Regensburg Revisited 

Interview With Father James Schall

WASHINGTON, D.C ., OCT. 9, 2007 ( When one interprets Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture, which he delivered more than one year ago, as simply an address on Islam, one misses the point, says Father James Schall.

The professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the author of “The Regensburg Lecture,” published by St. Augustine’s Press.

In this part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on the Pope’s remarks regarding Islam question, but then more importantly, the deeper point of the lecture.

Q: Just over a year has passed since Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture was delivered, followed by an international outcry from some Muslim circles. Was it the Islamic response that prompted you to write this book or was there something else?

Father Schall: Actually, I had read the address before the Islamic response, which took some time to orchestrate. I do not think it was a “spontaneous” reaction.

When I first read the lecture, a day or so after it was available to the public, I went to my class and told them frankly that it was the most important address in modern times. It put everything together. I was not exaggerating.

The Islamic context of the lecture was merely an introduction to what has proved to be an insight into Benedict XVI’s overall agenda, namely, the grounds on which we approach all religions, cultures and philosophies in the name of their truth, in the name of all truth, including the truth of revelation.

Benedict XVI’s sights are by no means narrow. He knows that besides the world of Islam, where most Christians have either left or been driven out, Christianity has only a minimal presence in the great Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist and modern philosophical worlds.

The Pope is seeking a way to see what these worlds have in common and to establish a basis from which each can be addressed in well-grounded terms that cannot be ignored.

Of course, the Islamic reaction quickly made this lecture known throughout the world, something the militants might have had second thoughts about had they realized what they were doing. Many wanted to chastise Benedict XVI for being “imprudent” or “insensitive.” But he was neither.

He addressed an issue that did, to be sure, come to world attention because of Islamic militancy. This issue was stated succinctly: “Is it reasonable, or does God will, to spread one’s religion by violence?” This was a question asked by practically everyone in the world who thought of the implications of “suicide bombings,” or about the earlier holy wars — jihad — in Islamic history, wars largely, though not exclusively, against Christian lands. The issue is the deliberate choice of violent means as the proper way to propagate a religion, together with a theological justification to do so.

The Pope pointed out that within the Koran itself we can find two different answers to the question: one that says “no,” one that says “yes.” The current turmoil in the world is caused by those in Islam who answer “yes” to this question.

The Pope showed a singular courage in his response to the uproar. He did not back down. He merely said that if anyone was offended by the very posing of the question, he was sorry. But it is not legitimate to be “offended” by a serious question, formally posed, in search to the truth of an issue in an academic setting.

But what first interested me in this lecture was Benedict XVI’s more basic concern. This was Europe and the modern scientific mind.

To think that Islam was his main target misses the more penetrating issue that the lecture raised, namely, is the same root cause that justifies suicide bombings at work among us theoretically justifying, by the same philosophic principles, the widespread violent killing of innocent lives?

Militant Islam makes no bones about the idea that it intends to conquer the world for Allah. Thus, there is something starkly simple about Islam, its constant effort since its beginning to submit the whole world to Allah. We tend to think this is fanatical or outlandish. But to many Muslim minds, it is perfectly logical and indeed a basis of action. What the Pope was concerned about was the basis of this claim.

Q: In the book, you compare Benedict XVI’s visit with Pope John Paul II’s first visit back to Poland. What are the similarities?

Father Schall: John Paul II’s first visit to Poland was the revelation of the power of truth against a tyrannical system. It was more than that.

Together with U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s insistence of showing the Soviets that they could not keep up in the area of military balance, and the internal decline of morals and will in the Soviet citizens, the Polish Pope’s brave and firm presence was something that Poles and the world simply wanted to see, wanted to be there. It was a sign that there was something else in the world but political power. Very few western thinkers predicted the collapse of the Soviet system.

By the time of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg visit the whole focus of the world had shifted to suicide bombers, to efforts to pacify Islamic terrorism, either by war or by covert or political action.

The initial political reaction to 9/11 was one that sought to find the terrorists who irrationally caused this astonishing feat of blowing up, before our very eyes, two of the world’s largest and most famous buildings in one of the most famous cities in the world.

Subsequent bombings in Madrid, London, Bali, Paris and elsewhere suddenly made the war not between opposing armies but, like the famous raids of the Barbary Coast pirates, sudden incursions out of almost anywhere on almost any target.

A new form of war has been developed which cannot really be explained in traditional western sociological or moral terms. This situation suggests, as the Pope understood, that a much more fundamental analysis of what is going on is required.

What is of importance is that what he found to be the central cause was not something peculiarly Islamic, though it was that too. Islamic philosophy and western philosophy, not to mention Eastern philosophy, often had similar intellectual roots and presuppositions. This is why it is not correct to view this lecture as simply concerned with Islam. It strikes very much closer to home.

Just as John Paul II’s first visit to Poland was a kind light in the darkness of despair about ever doing anything about Marxism, so the Regensburg visit of Benedict XVI was a brilliant flash over the whole of intellectual history telling us what was really at stake. Good politicians trying to do something about terrorism cannot proceed, really, until they know exactly what it is they are opposing.

The fact is, it is not terrorism, a sort of vague abstraction. In this sense politics depends on mind. The Regensburg lecture, as Socrates reminded us in the “Gorgias,” addresses real politics by addressing the issue of why men act as they do and their reasons for doing so.

Q: You called the lecture “one of the fundamental tractates of our time.” Why is that?

Father Schall: The Regensburg lecture has this quality of suddenly illuminating whole fields of knowledge because it knows what belongs where, what the issues are, what is at stake in understanding our times in theoretical terms.

I have even suggested that this lecture brings up again the medieval issue of the harmony of the two swords. That is, what is lacking in the civil discussion is intelligibility of what is at stake, of what in fact is going on.

If we reduce the issue to one of violence by fanatics, we will never understand why political or military solutions, however also needed, as here, will not get to the heart of the problem.

This heart consists in understanding what is going on from a theoretical and theological point of view. The political order is disordered because the order of the soul is disordered, as Plato taught us. It is no accident that Benedict cited Socrates twice in the lecture and found the heart of what he has to say on the side of reason coming from classical Greek philosophy.


  1. 1 Regensburg Revisited (Part 2): Interview With Father James Schall « Catholic Analysis

    […] Part 1 .  […]

  2. 2 Regensburg Revisited (Part 3): Interview With Father James Schall « Catholic Analysis

    […] is the author of “The Regensburg Lecture,” published by St. Augustine’s Press. Part 1 , Part […]

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