Iraqi Christians are the only religious minority in the region not to have established militias — a fact that has led to a small number of people taking the initiative and arming themselves.
Evangelical pastor Michel Youssef, an advocate of armed Christian civilians in Iraq, told Act! for America that forming militias in Iraq is the “only way to protect our families and friends from attacks, because we are tired of waiting for an action from the government, which is preoccupied with politics and never looks after us.”
Other proponents argue that if ordinary U.S. citizens can take up arms to protect their property — as many have done recently in Ferguson, Mo., in the face of a breakdown in law and order — Iraqi Christians threatened with much greater violence and death should be able and encouraged to do so.
Mulilateral Humanitarian Intervention
Church leaders are not expected to advocate military action, but neither are they always likely to forbid it when it comes to self-defense, a principle of just war.
Pope Francis has so far advocated multilateral humanitarian intervention to protect civilians from “unjust aggressors” in Iraq, while remaining purposely vague about the use of military action. Other senior Church officials have openly supported military intervention of some kind, but similarly stopped short of specifically endorsing U.S. airstrikes or any specific operations.
Lay Catholics in favor of militias for self-defense purposes, however, see no inconsistency with Church teaching.
“The right to defend oneself is a clear doctrine; it’s a fundamental human right, an inalienable right, and people lend the exercise of that right to the state,” said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based think tank the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
“The first duty of the state is to protect the people, but if the state is unable to fulfil this, then the right to defend oneself reverts to the person, because such a right cannot ever be taken from that person — and nor can it ever be given away; it cannot be ‘alienated.’ This is literally what we mean when we say the right to defend oneself is inalienable,” Harnwell added.
Problem of ‘Illegitimate’ Forces
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai — from a country that is no stranger to sectarianism militias, which played a key role in Lebanon’s civil war — recently warned against non-state armies in his country. Such forces should be considered “illegitimate,” he said, as they would result in the return of the country to the “law of the jungle and an increase in crime.”
But proponents of militias argue that northern Iraq, where some U.S. weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIS, is different.
“The fact that the state is unable to defend its citizens means there is already the law of the jungle in operation — it’s the perfect example of lawlessness,” said Harnwell. “And preventing minorities who are being systematically wiped out from defending themselves will only work in favor of the aggressor.”
One source close to the Vatican in Rome feared that Patriarch Sako’s comments represented appeasement, while a senior diplomatic official, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, predicted that if the Islamic State begins making serious inroads into Lebanon, Christian militias will inevitably become an everyday reality.
Jayabalan similarly sees an increase in violence as a foregone conclusion, as self-defense “may require taking the offensive against and destroying” the Islamic State. “There’s the likelihood of increased, rather than decreased, violence,” he said. “Cases such as these reveal the emptiness of pacifist slogans.”
Like many, he doesn’t wish to see Church leaders publicly advocating militias, but, nevertheless, he would like to see laypeople take the initiative and establish them in order to defend themselves.
“What authority can they appeal to? Western governments won’t act effectively because they fear being seen as sectarian,” he said.
“No one has yet given a good answer to the question [of] why Christians shouldn’t act in self-defense,” Jayabalan said. “There’s too much moral preening going on. When people are being beheaded and crucified and the state is unable to defend them, do we really have to wait for the United Nations?”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
VATICAN CITY — A priest of the Legion of Christ has offered his profound apologies for published comments in which he is quoted as comparing the Legion’s disgraced founder, Father Marcial Maciel, with St. Mary Magdalene.
In a pamphlet entitled “Magdala: God Really Loves Women,” Father Juan Solana wrote that Father Maciel’s initials “are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene.”
The saint, the first witness to the Resurrection who is often thought of as the second most important woman of the New Testament after the Blessed Virgin Mary, “had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there’s a parallel,” he wrote in the pamphlet, which was published to promote the Legion-operated Magdala Center in Jerusalem. Father Solana is the center’s director.
“Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes,” he continued. “But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone’s reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning.”
First reported Wednesday, the revelation immediately drew a firestorm of criticism from Catholic writers on the Internet.
In an essay, “The Legion Defames a Woman. A Saint,” on her blog, ethicist Pia de Solenni wrote, “How the Legion can compare the life of a man which the Vatican has identified as ‘devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning’ to a saint, the woman who is known by tradition as the apostle to the apostles, is utterly incomprehensible.”
“Scripture doesn’t record Mary’s sinful past. (Newsflash — no one’s perfect.),” she wrote. “It records her profound faith, a faith that truly understood and knew, a faith that took her to the tomb while the men stayed away.
“It’s a bitter irony that the Legion would hide the deplorable character of their founder behind a woman who witnessed her faith truthfully and openly and about whose sins we know very little.”
Father Solana’s Apology
In a statement issued by the Legion Thursday, Father Solana said he “personally and profoundly” apologized for his reflection. The Legion has said it remains a mystery how the comments escaped scrutiny before being published.
In the statement, Father Solana wrote that the comparison between Mary Magdalene and Father Maciel was clearly “inappropriate and poorly chosen.”
“I was trying to make a point about compassion and forgiveness in light of the Legion’s history, but realize now that my words were awkward and suggest a reverence for our founder that we clearly reject,” he stated. “Again, I’m sorry for any hurt this has caused,” he said, adding that the Legion is “no longer distributing the booklet.”
The Magdala Center is a spiritual center and archaeological park run by the Legionaries of Christ. Reportedly built at a cost of $100 million, it was inaugurated at a ceremony earlier this year, and blessed by Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy Land in May.
The project is an exception to the rest of the Legion’s assets. The congregation has had to sell many of its properties in the U.S. and abroad following fallout from revelations of Father Maciel’s double life. Beginning in early 2009, it became publicly known that Father Maciel, who died in 2008, had sexually abused seminarians, had relationships with two women, fathered children whom he sexually abused, engaged in financial malpractice, and had an addiction to drugs. Many of these accusations date back 50 years or more.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI removed Father Maciel from active ministry based on the results of an investigation started under Pope John Paul II. The priest was ordered to spend the rest of his days in prayer and penance. The Legion publicly acknowledged, repudiated and apologized for his “reprehensible actions” in 2010.
Why Was the Comparison Published?
The Mexican-born priest managed to continue his abuse unchecked in large part because of an institutional and cultish reverence for the Legion’s superiors that Father Maciel had fostered.
Some argue that Father Solana’s comments show that this reverence is hard to shake off.
But in the same Aug. 28 statement in which Father Solana apologized, the provincial director for the United States, Legionary Father John Connor, implied this case was an exception. Noting that the past five years have been a time of “challenge and change” in which the Legion had “embraced the hope of renewal,” he said the religious congregation is “firmly set” on the path of reform.
“Unfortunately, this week we experienced what must feel like a detour from our path forward. It is not,” Father Connor wrote. “I want to assure you that we are indeed, determined to stay on course.”
Stressing that the Magdala Project has support from a wide number of Christians, Jews and Biblical scholars, he asked to keep Father Solana and the project in prayer.
In comments to the Register Aug. 28, the Legion’s U.S. spokesman, Jim Fair, said the congregation was “still trying to figure out” how the comparison came to be published.
The booklet, he explained, was written by “someone outside and our people in Jerusalem either didn’t check thoroughly enough, or the likely concerns didn’t arise in their minds.
“I can only apologize and agree with those who were offended,” he added. “We categorically reject the comparison.”
The booklet, whose author, Hermana Viljoen, lives in South Africa, was written to coincide with the Magdala Center’s inauguration over the summer.
More of Father Solana’s Comments
Elsewhere in the text, Father Solana points out that the Magdala Center is to be a “place of redemption, forgiveness and reconstruction, especially for women.”
Today’s society, he says, “no longer has clear rules of acceptable behavior” and the movies and the Internet have “become the standard by which people repeat wrong attitudes and behavior,” leading to their bodies and souls suffering as a result.
The pamphlet says: “Yet, brokenness, shame and trauma do not happen to women only. When the facts surrounding Marcial Maciel came into the news, it sent shockwaves throughout the world. Having been the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, many looked up to his example and trusted his integrity.”
Father Solana then adds: “For us he [Father Maciel] was a holy man, the leader of a big spiritual Movement. He initiated many dozens of universities, hundreds of schools, hundreds of youth centers, thousands of vocations (priests, seminarians and consecrated men and women.) All of a sudden, his reputation collapsed like the twin towers. When you have idealized him for years and he was the model, your spiritual father and suddenly poof, he was nothing. It was extremely painful.”
Father Solana goes on to say that St. Mary Magdalene was “a strong woman,” but adds that there much fiction and confusion about her.
He says, “There is simply not enough evidence to build a soap opera about Miriam from Magdala.”
Jay Dunlap, former communications director for the Legion of Christ who now heads a school and outreach for disabled persons in the Archdiocese of Omaha, said, “Father Solana’s comparison of Maciel to St. Mary Magdalene seems an indication of how long-time Legionaries who viewed Maciel as their spiritual father are still struggling to reconcile the reality of his depravity with the spirituality they have lived for so long.”
“The fact a statement like this could be published may be an indication that the Legion’s reforms have resulted in a less controlled environment,” he added. “Under Maciel, communications were tightly controlled and had to be reviewed, edited and approved by the inner circle at the headquarters in Rome. “For a statement like this to make it into print either indicates that the internal controls are no longer as tight, or if it was in fact approved in Rome, it suggests a continuing tone-deafness when it comes to Legionaries praising Maciel.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Register staff contributed to this report.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is “smiling like he used to smile,” says Society of the Divine Word Father Vincent Twomey, a moral theologian who studied under Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s.
Speaking to the Register Aug. 27, the Irish professor discussed this year’s schülerkreis, a study group of the pope emeritus’ former students who meet annually in Rome. Benedict XVI celebrated Mass for the schülerkreis on Sunday, at the Teutonic College in the Vatican.In the interview, Father Twomey also recalls the teaching method of his former professor, the uniqueness of his writings and Benedict’s legacy.On Aug. 24, the pope emeritus celebrated Mass with his former students. How was he? Did he look well?
He looked very well. He is rather nervous about walking, as many older people are … afraid of falling, and his sight in one eye isn’t very good. But apart from that, he walked in, a bit more slowly than usual, with a [walking] stick and someone at his side. He celebrated Mass with great authority, his voice was clear, and he delivered a wonderful homily without [missing] a note. Afterwards, he met with each one of us for a few minutes and had a talk with each one of us. And he stood for most of that time.
He sat for a while, but then he got up and continued, and we all offered him to sit, but he wanted to stand. So he has energy; and somebody passed the remark, a woman theologian passed the remark: “He’s smiling like he used to smile.” I think that sums it up.
Why was this year’s theme “The Theology of the Cross”?
At the end of each meeting, we vote on a number of topics; we discuss the topics we would like to discuss the coming year. We had three topics last year, and one of them was the theology of the cross. And then we presented them to Benedict, and he decided that that will be the one, and he also had a list of speakers, and he chose his preferred speaker.
So why the theology of the cross? Because that is at the very core of theology and the Christian life: the mystery of the cross.
Nowadays, in the modern world, one could say that we want to save ourselves by getting rid of suffering, and the cross is really the message that says we are saved through suffering. The suffering of God on the cross, the mystery of God’s love for us revealed on the cross and the implications of this for our own lives are quite profound and enormous.
So we are at the very center of theology when we speak of the cross. The cross is about the weakness of God, which is more powerful than the greatest power of man.
Who else was present in your meetings, and who led the discussions?
The discussions were chaired by Father Stephan Horn, accompanied by Cardinal [Kurt] Koch, who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Present were his former students, not all of them this year, because a number of them are getting old and sick and all the rest of it.
We were also joined by the new schülerkreis; these are young men and women who have studied Ratzinger for their doctoral or post-doctoral thesis or are studying him. So there were about 52 together for the discussions.
The relator was professor Karl-Heinz Menke of the University of Bonn. He read two very fine papers on the cross and the revelation of the God of love. And each paper, which was quite long, an hour and 10 minutes, was followed by about two hours’ discussion, morning and evening. So about five, six hours in all. It was very intensive and very rewarding.
What do you think is the essence of Benedict’s legacy?
That’s the primacy of God; stressing the primacy of God, also the primacy of truth and love; re-establishing the primacy of God in theology, in society and above all in our lives.
Can you describe Joseph Ratzinger as a teacher in the classroom and in the world?
He was an extraordinary lecturer because he is an original thinker. Every topic he took up he had something new and original to say. That originality was rooted in the primacy of Scripture. In my mind as a theologian, his theology was rooted in Scripture, in revelation, in other words. And he would see the task of a theologian to throw light on the human condition as it is today, in light of revelation, on that condition.
He also has an extraordinary capacity to judge what is happening in the world culturally. So all his theology is a dialogue. A dialogue with the world as it is today or the voices raised in the world today, the voices of philosophers, thinkers, scientists, historians, and he is engaged in a dialogue with them all the time. He tries to articulate the faith in a way that actually makes sense to the modern world. He is also in dialogue with the past. With the whole Tradition of the Church, both East and West. He has an enormous grasp of that Tradition.
Finally, of course, his constant dialogue with God: His theology is born out of a relationship with God, which is deep and personal.
By the way, his whole theology is based on the notion of dialogue as well, which is interesting. For him, God is not just Logos or word, but Dia–logos: one who enters into dialogue with humanity.
So in his lectures, especially in his opening lectures, in whatever topic he took, creation, the Church, Christology, he would begin with a horizon, looking at the situation in the world today, the cultural situation, the philosophical situation, theological situation. This was so popular that students from other disciplines apart from theology would come to his initial lecture.
He could talk about Kafka or about Solzhenitsyn or about Roosevelt, any kind of thinker who would be relevant to the topic. So that meant that his lectures were absolutely stunning, and he had this wonderful capacity to actually sum up the ideas of others in a few short and lapidary statements. So all his lectures had a clarity about them and a depth, which is most unusual.
The other thing about him was his seminars and his colloquiums, which were a wonderful experience, because he had this extraordinary capacity to dialogue with his students. He allowed students to actually express their own ideas and not stifle them in their attempts, as neophytes, to become theologians. He had wonderful patience and wonderful insight into whatever someone was trying to say.
So it was a wonderful experience in the seminar rooms, engaging with really serious material in a way where everyone had some insight to give, where everyone’s ideas were respected, where everyone’s insight was sought for. And this, of course, created a tremendous dynamism in his seminars and his colloquiums.
On the basis of that, can you define the difference between a good and a bad theologian in our times?
(Laughs.) That is very difficult. I would say a good theologian is someone who tries to speak from God’s point of view, to address the real concerns of humanity, which are perennial concerns, but also to be aware of what is happening in the world of science and the world of philosophy, the world of politics, and to be able to address the concerns of people.
I think a bad theologian is someone who is trying to create his own ideas, who his more concerned with his own ideas than with what the truth is. I think a bad theologian is somebody like the Scribes and Pharisees, who get caught up with the letters of the law and ignore the spirit.
In other words, they get confused with the words and ignore the word of God behind them.
What makes Joseph Ratzinger’s writings stand out?
The extraordinary thing about Ratzinger’s writings is that he can appeal to a whole, wide variety of people. His most famous book, called Introduction to Christianity, was not written as a book at all. It was a series of lectures given in the University of Tubingen in 1967, from some notes that he made, which was recorded by one of his assistants who typed it out during the summer holidays, and Ratzinger then included the footnotes and made a few stylistic changes.
So it is not a written book. But in that book, which is classic reading, translated into about 20 or more languages, he is trying to engage with the educated university public from all disciplines: engaging with them about the nature of the faith and the content, the essential content of the faith, summed up in the Creed.
It’s not easy going at times, but there is no obscurification of ideas. On the other hand, when he preaches, as he did last Sunday, and when he writes meditations, they have a clarity and a simplicity that is quite extraordinary. And you don’t get that clarity and simplicity without really wrestling with the issues, doing the research and entering into dialogue with others to clarify your ideas.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
VATICAN CITY — The parents of freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS terrorists earlier this week, were “deeply moved and grateful” for Pope Francis’ telephone call yesterday, a Vatican spokesman has said.
The director of the Holy See Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, confirmed last night that the Holy Father called Foley’s family in New Hampshire to console them on the loss of their son. Diane and John Foley received the Pope’s call at about 3pm Thursday afternoon, local time.
“He was very compassionate, very loving,” said a priest friend of the family, Father Marc Montminy, of St. Michael’s Church in Exeter. Father Montminy added that Pope Francis spoke to the Foleys through a translator for about 20 minutes, offering comfort to the devout Catholic couple, the New York Daily News reported.
On Aug. 19, the Islamic State (IS), a militant group that controls territory in Syria and Iraq, released a graphic video titled “A Message to America,” which shows the beheading of Foley, who went missing in Syria in 2012. U.S. officials confirmed the authenticity of the video.
The terrorist group said that Foley’s execution was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. They warned that they have another missing American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, in captivity, saying that his life depends on President Barack Obama’s actions.
Mom: We’ve ‘Never Been Prouder’
Writing yesterday on a Facebook page set up to campaign for his release, Diane Foley paid tribute to her son, saying she and her family “have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
She added: “We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages. Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world. We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”
In comments elsewhere, Diane said she and her family prayed to God for strength and were grateful that “God has given us so many prayers” throughout James’ captivity.
“Jim would never want us to hate or be bitter. We’re praying for the strength to love like he did,” she said.
“It’s not difficult to find solace in this point in time,” John Foley stated. “We know he is in God’s hands, and we know he’s done God’s work.”
“We need the courage and prayers now to continue without him,” he added.
Praying the Rosary
At a news conference outside their home in Rochester, N.H., Diane Foley said “James felt compelled to bear witness to people in conflict.”
“He died for that compassion and love,” she added. “We want him to be remembered as a compassionate individual.”
Foley, who was Catholic, had written about how he prayed the Rosary during his imprisonment in Libya in 2011. Referring to his mother’s strong faith and the prayers of his friends and family at the time, he wrote in his alumni magazine, Marquette: “It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.
“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
Philip Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost, his employer, also paid tribute to Foley, speaking of his “incredible courage” in front of his executioner. His “never flinching” in the face of a gruesome death “needs to be honored,” he said.
Speaking to NPR, Balboni said it was “universal among all of the released hostages that we talked to that Jim was their favorite, the person whose spirits — no matter what punishment was inflicted on him, and he was regularly singled out for very harsh treatment; I won’t go into the details, but he was regularly subject to abuse — but he always kept their spirits up.”
Added Balboni, “He always kept them believing that they would get out, and he tried to be a spokesperson with the captors for the other hostages and to keep their morale up.”
Martyr for Freedom
John Foley said his family believes Jim to be “a martyr — a martyr for freedom.”
“I’m sure he didn’t shrink from the situation,” he said.
ISIS reportedly demanded a $132-million ransom from Foley’s family and GlobalPost. Balboni said the company spent millions on efforts to bring him home and that he and the Foley family were willing to try and raise the money.
In July, President Obama launched a U.S. Special Forces operation to rescue Foley and other hostages. A number of militants were killed in a firefight, but Foley and the other hostages could not be found. The operation was only revealed after Foley’s death.
Pope Francis has made a number of telephone calls to relatives of individual victims of tragedies to offer them his condolences. Last year, he called the parents of an Italian solider killed in Afghanistan. His parents said they felt the call was like a conversation with one’s father.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
The apostolic trip, he told Vatican Radio Aug. 18, was a witness to the Pope’s “pastoral love and attention, not only for Christians, but for all the Asian continent.”
The principal themes of the visit were “peace and reconciliation,” according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, and for many, these were most visibly seen when the Holy Father embraced abandoned and disabled young people at a rehabilitation center in Kkottongnae near Seoul.
That excursion, to the “Village of Flowers” on Aug. 16, was “a very special visit” that will “remain engraved in the memory of Koreans,” said Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Korean bishops’ conference. Father Lombardi said the visit, which ran long, was the “strongest image” of the entire trip.
Recalling other significant moments, Bishop Kang highlighted the Pope’s embrace of families of victims of the ferry disaster in Sewol, which cost more than 300 lives, mostly of children. By his presence and sharing in their suffering, the bishop told reporters, it was a “strong sign of spiritual closeness that we will not forget.”
The Pope’s Aug. 13-18 visit had two primary purposes: to beatify 124 Korean martyrs, killed for the faith during 19th-century persecution, and to celebrate the Sixth Asian Youth Day. But it also comprised a good deal else: Francis gave 12 homilies and discourses in total, covering a wide number of themes, including the virtues of genuine dialogue, solidarity with the poor and the importance of Jesus in reconciliation. The Pope also delighted Koreans with many spontaneous gestures of kindness.
The Holy Father underlined the importance of Christian hope in his first address, holding up the example of the martyrs in the presence of state authorities at the “Blue House” presidential palace. Alluding to the conflict between North and South Korea, he advocated “quiet listening and dialogue” over “mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
Addressing Korean bishops later, he warned them not to succumb to a “worldly mentality” that “dissipates all missionary fervor,” but, instead, to constantly go to “the peripheries of contemporary society,” reaching out to the young, elderly, poor, refugees and migrants.
At Mass on the feast of the Assumption in the World Cup Stadium in Daejeon, the Pope proposed the hope of the Gospel as “the antidote to the spirit of despair” and “inner sadness and emptiness” in today’s society. He called on Our Lady to help each person “live and work as signs” of this hope.
In a long, improvised speech to young Asians at the Shrine of Solmoe on the same day, Francis told those present to remember three things: the importance of prayer, the Eucharist and helping others, especially the poor. He also conveyed that Korea is one family.
“Think about your brothers and sisters in the North: They speak the same language, and when the same language is spoken in a family, there is room for hope,” he said, advising them to pray: “‘Lord, we are one family; help us. Help us to be united. You can do it.’”
Evangelized by the People
In front of 800,000 faithful at the Mass in Seoul the following day, to beatify Paul Yun Ji-chung and his 123 companions, Francis recalled how Korea was initially evangelized not by missionaries, but through the “hearts and minds of the Korean people themselves.” He spoke of the “reconciling love of Christ,” pointing out that Jesus asks the Father to “consecrate and protect us,” but not to take us “out of the world.” In this, he said, “the martyrs show us the way.”
They “call out to us to put Christ first,” he said, and teach us the “importance of charity”; he said their example has “much to say” to today’s societies, where, “alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing.” The martyrs’ legacy, he added, is an inspiration to work towards a “more just, free and reconciled society.”
To Korean religious, the Pope gave a discourse that reflected on how chastity, poverty and obedience are a “joyful witness to God’s love.” But he warned of the hypocrisy of consecrated men and women who profess vows of poverty “yet live like the rich,” wounding souls and harming the Church. The joy of the religious vocation, he said, must be shared and serve to “attract and nurture vocations.”
In a meeting with Asian bishops in Haemi on the penultimate day of his visit, the Pope stressed how real dialogue is only possible if “we are conscious of our own identity.” He warned against the “deceptive light” of relativism and a “superficiality” made up of the “latest fads, gadgets and distractions, rather than attending to the things that really matter.” He also cautioned against the “great harm” of agreeing to disagree, “so as not to make waves” and “hiding behind” easy answers and regulations.
Instead, he advocated a “capacity for empathy,” openness and acceptance. “Christians don’t come as conquerors, [but] to walk together,” he said. He also “earnestly” expressed his hope within this context that Asian countries without full diplomatic relations with Holy See — for example China and Vietnam — won’t hesitate to “further dialogue for the benefit of all.”
The theme for Asian Youth Day was “Asian youth, wake up!”; and the Pope urged young people to turn their “natural optimism into Christian hope,” their “energy into moral virtue” and their goodwill “into genuine self-sacrificing love.”
‘Just and Humane Society’
After meeting religious leaders on his final day, during which he spoke of the need to “walk together” in the presence of God, Francis celebrated a final Mass for “peace and reconciliation.” He urged Koreans to build a “truly just and humane society,” to “firmly reject a mindset shaped by suspicion, confrontation and competition and instead to shape a culture formed by the teaching of the Gospel and the noblest traditional values of the Korean people.”
Forgiveness, he stressed, “is the door which leads to reconciliation,” and he encouraged Koreans to “trust in the power of Christ’s cross” in order to welcome its “reconciling grace.” Through the cross, he asserted, Christ “reveals the power of God to bridge every division” and re-establishes the “original bonds of brotherly love.”
Other highlights of the visit included the Pope stopping to pray at a “Cemetery for Aborted Children” in Kkottongnae, alighting the popemobile to speak to a relative of a victim of the Sewol ferry disaster, baptizing a father who lost a son in the tragedy and sending two telegrams of good wishes to China, which had allowed a pope to fly through its airspace for the first time. He also shunned a helicopter to ride with commuters on a high-speed train from Seoul to Daejeon and made an unscheduled visit to Korean Jesuits in the nation’s capital.
Bishop Kang told Fides news agency the Pope’s visit was “a success for the faith, for the media coverage, for the organization.” The Pope, he added, left “an indelible mark” on the country.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.