January 23, 2006


Islam and Democracy, a Secret Meeting at Castelgandolfo: The synopsis of a weekend of study on Islam with the pope and his former theology students. With two conflicting versions of how Benedict XVI views the Muslim religion (Sandro Magister, January 23, 2006, Chiesa)

Joseph Ratzinger has written little on the topic of Islam over the years. But it is a topic very much on his mind, and all the more so since he became pope. Last September, in Castelgandolfo (see photo), Benedict XVI dedicated two days of study to Islam, behind closed doors, together with two experts in Islamic studies and a group of his former theology students.

The news of the meeting leaked out, but until last January 5 nothing was known about what was said there.

But on January 5, one of Ratzinger’s former students who participated in the meeting, American Jesuit Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and founder of the publishing house Ignatius Press, gave an ample account of the meeting during one of the most popular radio talk shows in the United States: the Hugh Hewitt Show.

During the interview, Fr. Fessio also reported the thoughts expressed by the pope in the course of the discussion. In Fessio’s view, Benedict XVI holds that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled.

But one of the other participants at the meeting, Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit and professor of Islamic studies at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, when consulted by www.chiesa, gave a different interpretation of the pope’s thought. In Fr. Samir’s view, Benedict XVI holds that it is very difficult, but not impossible, to reconcile Islam and democracy.

In his contribution to the discussion, the pope supposedly wanted to explain precisely the reasons for this difficulty. [...]

This is what Ratzinger wrote some years ago in one of his rare comments on Islam, in three pages of the book-length interview “The Salt of the Earth,” published in Germany in 1996 and in the United States the following year, by Ignatius Press, the publishing house of Fr. Joseph Fessio.

It is the passage reproduced below. It should be read with the awareness that almost ten years, dense with events and further reflections, have passed since then.

”Shari’a shapes society from beginning to end...”

by Joseph Ratzinger

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.

That, of course, is precisely what the Reformation will do, alienate Islam from itself and force it to fit the Judeo-Christian model that separates Church from State. Catholicism wasn't initially thrilled by having that model forced back on it -- after having won its long struggle to become the orthodox religion of the West -- either, but it learned to live with it rather amicably.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2006 1:52 PM

Ten years is a blink of an eye instant in terms of the Church. What Ratzinger wrote 10 years ago has not changed. He is not quite saying that there is only one kind of good Muslim, but it is very close.

Obviously they are going to have to solve their unfitness for the world civilization or be themselves solved.

The hope is that the world civilization will make the Muslims an offer they can't refuse, and like the Mormons, they will accept it. Whether they may do so is up to them. Ratzinger didn't think so, and neither do I. At least the Mormons could get another special revelation telling them to accept our terms. The Muslims seem to believe that their deposit of faith is closed. Perhaps the next Mahdi can tell his people to pack it in, but it will take a lot of doing, there being no holder of a Muslim Magisterium to call off the dogs.

You are correct in distinguishing the uniquely Catholic principle of separation of Church and state from the abuses of temporal power which proceeded the so-called "reformation." Distinguish it also from Orthodox caesaropapism and Protestant subjection of the church to the state.

The teaching of the talent of tribute started us on the road to freedom and progress. The two cities, the two swords, were kept in balance, and the individual had room to grow and prosper. Of course our Constitution embodies both the principle and the mechanism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 23, 2006 3:48 PM

Do we want them to reform or evolve?

Posted by: Sandy P at January 23, 2006 3:49 PM

Of course, Shi'ism, having not enjoyed temporal power--like early Christianity and Judaism--is compatible with such separation. Only Sunni Islam needs Reformation.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2006 4:00 PM

oj: Don't the Shi'ites run Iran? Do they practice church-state balance there?

Do Shi'ites render separately to God and Caesar, or are they merely would-be rapists who can't find their E.D. pills?

I ask these questions because all the Muslims I have known personally were either students or learned professionals, all of whom seemed like reasonable men and women. Most of them were from Sunni dominated countries, and all of them appeared secular or even non-observant.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 23, 2006 4:48 PM


No, they don't yet. Like the Church they're reveling in finally being top dog. Like the Church they're engaged in heresy and will be Reformed out of it.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2006 5:05 PM

It's a little hard to match up the verb tenses and the dates here.

It looks like the Shi'ites had never been in political power--sort of like Mennonites or something--so now that they are running a country, they are differentfrom the Sunnis with respect to church-state separation how?

It would appearw that Ratzinger had it rightly: all Muslims are "cujus regio" tyrants, and separation of church and state requires a "reformation" into oblivion.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 23, 2006 6:48 PM


The Shi'ites are to Islam as the Jews/Christians were to Rome. As soon as Christianity took over it demanded temporal power. we got it right eventually. The Shi'ites have us to help them get it right quicker.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2006 6:56 PM

Lou: The argument is that Khomeini-ism is a violation of all of Shiite tradition & history. They have traditionally held that the only truly legit gov't is that of the 12th Imam (the Mahdi?), and since he disappeared, all subsequent gov't authority has had merely a caretaker role. The civil authorities have to stay within certain bounds, of course, or they will lose their caretaker rights. These bounds are set through a sort of "advisory" process by the religious authorities. Khomeini made the radical step that the clerics should dispense with their traditional roles and assume direct power for themselves. But this was quite a controversial, even scandalous, assertion when he first made it, and now that it's been shown that the clerics can't run a state competently, hopefully Khomeini-ism will be repudiated. How much of this is accurate, and how much is wishful thinking by authors such as Roy Mottahedeh and Reza Aslan in an attempt to appease Western secular opinion, is yet to be determined...

Posted by: b at January 23, 2006 7:11 PM


Forget them, it's what Ayatollah Sistani says.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2006 7:18 PM


Reforming is evolving.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2006 7:43 PM

Plus a lot of what the Quran says.

Since when has a religion ditched fundamental parts of its revealed text except in extremis?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 24, 2006 4:30 AM

So far nothing upsets Ratzinger's view of this.

All of us, you, I and the submarine weapons officer, are hopeful that the Shi'ites will become good subjects of the world government before we have to plow their land with salt.

For the most part, our wishful thinking has us
stepping around the Holy Father's point that Islam is petrified fanaticism, structurally and doctrinally incapable of change. Structuraly, for it has no magisterial authority to guide the change; doctrinally, as its scripture is not only inspired, as Christians and Jews hold, but literally dictated and immutable.

All this "Reformation" talk neglects the history to the so-called reformation in the Western Church. That movement was, at the time, sold as a return, a progressing backwards, to unchanged and unchanging scripturalism. That kind of movement does not help us with the Muslims.

To Ratzinger, and to this writer, the problem is simple: the Muslims are not Roman Catholics.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 24, 2006 6:06 AM

Except that Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq, Bangladesh, Palestine, etc. have popular democracies and the millions of Muslims in India, America, etc. have no problem fitting into democratic societies. Indeed, it appears the only thing that can prevent Muslims from being democrats is, as it was for Catholics, blacks, Asians, Slavs, etc. (who were previously thought antidemocratic) is dictators.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2006 7:31 AM


When they're wrong.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2006 7:37 AM