Interview With Father James Schall
WASHINGTON, D.C ., 9 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)
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.
Parts 2 and 3 of this interview will appear Wednesday and Thursday,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Interview With Father James Schall
By Carrie Gress
ROME, 10 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)
Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, given
Sept. 12, 2006, was not only directed at the question of Islam, but also
the weaknesses of modern Western philosophy, says Jesuit Father James
The professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the
author of "The Regensburg Lecture," published by St. Augustine's Press.
In Part 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on what
he says is one of the most important discourses of modern time.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday. Part 3 will appear Thursday.
Q: The Holy Father included in his lecture a discussion of the roots of
voluntarism, a theological idea that attempts to put no limits on God,
defying even reason. What role does this factor play in Islam as well as
in non-Muslim thought?
Father Schall: This question, of course, was already in Greek and
medieval philosophy. It exists as a perennial issue for the human mind
to resolve. Voluntarism did not originate with Islam, except perhaps in
the sense that nowhere else has it been carried out with such logical
consistency and backed by such force. "Voluntarism" here means not the
spontaneous effort to do something to help others of which the Pope
spoke in "Deus Caritas Est," but the philosophic and theological idea
that the will is superior to the intellect and is not subject to reason.
The Pope is quite careful to note that the same problem exists in the
West via Duns Scotus, the great medieval philosopher and theologian. It
goes from him to William of Ockham, to Niccolò Machiavelli and to Thomas
Hobbes, and onward into modern political philosophy. I have just been
reading with a class Heinrich Rommen's most insightful book "The Natural
Law," which spells out in much detail why legal voluntarism stands at
the basis of modern positivism and historicism, subjects that Leo
Strauss and Eric Voegelin were concerned with.
From this point of view, the Regensburg lecture was directed at the
heart of Europe and America, to those "justifications" that are in fact
used by its laws and customs to justify the killing of the innocent. The
Socratic principle that "it is never right to do wrong" still remains
the bedrock of a philosophy not based on pure will.
Pure will can justify anything because it has evaporated any nature or
order from man and the universe. Voluntarism allows no grounding for
absolute principles of human dignity. If it is asked, if I might surmise
a guess, why the Pope chose to begin his lecture with the conversation
of the Greek Byzantine Emperor in the 1300's with a Persian gentleman,
it was because it enabled him graphically to state the most pressing
issue of our time, not merely "is it reasonable to extend religion by
violence," but is it reasonable to use this violence on any innocent
This is where the Islamic problem, in fact, is substantially the same as
the Western problem. Both systems have to resort to a voluntaristic
theory of state and being to explain why they are not immoral for using
violence against those who are innocent and protected by the divine and
natural law itself.
We miss the point if we think voluntarism is not a theoretic system that
seeks to praise God in the highest possible way. Voluntarism means that
there is no nature or order behind appearances. Everything can be
otherwise. Everything that happens occurs because God or Allah
positively chose it, but who could have chosen the exact opposite.
Some philosophers, not just Muslim, think that God cannot be limited in
any way, even by the principle of contradiction. He can make right
wrong, or even make hatred of God his will. It sounds strange to hear
this position at first. But once we grant its first principle, that will
is higher than intellect, and governs it, everything follows.
This theory is why so-called Muslim terrorists claim and believe that
they are in fact following Allah's will. They might even be acting on a
good, if erroneous, conscience. Allah wants the whole world to worship
him in the order laid down in the Koran.
The world cannot be settled until this conversion to Islam happens, even
if it takes centuries to accomplish. This submission to Allah is
conceived to be a noble act of piety. There is in voluntarist principles
nothing contradictory if Allah orders the extension of his kingdom by
violence, since there is no objective order that would prevent the
opposite of what is ordered from being ordered the next day.
Again, I must say, that behind wars are theological and philosophical
problems that must be spelled out and seen for what they are. This
spelling out is what the Regensburg lecture is about.
Q: Explain why the Pope cites the recovery of a particular kind of
reason? He speaks of a "re-Hellenization," or a return to Greek
philosophy, as the solution to the current crisis of civilization.
Father Schall: Actually, the central part of the lecture was rather on
the "de-Hellenization" of western culture and what it meant.
The Pope indicated three states: 1) the Reformation position that there
was too much philosophy in Catholicism, so that what was needed was a
return to the pure Jesus, without the philosophy.
2) The second was the result of the denial of the divinity of Christ, so
that, with Adolf von Harnak, Christ was just a man to be studied by
science in the universities.
3) The third was in effect multiculturalism, that there was no possible
unity on the basis of principle or reason. Everyone was right within his
The tradition from even the Old Testament, as the Pope sketched out, was
rather that revelation itself pointed to Greek philosophy. In the case
both of Genesis and the Prologue of John, the very term "Logos" was the
form in which God chose to speak to us, in the word.
The very definition of God
"I Am" —
was clearly something that was comprehensible in a philosophy itself
based on reason. The Pope is quite careful to note that Paul's turning
to Macedonia and not to some other culture had to do with a providential
decision about what it means to comprehend revelation, particularly the
Incarnation and the Trinity, the two basic doctrines that are denied in
all other religions and philosophies.
It is because of the unique contribution of Europe that this relation
was hammered out, particularly by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
and their heritage. To receive revelation of the word, of the inner life
of the Godhead, we must have a preparation, a philosophy that allows us
to comprehend what it being revealed to us. Not all philosophies do
this, which is why it makes a difference what philosophy we understand
to be true.
The Pope pointed out that for Kant, reason and revelation are not any
longer directly related as being addressed to each other. Faith and
reason are two separate things, with no possibility of mutual
comprehension, however minimal. Kant is the origin of much subsequent
philosophy that has been perplexed, as Gilson showed in his famous
"Unity of Philosophic Experience," by how to put things back together
The small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end, as
Aristotle taught us. This Kantian, and before it Cartesian, background
too is the origin of the two different concepts of "reason" that the
Pope made the key question of modern intelligence and of intelligence
itself. The logic of the Reformation's position on philosophy and its
relation to theology led to an attempt to have a pure human Jesus
without any real basis in reason to explain why it is credible to
believe in him.
The Pope wants to do two things. First he wants to defend science within
its own competency, and second he wants science to abandon the
"self-limitation" of itself that cannot see the reality of
nonmathematical things because being is not limited only to things that
can be measured.
This broader openness to human truths that can be known by intuitive
reason, love, friendship, suffering or hope is why the Eastern and other
religions think the West because of its scientific narrowness has lost
its soul, as it appears from their vices, that they have.
Scientific reason, which is not coextensive with reason in its fullness,
cannot speak to what really counts in human existence. This distinction
between two kinds of reason gives an even greater insight into what this
Pope is about. What he is really doing is seeking for grounds, which
have to be reason, by which we can approach all religions and cultures,
including Europe itself, busily losing not only its soul but its very
bodies, as population decline shows.
Interview With Father James Schall
WASHINGTON, D.C., 11 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)
Benedict XVI's Regensburg
lecture not only pinpoints the heart of the current international
situation, but also reality itself, says Father James Schall.
In the third and final part of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall,
a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, comments
on what he says is one of the most important discourses of modern times.
He is the author of "The Regensburg Lecture," published by St.
Augustine's Press. Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday, Part 2 on
Q: How do you see the Regensburg lecture in relation to John Paul II's
encyclical "Fides et Ratio"?
Father Schall: What Benedict XVI sees is the fundamental importance of
"Fides et Ratio" on a world scale, not just with Islam, which was
something new in John Paul II's time.
John Paul II was rightly taken up with fascism, Marxism and the moral
status of the West. John Paul did collaborate with Muslims in several
especially about the family, in spite of the differences between Muslim
and Christian views on what the family is.
"Fides et Ratio" is the consequence, as it were, of the other two stages
of de-Hellenization in Western thought. The second step was with von
Harnack who took the consequences of denying that Jesus was divine. He
was just human, a nice man. He was a leader or prophet or voice, but he
was not the God-man, not the incarnate "Logos." Thus we did not need
theology to understand him; rather, we need the social and historical
Benedict XVI, as he indicates in his book "Jesus of Nazareth," is often
concerned with the claim of scholarship to unearth the fundamentals of
faith by science's own methods alone. All it can unearth is what is
known by the methods, so more and more fundamental things are left out
as such scholarship claims priority.
"Fides et Ratio" is a long, incisive analysis of modern philosophy
alongside of the question of what kind of philosophy will enable us to
understand what is really revealed.
The very notion of a "Christian philosophy" arises from the need to
understand in terms of reason just what was said in revelation. The use
of a Greek word, not a scriptural word, at the Council of Nicaea, as the
Pope said, indicated that under the pressure of understanding
revelation, the philosophical experience could be fundamental.
Faith and philosophy are not in contradiction, but are related to grasp
the whole of reality. Both are necessary. This is why pure Scripture is
not enough even to understand Scripture's own positions. As Chesterton
remarked at the end of "Heretics," it would be revelation, not reason,
which, in the end, said that the grass is green, that reason in faith
alone would affirm the ordinary things of reality that the modern
philosophers could no longer comprehend.
Q: In your book, and in the Holy Father's lecture, there is no effort to
"turn back the clock" and deny the achievements of modernism. In what
ways do you see an integration of the old and the new?
Father Schall: First of all the term "modernism" is generally meant to
be a declaration of independence of modern thought from what is past,
Greek or scholastic. However, thought in modernity more and more loses
its moorings in an ordered reality.
As the Pope points out, the third de-Hellenization is what we call
"multiculturalism," a belief that there is no real truth in any culture
so that there are no fundamental issues between civilizations or
religions, only a kind of tolerance about truth's impossibility.
Despite the claim that multicultural tolerance does not involve
violence, its very system contains within itself a tradition within
history that does claim that violence is in fact justified by
voluntarist premises. In other words, on a purely multicultural theory,
there is no reason why voluntarism is not a legitimate position as there
is really nothing to oppose it except power.
The Pope repeats several times that he does not want to "go back," but
he does wish to distinguish what is good and what is not in modern
thought and culture.
Rommen said that the natural law is perennial, that is, it keeps coming
back when we reach positions within a culture that normal men of common
sense can see clearly wrong. The objective standard keeps calling
disorder and injustice to our attention. The Regensburg lecture is an
intellectual challenge. This is why it is precisely an academic lecture
and not an encyclical; it insists we face the truth and falsity in any
culture on the basis of "logos," of reason.
You will notice that the Pope brings in the notion of the fascination
with mathematics that we found in Plato. He addresses the scientific
mind directly and tells it that its discoveries are based on the fact
that mathematics and its many sophistications work in reality. There
must be a correspondence between principles of reality and principles of
Why is there this correspondence if there is not a realistic philosophy
to explain why? And if there is this correspondence, why is there not an
ultimate mind that orders all things found with mathematics as well as
with its own systems? Much current literature is based on the claims of
a new kind of atheism, one that often lacks the intellectual rigor of
more classic forms. The confidence of modern atheism does not face the
strange correspondences between mind and reality that even science
The problem with science is not only what it is, but what are we going
to do with it? The classic Greeks were said to have known all sorts of
inventions but chose not to pursue them because they understood the
dangers they might entail for human living itself.
The Regensburg lecture gives science and technology their due by
pointing out that they are not everything, but what they do is valid for
a certain aspect of things. They can only explain what falls to their
Philosophy, ethics, theology and poetry all reach to realities that are
not direct objects of science, to things that are essentially spiritual
and nonmaterial. The human intellect transcends its own being to be
concerned with all that is.
We are bewildered if we think that science can explain everything, but
this does not mean that what it cannot explain is therefore not
explicable. It rather means that other insights and ways of knowing have
their own validity.
The word of the Pope to science is not "don't be scientific" in the
proper sense. It is rather to stop limiting itself to only one concept
of reason, a very narrow concept. This concept is good as far as it
goes. But it is one that excludes by definition most of the important
things men are concerned with.
The Regensburg lecture takes us to the heart not only of current events,
but also to the heart of reality itself. Philosophy and revelation are
not enemies of each other, but are directed at one another. The
exaltation of man by revelation does not imply that he is not what he is
created to be, a rational animal, one who does all he does by "logos,"
Man is the glory of God in the sense that God can address his word to
him and he can know and comprehend because he is created with the power
to know the truth of things. The moral and political life of man is
designed to enable us to know what is addressed to us from reason and
even, if it happens, from revelation.
What seems clear about the Regensburg lecture is that the best place to
understand our times is in the heart of Rome itself. Here, in the native
tongues of recent Popes, in Polish, or German, and, yes, Latin, they
speak to us of what it means to be human, to be beings addressed by God
in both reason and revelation.