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May 5, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 35

John L. Allen Jr.


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Catholic approaches to Islam: hawks and doves; Faith, morals and economics; The Vatican and China; More on Mass translations


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Every era of church history seems to present its own mega-question. In the period following the Second World War, the deep question facing Catholicism was the confrontation with Soviet Communism, with the two basic options being confrontation or Ostpolitik.

Tension between those two options looms again today, but with a different interlocutor: Islam. Once again, the fault lines run between dialogue and confrontation, between those who see a gradual opening on the other side leading to peaceful co-existence, and those who see an almost inevitable confrontation between opposed systems of thought and practice.

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney recently summed up the point by saying, "The challenge of Islam will be with us for the remainder of our lives -- at least."

The question is, what would a coherent Catholic approach to Islam look like?

Some believe key components should include outreach to moderates, a critical examination of conscience by the West for the various ways its past and present have stoked Muslim resentment, and a determined effort to solve the roots of anti-Western sentiment today. The premise of this approach is that the tensions between the Muslim world and the West often only appear to be religious and cultural; at bottom they are usually political and economic.

Others believe this approach is naïve. Ultimately, they say, the most determined Muslim leaders believe that Islam is destined for global supremacy, which means that Islam is not really interested in making its way in a pluralistic world. For those who take this view, only a determined reassertion by the West of its traditional Christian identity will have the inner strength to resist the pressure. From this point of view, politics and economics are secondary to the real forces of history, which are intellectual and cultural.

To employ a typically reductionist journalistic formula, we might call this the difference between the doves and the hawks.

Recent weeks have offered classic illustrations of both views.

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Had I not been at the Sant'Egidio event at Georgetown last week, I would have been in Vienna, Austria, where Cardinal Christoph Schönborn hosted a gathering of American and European intellectuals to discuss the challenge posed by George Weigel in his book The Cathedral and the Cube, where Weigel expresses a rather dim view about the cultural prospects for contemporary Europe.

The subject of the Vienna summit was not Islam, but Europe, and especially the destiny of its Christian heritage. Yet one cannot raise that question in today's Europe without taking into account the growing Islamic presence, a culture-shaping force if ever there was one.

While the speakers in Vienna differed on the extent to which contemporary Europe is adrift, most shared the sense that a determined reassertion of the traditional cultural and religious identity of the West is a priority.

Weigel opened the summit by pointing to John Paul's 1979 trip to Poland as a decisive moment in the events which led to the collapse of the Soviet system, arguing that those nine days were, like the guns of August in 1914, "a pivot on which the history of the 20th century turned."

One would have thought, Weigel suggested, the West would have realized, on the strength of this experience, that its Christian and spiritual roots are the bedrock of its political and cultural resources. It was the hunger for those resources which fueled the anti-Soviet uprising.

Alas, he said, the Vienna summit assembled precisely because such does not appear to be the case.

"The West has not learned the lesson it should have learned," Weigel said.

"That failure is one expression of what I have called Europe's 'crisis of civilizational morale;' the sources of that crisis are, fundamentally, in the order of ideas -- metaphysical nihilism and its offspring, epistemological skepticism, moral relativism; these corrosive ideas have had, and will continue to have, profound consequences for the democratic project throughout the Western world, and, indeed, for the very future of the West."

Weigel offered two bits of evidence for this diagnosis.

First, he noted that no country in the European Union today has a birth rate above replacement level, a phenomenon he calls "demographic suicide." Second, Weigel points to the refusal of the EU to even acknowledge God in the preamble to its constitutional tractate, which, following Joseph Weiler, Weigel argues reflects a "'Christophobia' in European high culture, which aims at nothing less than a European public space shorn of religiously-informed moral argument."

Thus Weigel's bottom line: pragmatic or utilitarian defenses of democracy, human rights, and political and economic liberty aren't enough.

"This is the thinnest of intellectual and cultural foundations on which to build a democratic political experiment -- particularly at a moment in time when an assertive alternative culture is making its own claims about the European future, and buttressing those claims with the thickest of warrants, the warrant of the will of God," he said, making a clear reference to the Islamic challenge.

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Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian Senate and also professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa, who co-authored a book on Europe with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Without Roots, 2004), argued that what Europe needs is a "Christian civil religion."

By that, Pera meant something like C.S. Lewis' "mere Christianity," a statement of the essentials of Christian belief that can be shared across denominational lines. Such a bundle of convictions, Pera argued, represent the unspoken premises upon which European institutions are based, and apart from which they make little sense.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of Pera's argument is that although non-believers in Europe ought to recognize that ultimately the freedoms and democratic institutions they cherish make no sense without Christianity, there's a price to be paid in all this by the churches as well.

What Pera means is that church leaders need to stand and fight on principle, for the core values Christianity embodies, rather than accept a public silence about those values for the sake of securing the church's institutional interests. Without saying so, Pera was taking issue with several Vatican diplomats and senior European church leaders who took the position that an explicit reference to God in the preamble to the European constitution really wasn't that important as long as Article 52 ensured that the concordats signed with various European states would be respected under European law, and that the other institutional prerogatives of the church will be respected.

"To speak crudely," Pera said, "it seems that many thought that a Mass in Brussels was not worth the advantages gained in Rome or Berlin or Vienna."

This implies, Pera said, a robust defense of the roots of Western culture.

"When dealing with domestic policies relating to the integration of immigrants it is necessary to safeguard our own identity," he said. "To speak only of the rights of minorities and to ignore the rights of the majority is a serious mistake. Multiculturalism is a weak doctrine and a wrong policy, which has already produced ghettos and social tensions in Europe."

"It must be borne in mind that 'tolerance', 'dialogue', 'equality', and similar, are empty words, and ultimately words of surrender, if we abandon our identity," Pera said. "Terrorists say they are attacking us because we are 'Jews and Christians'. Indeed, we are, and we should not deny it, conceal it or be ashamed of it. Quite the contrary. We should reject the blackmailing argument according to which affirming our own identity amounts to be arrogant vis-à-vis other people's identity. The opposite is true: to assert our identity is the first step, the pre-requisite, for acknowledging the identity of others and for engaging in a real dialogue with them."

That, in a nutshell, is the hawk argument.

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Participants in the Vienna summit said Pera's presentation generated lively debate, especially among Americans who thought he was talking about a kind of "civil religion" along the lines of Rosseau. The concern is that if what results from Pera's proposal is a Christianity of mere civic virtue, shorn of doctrinal content, it would be an impoverishment. Pera tried to explain that he's not talking about a neutered Christianity, but an affirmation of Europe's Christian heritage to which even non-believers such as himself can subscribe.

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The dove argument with regard to Islam recently found expression in testimony delivered before the House International Relations Committee by Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Florida, chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Policy. Wenski had been invited to testify on the subject of religious freedom in majority Islamic states, but used the occasion to sketch out a comprehensive policy with respect to engaging the Islamic world.

First, Wenski urged the House committee to "avoid an overly simplistic view that argues that there is a fundamental clash of cultures between all of Christianity and all of Islam." In addition, Wenski said that all religions struggle with tolerance, including Christianity, pointing to John Paul's Jubilee apology for "intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth."

Wenski also said the history of colonialism is partly responsible for anti-Western resentments among Muslims, as well as relentless secularizing pressures from the Western nations.

"These conflicts can lead some in the Islamic world to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that their culture and religious beliefs are under assault by outsiders or the West as a whole," he said.

Wenski also urged that problems with religious freedom in some Islamic countries not be generalized.

"The example of countries with Muslim majorities that better respect the rights, practices and principles of religious freedom should be acknowledged and held up as models," he said.

Wenski then laid out a five-point "program" for approaching the difficulties in the relationship between Islam and the West.

  • First, he said, "Our nation must promote equitable economic opportunity, equal participation in political decision-making, and respect for local cultures."
  • Second, we must "promote religious respect and cultural civility, especially in the media," in response to perceptions that Western media are often heavily secularized and disdainful of serious religious belief. Wenski made specific reference to the recent controversy over cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish journal.
  • Third, "The struggle against terrorism must be conducted principally with non-military means and with the just and discriminate use of force only when absolutely necessary," Wenski said. "Tragically, the abuse and humiliation of prisoners and detainees in U.S. custody has reinforced negative perceptions of the struggle against terrorism in Islamic countries," he said.
  • Fourth, the West should "support in appropriate ways those courageous religious leaders who seek to correct the distortions and abuse of religion by militants and extremists."
  • Fifth, "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its resulting occupation of Palestinian lands, the current occupation of Iraq by U.S. troops, and the continuing presence of the U.S. military in a number of Muslim countries contribute to some Muslim suspicions and hostility toward our nation and its Christian majority, and sometimes spills over into prejudices and distrust of indigenous Christians in Muslim nations."

In short, Wenski argued that whatever tensions exist between Islam and the West are not entirely the fault of Islamic radicalism, and that if the West wants better relations with Muslims, it has to be willing to meet them halfway.

No doubt neither Wenski nor Pera is so unsubtle a thinker as to believe there's no truth whatsoever in either the dove or the hawk view. Both men would no doubt agree that a comprehensive Catholic approach to Islam must include elements of both.

Nevertheless, at the level of emphasis, it's clear that different constituencies in the church size up the priorities differently. To date, Benedict XVI seems to lean to Pera in terms of his own language; it will be fascinating to watch this develop over the next few months of his pontificate.

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One footnote from the Vienna gathering. Opus Dei Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, widely recognized as a provocative and unpredictable thinker, argued for a kind of "Christian secularity," by which he meant the capacity of Christians to recognize democratic institutions as legitimate and accept their outcomes even when they contradict Christian religious convictions.

Paradoxically, Rhonheimer said this act of humility actually facilitates a Christian "superiority complex," in the sense that once the secular world accepts the universality of human dignity and the bundle of absolute human rights it implies, it will sooner or later discover that the Christian gospel provides the strongest cognitive basis for explaining and defending those rights.

As part of this discussion, Rhonheimer got tongues wagging by suggesting that American Catholics have made a mistake by exalting the abortion issue above virtually everything else, neglecting other important human and social rights issues. As one participant later said, it sounded reminiscent of the "seamless garment" argument once made by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

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The Acton Institute, a U.S.-based Catholic think tank that promotes reflection on the market and politics, is sponsoring a series of conferences in 2006-2007 marking the 15th anniversary of Pope John Paul's social encyclical Centesimus Annus. On May 4, a conference in Rome brought together José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain; Mart Laar, the former Prime Minister of Estonia; Bishop Rino Fisichella, the rector of the Lateran University; and Pera.

The topic was "Centesimus Annus and the Future of Europe," hosted by Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute.

Aznar is a conservative who led Spain into the Iraq war alongside the United States, against overwhelming opposition. Speaking in English, he argued that it's a mistake to speak of the "collapse" or the "fall" of Communism. Instead, he said, one should speak of "the defeat of communism, or the victory of the free world." In that context, Aznar praised former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as Pope John Paul II.

Aznar asserted that "individualism" and "collectivism" are "antagonistic moral principles," and that Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which launched the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching, anticipated the failure of Soviet-style collectivism 26 years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

Through its focus on human dignity, Aznar argued, Centesimus Annus contains important resources for a moral defense of capitalism and the free market, a task he called "as essential today as ever." He warned that conceiving of Europe in merely technical categories, without this moral underlay, is a mistake.

Laar, a conservative who led Estonia in the immediate post-Soviet period, said that post-Soviet states generally chose one of two options for managing the transition to a market economy -- both of which, he said, have been failures. The first was the construction of a generous social welfare state, the second a form of "shock therapy" into unfettered capitalism.

In fact, Laar argued, the essential thing was to "wake people up," to break 70 years of dependency and submissiveness to the state, and to convince people that they are moral agents capable of making decisions on their own. Practically, he said, that meant providing social guarantees for poverty and unemployment, but making them conditional on training for new employment or launching new businesses.

That strategy, he said, coincided with the moral and social vision of Centesimus Annus, with its emphasis on the dignity of the individual and the right to participate in economic activity. In practice, he said, it's worked, since Estonia is outperforming most of its former Soviet satellite peers.

Laar also argued that Europe must apply the same lesson about human dignity and the right to participate to questions of global economic policy, strongly attacking protectionist European policies to effectively bar the agricultural produce of developing nations from European markets.

"This is killing any possibility for the developing world to get out of their situation by their own work," he said. "It's absolutely immoral -- an absurd situation."

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As fate would have it, there was time for only one question, but it was a good one. A member of the audience asked Aznar for his thoughts on the current Socialist government in Spain under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

He didn't mince words.

"I'm not sure in this moment if our country will exist in the future," Aznar said. "Catalonia is now recognized by the parliament as a new nation. So is Andalucia, so are the Basque countries. This government negotiates with terrorists. There is a kind of relativism … the family is not important, values are not important, principle does not exist."

Aznar said all this makes the current moment "a good time for politicians in Spain to combat these ideas." He asserted that the Socialists want a "laicized society which is against the church and Christian principles."

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In the on-again, off-again saga of Sino-Vatican relations, this week saw another setback. Lui Xinhong was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Anhui without the authorization of the Holy See, a break with what has become customary practice by the Chinese government of not naming bishops the Vatican has not cleared.

The consecration came on the heels of a similar event last week, and 20 more reportedly scheduled for the near future by the Patriotic Association, the government-sponsored agency that has traditionally controlled the church in China. Its aim has been a nationalist Chinese Catholic church independent of Rome.

In an unusually sharp statement, the Vatican called the consecration a "grave wound to the unity of the Church," adding, "for which severe canonical sanctions … are foreseen." The latter is an indirect way of saying that episcopal consecrations without the permission of the pope constitute a schismatic act, which leaves those involved, in effect, excommunicated.

Despite the episode, senior Vatican officials have signaled that they will continue to push for improved relations with Beijing. I was recently asked by the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal to pen an op/ed piece explaining why the Vatican is so keen for ties with mainland China. The piece appears below.

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Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, famously said in 1999 that his boss would move the Vatican embassy from Taiwan to the mainland "not tomorrow morning, but tonight," if only the Beijing government would negotiate.

Such eagerness may seem counterintuitive for a historically European institution whose members in China number less than one percent of the total population of 1.3 billion, especially given the church's tradition of ferocious anti-communism. Given the Vatican's perceived interests, however, playing the "China card" makes all the sense in the world.

The pope's foremost concern is to defend the basic human rights of the estimated 13 million Catholics on the mainland. This isn't a negligible issue. While antireligious persecution today is nowhere near as severe as in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution -- when all religions were persecuted, not just Catholics -- believers who don't worship through state-approved organizations do so at their peril. The Cardinal Kung Foundation, an activist group, estimates that there are seven Catholic bishops in China currently in prison, 10 under house arrest and one in hiding -- not to mention 23 priests either in jails or forced labor camps. To put this into perspective, official Chinese statistics put the total number of Catholic bishops in the country at 69, with some 5,000 priests, though perhaps as many as 40 "underground" bishops are not counted in those numbers.

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Recognizing China's official Catholic church would also heal the schism between official and unofficial worshipers on the mainland. In China, the split is government-created: Beijing exerts tight government control over the church through its Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a Communist Party-controlled agency that vets clergy, church construction, public activities, and other aspects of religious life. But there's also an unofficial, "underground" church, known as the "church of the catacombs," that recognizes the Vatican's authority.

The Vatican abhors such formal ruptures, which create the possibility of schism like the Protestant Reformation. So in China, the Vatican has quietly worked to heal the divisions. On background, Vatican officials have told me and other reporters that more than three-quarters of the bishops in today's "official" church have been recognized by the pope.

That understanding, however, remains dependent on the goodwill of those in power in Beijing. The Vatican believes that formal diplomatic relations, with a promise of religious freedom, would end the era of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association altogether, thus erasing the distinction between the official church and that of the catacombs. In so doing, the church in China would finally be unified, with the infrastructure and administrative capacity to absorb future growth. Beijing remains wary of such a move, conscious of what happened in Eastern Europe, where the Catholic church bolstered opposition forces to the Communists and ultimately helped bring down the Soviet-backed regimes.

There's also a host of practical reasons why the Holy See wants to make up with the China's Communists. The Vatican sees China as the next, and perhaps the last, great missionary frontier for Catholicism. Given the erosion of traditional Catholic cultures in Europe and North America, an Asian country with more than a billion people, with a deep hunger for moral and spiritual values as the old Communist ideology crumbles, and without any established national religion, appeals strongly. Asia's other emerging superpower, India, will never offer as many potential converts, given the tight identification there between national identity and Hinduism. Behind closed doors in Rome, missionary orders and lay movements have been meeting for years, laying plans for expansion in China if and when the government relents.

That leaves the sticky issue of Taiwan, which China claims as its own -- and which the Vatican currently recognizes as an independent state. John Paul II repeatedly vowed that the church "will not abandon" its roughly 310,000 worshippers in Taiwan, regardless of where its embassy to China is located. The fact that the pope has not appointed a full ambassador to Taiwan since 1979 -- sending a charges d'affaires instead -- is a clear signal that the Vatican is already preparing for the transition.

Ultimately, history will judge whether the Vatican's China policy is forward-looking or feckless. If China can be persuaded to enter into diplomatic relations with the Holy See, or so the theory goes, it will have to make concessions on religious freedom, which will eventually mean that Chinese Catholics can worship more freely, travel more easily, construct churches more readily, and generally practice their faith without intimidation. Seen from within a Catholic worldview, it is little wonder that once again, as in Ricci's era, Beijing is in the church's prayers.

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Four weeks ago, I carried a summary of Bishop Donald Trautman's critique of the proposed new translation of the Order of the Mass, along with a defense by Fr. Bruce Harbert, executive director of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, the body responsible for that translation. Among other points, Harbert expressed doubt about whether the phrase "active participation" best expresses the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for model liturgical practice.

That comment brought a response from Fr. Virgil Funk, the president emeritus of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in the United States. His response follows:

"It's a little unnerving that the gatekeeper for [Latin-English] language translation seems anxious to abandon the pedigree of participatio in English translation. From when it first appeared in Tra le Solecitudine down to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the II Vatican Council, participatio's meaning was accumulated. The fact that altar boys answered Et cum spiritu tuo rather than the assembly, that few people participated in communion, and that the gospel was read in Latin to the wall, these are but three examples of the assembly not "participating in" the liturgy. While they may have been "involved" and "drawn in" to the liturgy by reading the translations in their missals and making "spiritual" communions, the leaders of the liturgical movement, starting with Pius X and ending with Paul VI desired that the assembly "participate" in the liturgy. There is no mistake about its meaning in 1960. Clearly, Harbert wishes to place emphasis on the role of the Spirit in initiating the act of worship, rather than a Pelagian self-starting celebration by the initiative of the assembly. I applaud him for this effort. But, active participation has a historical pedigree worth keeping.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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