Remember when word came down from the Vatican that Pope John Paul II had watched Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and liked it? The anonymously sourced story sparked a media firestorm around the globe as reporters sought confirmation of the papal equivalent of two thumbs up. "It is as it was," we later learned the pope supposedly said. Which sounded like the perfect biblical movie blurb; but did the pontiff actually utter the words?
After some non-clarifying retractions from the Vatican, it was ultimately hard to say for sure -- although not for journalistic want of trying. This natural curiosity stands in striking contrast to the media silence that has met a far more sensational, far more significant report of papal opinion: namely, that Pope Benedict XVI is said to believe that Islam is incapable of reform.
This bombshell dropped out of an early January interview conducted by radio host Hugh Hewitt with the Rev. Joseph D. Fessio, SJ, a friend and former student of the pope. The Rev. Fessio recounted the pope's words on the key problem facing Islamic reform this way: "In the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Muhammad, but it's an eternal word. It's not Muhammad's word. It's there for eternity the way it is. There's no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it." Fessio continued, elaborating not on how many ratings stars the pope thinks some biopic should get, but rather on the pope's theological assessment of a historically warring religion with a billion-plus followers, some notorious number of whom are now at war with the West. According to his friend, the pope believes there's no way to change Islam because there's no way to reinterpret the Koran -- i.e., change Koranic teachings on infidels, women, polygamy, penal codes and other markers of Islamic law -- in such a way as to propel Islam into happy coexistence with modernity.
As I said, a bombshell. But this is one bombshell that has yet to explode because no one wants to touch it. Hugh Hewitt posted the extraordinary interview online, a couple of blogs picked it up, and Middle East expert Daniel Pipes wrote a short piece taking exception to it, but, as the Asia Times Online columnist Spengler noted (in a column called "When even the pope has to whisper"), "not a single media outlet has taken notice." Posting the Spengler column at The Corner at National Review Online, Rod Dreher wrote: "Spengler is amazed by the silence from the Western media over this remarkable statement attributed to the current pope ... and he suggests that we shrink from acknowledging it because the consequences of the pope being right about this are too horrible to contemplate." Indeed, with one exception, NRO Corner regulars failed to comment on the pope's putative words -- noteworthy, given the magazine's tradition of a Catholic identity.
Is facing up to the pope's notion of unreformable Islam really too horrible to contemplate? Sounds to me like the fabled abyss. By coincidence, a senior officer in Iraq with whom I've been corresponding made a similar point in explaining why he hoped for Islamic reform: basically, because without the hope of such reform, there is no hope of such reform -- which, I assume, leads to those horrible consequences mentioned above, beginning, well, with hopelessness.
But despair masked in the wishful silence of studied neglect is the wrong response. That is, if the pope is right and Islam is not reformable along the lines of a Western model, it's not a Western problem -- meaning a problem the West is responsible for fixing. It is perhaps the ultimate Western chauvinism that even considering the failed overhaul of Islam, being beyond Muslim doctrine and beyond our own capabilities, should plunge us -- infidels, non-Muslims, Jeffersonian deists, whatever -- into the abyss. With apologies to Pygmalion via Lerner and Lowe, the question shouldn't be: "Why Can't Islam Be More Like the West?" It should be: "How can the West prevent itself from becoming more like Islam?"
One obvious answer is an immigration policy aimed at preventing the kind of Islamic demographic shifts we already see transforming Europe -- although our policy makers, Republican and Democrat alike, aren't even asking the question. Maybe they, like my military pen pal, prefer to hope for the Islamic reform the pope is said to have ruled out. Hope may well spring eternal and all that, but it's not the stuff on which military strategy or national destiny should hang.