One of the Catholic Church’s most controversial figures inflamed public debate in Italy with a typically off-handed comment — and inadvertently exposed the Vatican ‘s problems in crafting a coherent, comprehensive response to Islamic imperialism.
Cardinal Renato Martino — the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Vatican ‘s former ambassador to the United Nations — said that the Italian government should allow the Koran to be taught during the hour mandated for Catholic religious instruction.
“If there are 100 Muslim children in a school, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be taught their religion,” Martino said in a press conference March 9. “If we said ‘no’ until we saw equivalent treatment for the Christian minorities in Muslim countries, I would say that we were placing ourselves on their level.”
Two days before Martino’s press conference, the president of Italy ‘s largest Muslim group — the Community of Islamic Organizations in Italy , which controls that country’s mosques and has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood — asked the government to substitute Muslim instruction for Catholic instruction where appropriate.
That president, Mohammed Nour Dachan, also refused to sign a document in which Muslims pledged to accept Italy ‘s constitution, denounce terrorism and recognize Israel ‘s right to exist. His organization demands Islamic schools, Islamic banks and clerical supervision of textbooks.
“The impression was the Cardinal Martino, in the name of ‘dialogue,’ was uncritically accepting Nour Dachan’s request for a separate place for Islam in Italy ,” wrote Sandro Magister, who has covered the Vatican for more than 25 years for the Milan magazine, L’Espresso.
Enhancing the controversy are remarks Pope Benedict XVI made while greeting Morocco ‘s new ambassador to the Vatican on Feb. 20. During the audience, the pope advocated religious freedom “in a reciprocal manner in all societies,” a reference to oppressed Christian minorities in Muslim nations.
Martino was so embarrassed that he had to appear on Vatican Radio on March 10 to control the damage. On March 13, the Paris daily Le Figaro quoted Martino as saying that his off-hand proposal was a “sign of respect” toward Islam that would encourage Muslim nations to relieve persecution of Christian minorities.
Nevertheless, the Italian bishops’ conference continued its campaign. On March 16, Avvenire published an overview of European religious education by Carlo Cardia, a non-Catholic professor of ecclesiastical law and a consultant for a major left-wing party. Cardia concluded thus:
“At a moment when Islamic fundamentalism constitutes a concrete reality in many countries from which immigration comes into Europe, it would be a mistake not to take note of the risk that a hasty legitimization in the sensitive channels of the schools could let in subjects capable of transmitting other messages, creating ambiguous connections, and placing at risk values that are fundamental for civil life.
“These are some of the obstacles that make an organic presence of Islam in the Italian schools unfeasible and not worthy of entertaining.”
On March 20 Cardinal Camilio Ruini, papal vicar for the Archdiocese of Rome, addressed the conference’s spring session:
In particular, (it is necessary) that there not be any conflict in the content with respect to our constitution, for example with regard to civil rights, from religious freedom to the equality between man and woman to marriage. Concretely, until now there has been no representative body for Islam that would be capable of establishing such an accord with the Italian state. Furthermore, we must assure ourselves that the teaching of the Islamic religion would not give rise to socially dangerous indoctrination.”
Pope John Paul II viewed Islam as a useful ally against Communism and secularism. Front Page Magazine’s “The Vatican ‘s Pro-Saddam Tilt?” also chronicled how the late pope sought to engage Islam to promote world peace through ecumenism, even at the expense of Christian minorities in Muslim nations. But Benedict XVI subtly announced a radical change from the outset.
At his installation Mass, the new pope welcomed fellow Catholics, other Christians and Jews in his greeting, but not Muslims. Later, two selected speakers delivered intercessory prayers for oppressed Christians. One prayer was in Arabic.
However, Benedict and his bishops must confront what French historian Alain Besancon called the “indulgent ecumenicism” that dominates the Christian response to Islam, whether through Martino’s superficial multiculturalism or through the wistful yearning for traditionalist transcendence that Besancon described in Commentary magazine:
“Contributing to the partiality toward Islam is an underlying dissatisfaction with modernity, and with our liberal, capitalist individualistic arrangements…. Alarmed by the ebbing of religious faith in the Christian West, and particularly in Europe , these writers cannot but admire Muslim devoutness…. Surely, they reason, it is better to believe in something than in nothing, and since these Muslims believe in something, they must believe in the same thing we do.”
Europe is not the only place where such indulgent ecumenism holds sway. Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former Archbishop of Boston, created controversy in November 2002 when he bowed toward Mecca and prayed to Allah in a suburban mosque during a Ramadan service. Afterward, he told the congregants:
“I feel very much at home with my fellow fundamentalists here, who are convinced that God must be at the center of our lives (Boston Globe, Nov. 25, 2002).”
Such sentimentality, however, ignores the irreconcilable differences between Christianity, Judaism and Islam that Besancon described in his Commentary article, “What Kind Of Religion is Islam?”
Though all three faiths are monotheistic, Islam rejects the doctrines of atonement and redemption that define Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, no concept of a covenant between God and humanity exists in Islam. Instead, Allah decrees his law “by means of a unilateral pact, in an act of sublime condescension (that) precludes any notion of imitating God as is urged in the Bible,” Besancon wrote.
Islam also rejects the Christian doctrines of original sin and the necessity of mediation between God and humanity. In the Koran, Jesus “appears… out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel ,” Besancon wrote.
Most importantly, Judeo-Christian and Muslim concepts of divinity revolve around one irreconcilable difference:
“Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian conception of God, is ‘Father’ – i.e., a personal god capable of a reciprocal and loving relation with men,” Besancon wrote. “The one God of the Koran, the God Who demands submission is a distant God; to call him ‘Father’ would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege.”
Even Benedict’s call for reciprocity fails to address adequately the totalitarian nature of Islamic societies, as the ordeal of Afghan convert Abdul Rahman and Algeria ‘s parliament illustrate.
On March 21, Algeria passed a law forbidding members of religions other than Islam to seek converts or to worship in public without a license. Violators would face imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of up to 10,000 Euros.
If Benedict wishes to develop an effective response to Islam, he must do more than demand reciprocity. He must forthrightly challenge the entrenched attitudes Catholic leaders have regarding Islam. He should start by publicly disciplining an obnoxious cardinal who can never resist a camera, a microphone or a notepad.