|Prior to the outbreak of war
in Iraq, one great fear was that the conflict would trigger a “clash of
cultures” between Christianity and Islam. Many observers, above all the
Vatican, feared backlash against Christians in the Islamic world.
Two weeks into the war, that backlash has not
materialized. Based on NCR reporting March 29-April 2, there has
not been a single case recorded to date of harassment or violence against
Christians related to the war. In fact, sources in several traditional
hotspots say Christian/Muslim relations are better than ever.
Before the war, observers on all sides sounded
In a Dec. 23 interview with Rome’s La Repubblica,
top Vatican diplomat Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran warned that “a type of
anti-Christian, anti-Western crusade could be incited because some ignorant
masses mix everything together.”
When Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appeared
at a news conference in Rome’s foreign press club in February, he spoke
in similar terms. “If the Christian countries of Europe participate in
a war of aggression, it will be interpreted as a crusade against Islam,
and it will poison the relationship between the Arab and Christian worlds,”
These were not just idle warnings. In Pakistan,
after the American strikes in Afghanistan following 9/11, some 25 Christians
were killed and dozens more injured in a string of church bombings by Islamic
To find out if this clash of cultures was actually
happening, I contacted Christian and Muslim leaders in places where relations
between the two faiths were already strained: Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt,
Indonesia, Lebanon, and Palestine. I have been in regular conversation
with Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman of the Latin Rite Catholic Church
in Baghdad. I’ve also consulted with people who track anti-Christian persecution
from both Rome and Washington.
So far, there simply is no anti-Christian backlash.
In many places, observers say that Muslim/Christian
ties have never been so strong, as followers of both religions make common
cause against what they see as an American, rather than a Christian, war.
All sources concur that a principal factor has been the strong anti-war
line of John Paul II, which has received extensive coverage in the Arab
press and praise from Islamic leaders.
There are other factors. Pre-existing Muslim-Christian
dialogues have helped keep the peace. Other Christian leaders, including
the local Catholic hierarchy in most places, have also spoken against the
war. Several of the nations in the frontline of opposition, such as France
and Germany, are historically Christian, undercutting the notion of a Christian
crusade. Moreover, many Muslims are not sympathetic to Saddam Hussein.
Yet most observers believe John Paul’s role has
been decisive. Muslim leader Mohammad Sammak, who lives in Beirut, told
me that the pope’s statements on the war are being translated into Arabic
there and are proclaimed from the mosques during Friday prayers.
“Our relations with Christians have never been
so cordial,” Sammak said.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the
Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, told me March 31 that
during a recent trip to Egypt he appeared on television with Sheik Zafzaf,
deputy rector of the prestigious Islamic University Al-Azhar, who publicly
thanked the pope for his efforts for peace.
I had lunch with Fr. Justo Lacunza Balda, president
of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, on Wednesday,
April 2, who told me that he believes the war will forge deeper Christian/Muslim
ties. Leaders of both traditions see themselves as allies in support of
an international order based on peace and multilateralism (i.e., opposition
to American domination). The pope, he said, has so far managed to wrest
control of religious language away from both Islamic extremists and Christian
supporters of the war.
I’ve reported before, based on conversations with
senior Vatican diplomats, that the Holy See realized early on that its
interventions would probably not stop the war. They kept up the pressure,
however, because President George Bush was not their only interlocutor.
They were also speaking to the Islamic street, trying to minimize the harm
a war might cause.
In that sense, early evidence suggests the Vatican’s
strategy is working. How long that holds up is another matter, and Vatican
diplomats once again are realistic.
“This war was said to last either six days, or
six weeks, or six months,” Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s
permanent observer at the United Nations, told NCR. “It’s already
more than six days, and six weeks doesn’t seem enough,” Migliore said.
“As the war goes on, it won’t fail to show its
* * *
Tensions within the anti-war consensus in the
Catholic Church are ever more apparent.
One of the more curious modes of protest to date
occurred on Friday, March 28, when 26-year-old Austrian Andreas Siebenhoer
took off from the Villa Pamphili park in a contraption with a parachute
and a small blower to keep it aloft. He sailed across the skies of Rome
for 15 minutes, landing at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.
Siebenhoer wanted to deliver a petition to John
Paul II with more than 2,000 signatures supporting his position on the
He’s part of a group of eight young Austrians
and Germans who have been making flights for peace across Europe, accompanied
by a 73-year-old Franciscan named Fr. Pascal Shou. In the case of the drop-in
at the Vatican, however, Siebenhoer acted on his own.
Siebenhoer was taken into custody, then released
when it was obvious he was harmless. The real question seemed how somebody
could fly into St. Peter’s without any counter-measures. Italian police
suggested that Siebenhoer went airborne during a helicopter shift change.
Siebenhoer’s group, by the way, had spent the
previous night at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine monastery on the Aventine
hill. I had the pleasure of breaking the news to the abbot primate, Fr.
Nokter Wolf, at a conference the next morning. Wolf, let it be recorded,
had been out of town and was unaware of the group’s presence.
(Wolf is known for his sense of humor. At the
Saturday conference, he quipped that the Benedictines are more like a disorder
than an order).
Privately, some Catholic observers pointed to
the overflight episode as illustrating the potential excesses of the peace
movement, and the need for the church to keep its distance.
On a similar note, the secretary general of the
Italian bishops’ conference, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, has suggested that
Catholic churches should not display the rainbow-colored peace flag that
has become the symbol of the anti-war movement in Italy.
“The crucifix,” he said, “is already a fine symbol
Betori stressed avoiding “the ideological appropriation
of peace.” It seemed a way of distancing the church from efforts by the
Italian left to use the war to beat up on the center-right government of
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Betori’s advice was welcomed by some Italian pastors
and eschewed by others. Fr. Francesco Bossi in Lodi, for example, insisted
that the church must take a stand.
“For 2,000 years we’ve been repeating ‘I leave
you peace, my peace I give you,’” he said, referring to a saying of Jesus
repeated in the Mass. “Yet it doesn’t seem to me we’ve done much in particular.”
John Paul has not weighed in on the flag issue,
though we perhaps got a glimpse of his attitude at the end of the general
audience on Wednesday, April 2. As is his custom, the pope was greeted
by a number of people and groups at the end of the audience, among them
some Italian students preparing for careers in the hotel business. They
brought the pope a huge cake, which he received with a smile. It was decorated
in the rainbow colors of the peace flag, with a big dove made of white
glaze in the middle.
* * *
Americans often ask how the Vatican sees the United
States, especially in the wake of the sex abuse crisis and now the war.
One such view was on offer last Thursday, March
27, from Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American himself and head of the
Pontifical Council for Laity. The occasion was the presentation of a book
by Guzmán Carriquiry, Stafford’s under-secretary, entitled A
Wager for Latin America. In it, Carriquiry argues for the creation
of a “United States of Latin America” as a counter-weight to the United
States of (North) America.
Reflecting on the book, Stafford noted that in
1884, at the conclusion of their third plenary council in Baltimore, the
U.S. bishops declared: “We retain that the heroes of our country were instruments
of God when they created this dwelling place of liberty.”
Is the United States really, Stafford asked, a
“dwelling place of liberty?”
Catholic opinion, Stafford noted, is divided.
Optimists such as George Weigel, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus
assert congruity between the founding ideals of the United States and the
Catholic vision of society and the human person. Less sanguine observers,
such as David Schindler and the theologians associated with Communio,
have their doubts. Stafford said that both he and Carriquiry incline to
the second view.
Stafford contrasted a famous Latin American image,
Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a famous North American image, the Statue of
Liberty. These two icons, he argued, embody different conceptions of human
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Stafford said, is based
on a real person’s experience, that of the Indian peasant Juan Diego, who
responded freely to the love of God expressed by Mary. Hence the image
reflects the Catholic understanding that true liberty means “taking delight
in what is right,” freely choosing to orient oneself to God’s truth in
a spirit of thanksgiving.
The Statue of Liberty, created by the French sculptor
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, depicts an abstraction derived
from the European Enlightenment, Stafford said. It exalts the absolute
autonomy of the individual. Stafford observed that the woman of the statue
is holding a book, but said it is not a book of the natural law founded
on eternal truths, but a book of procedural law based on American liberalism.
In short, Stafford believes that mainstream American
culture fosters an understanding of freedom that places autonomy before
truth. In that sense, Stafford seemed to suggest, to be Catholic in the
United States is to be counter-cultural.
* * *
Sharing the platform with Stafford was Cardinal
Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who despite his youth (60) is widely
considered a leading papabile, or candidate to be the next pope.
Even though he delivered a by now familiar “stump speech” about Latin America
as the continent of hope, Rodriguez was nevertheless impressive.
Rodriguez noted that CELAM, the association of
bishops’ conferences in Latin America, is preparing for a long-awaited
general assembly. (The last took place in Santo Domingo in 1992. The new
assembly is expected in 2005, which will be the 50th anniversary
of the foundation of CELAM). He said Carriquiry’s book would make an excellent
laboris, or working paper.
Rodriguez called for a “new culture of solidarity”
that would link the entire American continent. He proposed more equitable
trading relationships, including an end to protectionism and subsidies
that disadvantage developing nations.
“It’s not enough to reason about poverty, we have
to understand its profundity,” Rodriguez said. “The real weapons of mass
destruction have been in action for years in the form of poverty and social
The night before, Rodriguez spoke at the Argentinean
embassy to the Holy See. He was critical of the Iraq war.
“We begin a century that should be one of hope
with this theory of preventive war, which is a return to the jungle,” he
* * *
A fascinating March 27-29 conference on China
took place at Rome’s Urbaniana University, which is sponsored by the Vatican’s
missionary agency, Propaganda Fidei. Ostensibly the topic was China from
1840 to 1911, but the discussion had obvious relevance for the relationship
between China and the Catholic Church today.
Several papers chronicled the suffering of the
Chinese in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with
two Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and the Boxer Rebellion. All were
either instigated by, or reactions against, the domination of China by
European (and later, American) powers.
In the popular Chinese mind, Christian missionaries
were tightly identified with the colonialists. Despite heroes such as Matteo
Rici, too often missionaries conformed to the stereotype.
For example, Italian scholar Gianni La Bella presented
a fascinating paper in which he quoted from a deathbed report by Italian
missionary Fr. Barnaba da Cologna in 1911. Among other things, Fr. Barnaba
complained that many missionaries, especially the French and Germans, beat
Chinese Christians with canes. The people do not rebel because they are
afraid, but they “hate the necessity of being Christian,” Fr. Barnaba wrote.
Some missionaries carried guns, he said, still others were involved in
Such memories, however partial and exaggerated,
help explain the reaction of the Chinese government in 2000 when John Paul
II canonized 120 martyrs, many of them missionaries killed in the Boxer
Rebellion. The government claimed the pope was exalting imperialists, and
the impasse slowed progress towards diplomatic relations.
The Vatican currently recognizes Taiwan as “China,”
though Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano famously said in 1999
that the Vatican would move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing “not tomorrow,
but tonight” if the mainland would agree.
Why don’t the Chinese take up the offer? I recently
talked about it over lunch with Raymond Tai, Taiwan’s ambassador to the
China has imposed two conditions: first, the Vatican
must break its relations with Taiwan; second, it must agree to government
oversight of the internal life of the Catholic Church.
For obvious reasons, Tai sees the first condition
as unfair, noting that the Chinese did not demand that the United States
break relations with Taiwan before opening diplomatic ties.
For the Vatican, however, the second condition
is most problematic. While the Vatican would probably be willing to make
concessions on issues such as the appointment of bishops, Tai said, it
cannot simply turn over the running of the church to the Patriotic Association.
Meanwhile China cannot grant religious freedom to the Catholic Church,
Tai believes, without facing pressure to do the same for Tibetan Buddhists,
the Falun Gong, and other religious movements. Thus for the moment things
In a paper delivered in the Netherlands in 2002,
Tai quoted from a conversation he had with John Paul II, in which he proposed
joint efforts to promote freedom in mainland China. “Our common desire!
Our common desire!” the pope responded. “It is our common desire.”
* * *
Great entertainers could make a telephone book
seem funny, or moving, by force of their charisma. Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft
is such a figure, and in late March he made two hours of discussion about
an obscure Assyrian liturgical agreement seem riveting.
A sample. At one point my colleague Robert Blair
Kaiser asked Taft if his paper could be used to support a “radical” conclusion,
i.e., that Catholic communities can pick their own ministers without respect
to the ordained priesthood.
“You’re not going to find any radical theology
in here. My orthodoxy’s so high it’ll give you a nosebleed,” he thundered.
“It’s traditional theology, but from someone who knows the whole
tradition, not just the day before yesterday’s popular tradition.”
Taft’s subject was an October 26, 2001, agreement
on the Eucharist between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of
the East. I interviewed Taft when the ruling first appeared: http://www.natcath.com
The agreement provides for inter-communion between
the Assyrian Church of the East and its parallel Eastern rite Catholic
church, the Chaldean Catholic Church. In so doing, the Vatican accepted
the Eucharistic prayer used by the Assyrians, called the Anaphora of Addai
and Mari, even though it does not contain an “institution narrative.” These
are the words of Christ at the Last Supper: “Take this, all of you, and
eat it,” etc.
Taft calls the agreement “the most remarkable
Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II.” He believes that by treating
consecration as something accomplished by the entire liturgical prayer,
and not by an isolated set of “magic words,” the Vatican has repudiated
a quasi-mechanistic understanding that “seriously warped popular Catholic
understanding of the Eucharist.”
A striking part of Taft’s presentation was his
description of what he calls “ecumenical scholarship” — a “way of studying
Christian tradition in order to reconcile and unite, rather than to confute
and dominate.” Taft unfolded this vision at Rome’s Centre Pro Unione, the
very spot where ecumenical observers at Vatican II met.
* * *
One of the wonderful things about Rome is that
many of the finest minds in the Catholic Church are at your fingertips.
In the same week that Taft lectured, for example, another great Jesuit
scholar, Australian theologian Fr. Gerry O’Collins, spoke after the 10:30
a.m. Sunday Mass at Santa Susanna on the resurrection.
O’Collins rebutted attempts to “explain away”
the resurrection, either by treating it as symbolic language in which the
apostles were really talking about their own faith, or as a form of psychological
projection similar to what bereaved people experience when they “see” or
“hear” loved ones again.
“Easter faith allows us to walk in new ways and
sing new songs,” O’Collins said. “Easter is the wonderful morning after
the terrible night of the crucifixion.”
Few people, I suspect, offer a better model of
“Easter living” than O’Collins, whose good humor and generosity suggest
someone who has indeed glimpsed the life that lies beyond death.
* * *
An unusual ecumenical delegation will be in Rome
April 5-9. Catholic Archbishop William Levada, Episcopalian Bishop W. Swing,
and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony, all of San Francisco, are traveling
together across Europe. They are meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury,
the pope, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, and visiting various pilgrimage
In a press release, they identify their aims as
(1) To pray together at the spiritual home of
each of the three religious traditions and express the hope each leader
holds for the day when all will share full Christian unity;
(2) To witness to the close bond of friendship
that has developed over the past decades between the Roman Catholic, Greek
Orthodox and Anglican bishops in San Francisco;
(3) To build on the growing sense of unity whereby
social issues have been addressed in common and prayer services have been
held that included all constituencies;
(4) To demonstrate an earnest desire to become
more knowledgeable and appreciative of each other’s faith traditions;
(5) To underscore the promise of hope in an often
fractured and divided world that there are religious communities reaching
out to one another;
(6) To offer our prayers for lasting peace in
the face of war, terrorism and violence.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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