Thursday, June 28, 2007

Vatican on Islam: 'We're Really Just Friends'

It’s often said that God is in the details.

With that in mind I draw some encouragement from Pope Benedict XVI’s new appointment of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to head the Vatican office, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), specializing in relations with Muslims. (“Vatican to back moderate Muslims”).

The reason I’m encouraged is that Cardinal Tauran’s first remarks, as reported by the AP, point to a badly needed dose of realism in the Church’s approach to Islam:

"We must help our Muslim friends rediscover the roots of their religion and therefore favor these moderate Muslims achieve a dialogue that will bring a civil and harmonious cohabitation," Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said.

Okay, it comes across a lot like the same old skim-milk at first. But for a Church that has raised the bond of husband and wife from a mere human contract to the status of a sacrament, the purely earthbound, provisional, and civil arrangements captured by the expression “cohabitation” couldn’t be more clear. This is not a relationship made in heaven.

More important still, Cardinal Tauran refers to “our Muslim friends,” a sea-change from the way Church leaders until recently, and for far too long, have blithely referred to Muslims as our “brothers.” No more pretense of a spiritual bond here. Mohammed is not Christ’s brother, nor ours. Instead, let’s see if we can just manage to co-exist on the same planet without too much bloodshed.

The PCID was formerly headed by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, whom lots of credential-happy experts praised as “terrific” (“From red Guccis to flip-flops”). The most prominent, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, called the decision to reassign Fitzgerald as “The Pope's worst decision so far.” The leftist press loves to call Fr. Reese “an expert on the Vatican,” (“Quiet pope confounds expectations”). But that’s like calling Chuck Schumer an expert on George Bush’s Justice Department. Virulent hatred hardly qualifies as expertise.

The truth is that Fr. Reese, and critics like him, subscribe to the view that the Church would be much better off in the hands of real experts, and kept out of the hands of amateurs, presumably to help correct Christ’s culturally-conditioned shortsightedness two thousand years ago when he turned things over to an unschooled fisherman and a tentmaking Pharisee with anti-intellectual tendencies.

This kind of snobbery is why Fr. Reese could see nothing more in Pope Benedict’s brilliant speech in Regensburg last year than the Vatican saying “something dumb about Muslims.” Fr. Reese thinks "It would be better for Pope Benedict to have Fitzgerald close to him," (“Pope remarks reveal harder stance”), Benedict preferably wearing a leash the Archbishop could yank whenever the Vicar of Christ was about to say something wrong.

Yet I wonder where Fr. Reese and those who covet so deeply the valuable Islamic-Christian dialogue can point to any progress, anywhere, that has resulted from it?

Pope Benedict reassigned Archbishop Fitzgerald as papal nuncio to Egypt in February 2006, I'm figuring as a polite way of deposing him as head of the PCID, which the Vatican then said it was re-organizing. After a respectful pause, the Pope then installed the Cardinal.

I’m not a follower of Vatican intrigues, generally. I do know that, just as an American President, in spite of his best intentions, is constantly being foiled by the obstruction and disobedience of lifers at the State Department, so too do Popes find themselves swimming against the tide of the traditions, obstructions, and intrigues of the world’s oldest bureaucracy in Rome. Getting something big accomplished in Rome isn't always easy, and usually is a sign of supernatural intervention. (And supernatural intervention is invariably accompanied by yowls of pain from all the Reese-types declaring that the bold action was not approved by the scholars and the experts).

So I view this change in the Vatican's attitude towards Islam as a long-awaited victory of common sense, (not to mention sound theology), over the experts. If possible, the ecumencial experts on Islam have been even more wrong about Islamic brotherhood with infidels than the climate experts have been on global warming.

I'm wondering, too, if, along with wanting just to reform the PDIC on a more rational basis, the Pope’s reassignment of the Archbishop also had a pastoral end in mind.

Perhaps the Pope sensed that one of the dangers of expertise in a foreign culture is over-identification with the other, and a loss of memory of one's own identity. Perhaps the Archbishop needed a break from discussing the finer points of Arabic and the hadiths over tea with the world’s imams and sheikhs, and a reminder of the people being ground unseen beneath their feet.

There’s no way for me to know for certain is this is what the Pope had in mind. Yet, (Fr. Reese’s endorsement of Archbishop Fitzgerald’s qualifications as the Church’s premiere expert on Islam aside), I have no reason to doubt that, as a simple cleric, the Archbishop has every intention of accepting his new assignment with joyful obedience, (not something Fr. Reese has much expertise in).

And the way the Archbishop describes his new assignment is very interesting:

“’My task is to gather information on the political and social situation in the region which is useful for the Holy See, and to present the position of the Holy See on issues like human rights, religious liberty and the question of peace to the government of Egypt and the Arab League.’”
(“Dialogue with Islam”).

It’s easy for me to imagine that, between his mission to gather, first-hand, the facts on religious liberty and human rights in Egypt, (where there are neither), and the mission to stand for the Church’s exalted view of religious liberty and human freedom, (to which Islam is diametrically opposed) he is not going to be able to avoid having some of his more sanguine opinions about Islam revised a bit.

And if you wanted to send someone on a tour of of dhimmitude, and Islamic social and political dysfunction, all in one spot, one could not pick better than Egypt.

Freedom House’s Nina Shea’s most recent briefing to the House of Representatives in May of this year, “Religious Freedom in Egypt: Recent Developments”, describes religious freedom conditions in Egypt as “poor,” where violations against religious minorities and even non-conforming Muslims are widespread, along with “societal intolerance of and violence against Coptic Orthodox and other Christian denominations by Muslim extremists,” and the continued prevalence of anti-Semitic materials. The government consistently fails to prosecute growing Muslim violence against Christians.

As for Islamic-Christian “dialogue” in Egypt, Muslim-Egyptian Mona Eltahawy describes the dialogue as needed, but still non-existent:

“When an Egyptian nun coming out of a prayer service at St. George's Church in Alexandria is stabbed by a Muslim man in his 20s shouting the requisite ‘God is great,’ we need to talk.

“When thousands of Muslims attack seven churches in two Alexandria neighborhoods after someone distributes a DVD of a play deemed offensive to Islam (a play that was staged two years ago), and when three Muslims die and dozens are injured after riot police fire tear gas and use batons to dispel 5,000 protestors outside St. George's, we need to talk.

“When Christians in Alexandria, once a cosmopolitan home to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, are afraid to leave their homes and when women remove crucifixes out of fear of violence and insult, we need to talk.

“I could go on, but you get my drift.”
(“Egypt's Christian-Muslim divide”)

And then a spokesman for an Egyptian organization called the Coptic News has said the following to WorldNetDaily:

“[B]ecause Egypt's constitution says that laws derive from the Quran, the persecution of Christians there is not only allowed, but endorsed, by government officials.

"’In the last 10 years, more than 5,000 Christians have been massacred in Egypt,’ he told WND. ‘Hundreds of businesses and homes first have been looted, then burned and destroyed. Churches have been burned and destroyed.

"’And you know what? Not one Muslim has been indicted, let alone convicted,’ he said.” ("Christian Fears Torture If Deported to Egypt”).

Nina Shea also describes the classic features of Egyptian Christians reduced to dhimmi status:

In addition to violence, Christians face official and societal discrimination. Christians are rarely found in high-level government and military posts, or in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. There are only a handful of Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces; one Christian governor out of 26; one elected Member of Parliament out of 444 seats; no known university presidents or deans; and very few legislators and judges. In addition, for all Christian groups, government permission must still be sought to build a new church or repair an existing church, and the approval process for church construction is time consuming and inflexible. Under Egyptian law, Muslim men can marry Christian women but Muslim women are prohibited from marrying Christian men. In February 2007, Muslim groups reportedly set fire to several Christian-owned shops in southern Egypt due to rumors of a relationship between a Muslim woman and a Coptic Christian man. Seven Muslims and one Coptic Christian were arrested on suspicion of taking part in these attacks. As in other case, it remains to be seen if justice will be served.

I don’t doubt that Archbishop Fitzgerald is now spending much of his time listening to the pleas of Egyptian Christians and other nonMuslims detailing for him the other side of the religion and the culture he has spent so many years loving, as only an expert and scholar can love.

But scholarship aside, the Archbishop started out long ago as a missionary to Africa, and if he’s in any way worthy of the title of bishop, he’ll take a lesson from the persecuted Egyptians he meets; maybe someday he’ll have something better to contribute to a genuine dialogue with Islam. Maybe he'll learn to look behind the deceitful smiles of the imams and the sheikhs.

Am I exaggerating the significance of the Vatican describing Muslims as friends instead of brothers? Would I be better off just crabbing that Islam has shown itself no more capable of friendship with the Christian west than it has of brotherhood, and that the idea of friendship is just as naïve as that of brotherhood?

I think the distinction is an important one. At least it's a small step in the right direction. And, I’m making a choice to be optimistic.

In a war that one side has been losing for a long time--losing from unawareness and ignorance of the enemy--to those trying to stave off final defeat any reversal of trend is a welcome step towards victory .


Anonymous said...

Brilliant article

I appreciate your insight and I find myself also encouraged by the level of "realism" being used.

I am relieved to know the Catholic church remains in the light at least enough to recognize what true darkness is.

Again, great job (and accurate) analyzing the words chosen by Cardinal of Religious Dialogue.

I hope soon he recognizes that Muslim bridge building is just a polite way of say we're hijacking your religion, culture, and country.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Clancy,

I admit I had little hope for the Catholic church's ability to understand Islam. My first reaction to Jean-Louis's appointment to the PCID-specilizing in relations with Muslims was, "Oh damn, another unholy alliance with the French and Islam.

But, after reading your article I believe you are correct in your analysis of the Cardinal's language. I too draw some encouragement from all this. Thank-you

Robert F. Hardin

Bellevelle, MI

Michael said...

Fascinating article, thanks for posting.

let’s see if we can just manage to co-exist on the same planet without too much bloodshed.

Based on past experience, I am not too sanguine about this one...