Skip to comments.For the Vatican, King Abdullah Matters More than 138 Muslim Scholars
Posted on 03/31/2008 8:36:59 AM PDT by Ippolita
For the Vatican, King Abdullah Matters More than 138 Muslim Scholars
This is made clear by "L'Osservatore Romano," which is dialoguing with the Saudi sovereign while criticism rages against the pope for baptizing a famous convert from Islam. Pietro De Marco's reply to Aref Ali Nayed
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, March 31, 2008 The accusations directed against Benedict XVI for baptizing a convert from Islam, Magdi Cristiano Allam, at the Easter vigil as reported in an article from www.chiesa three days ago has elicited two responses, direct and indirect, from the Holy See.
The Holy See expressed its point of view in a direct way in "L'Osservatore Romano" for March 25-26, with a note by the newspaper's director, Giovanni Maria Vian. And again with a statement on Vatican Radio, March 27, by its director, Fr Federico Lombardi.
But even more interesting are the indirect ways in which the Holy See rebutted the criticisms, during those same days.
The arena for these indirect responses was, once again, "L'Osservatore Romano."
On Thursday, March 27, the pope's newspaper dedicated an extensive article to the figure of Ramon Lull, a Franciscan who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries, a great expert on Arabic language and literature and an ardent promoter of a missionary preaching aimed at converting and baptizing Muslim populations in the Mediterranean countries dominated by Islam.
The title of the article signed by a specialist on the topic, Sara Muzzi was eloquent in its own right: "Raimondo Lullo e il dialogo tra le religioni. Se ti mostro la verità finirai con l'abbracciarla [Raymon Lull and dialogue among religions. If I show you the truth, you will end up embracing it]."
In effect, as shown also by his books, Lull struggled to promote a peaceful form of missionary preaching, entirely founded on understanding between the two faiths, on the power of conviction and on the rational argumentation of truth.
Two days later, on Saturday, March 29, "L'Osservatore Romano" dedicated two articles to two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.
The first promising sign concerns Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. On March 8 and 9, a meeting was held in Yogyakarta between Christian and Muslim representatives, with the presence of Buddhists and Hindus, on how the religions can work together in responding to the challenges posed by globalization. Moreover, during the period of Easter, in the capital of Jakarta 35 authoritative ulemas from as many Islamic schools launched an appeal that the instruction given to Muslim young men be carried out in a correct and respectful form, free from any justification of violence. The title of the article: "In Indonesia, efforts at dialogue between Christians and Muslims."
But "L'Osservatore Romano" gave greater emphasis, on the same page, to some of the recent events in Saudi Arabia, under the title: "The Saudi king for an encounter 'with our brothers in faith'. Abdullah, in the face of the crisis of ethical values, opens up to dialogue with Christians and Jews."
At the beginning of the article, the Vatican newspaper quoted Abdullah:
"I have had an idea that has obsessed me for two years. The world is suffering, and this crisis has caused an imbalance in religion, in ethics, and in all of humanity. [...] We have lost faith in religion and respect for humanity. The disintegration of the family and the widespread atheism in the world are frightening phenomena that all of the religions must take into account and overcome. [...] For this reason, I have thought of inviting religious authorities to express their views of what is happening in the world, and, God willing, we will begin to organize meetings to with our brothers who belong to the monotheistic religions, among representatives of believers in the Qur'an, the Gospel, and the Bible."
The Vatican newspaper added that the proposal of King Abdullah has met with the agreement of the leading Muslim scholars of the kingdom.
But the most interesting highlights added by "L'Osservatore Romano" are two others.
The first concerns the date of the statement made by Abdallah: March 24, which for Christians was Easter Monday.
This is to say: precisely while the accusations were erupting against Benedict XVI over Allam's baptism, the Saudi king not only ignored the accusations, but he expressed himself in diametrically opposite tones.
The second highlight presented by the pope's newspaper is the following passage:
"Intercultural and interreligious dialogue; collaboration among Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace. These are the topics that, on November 6, 2007, were at the center of the meeting in the Vatican between Benedict XVI and Abdullah, who was received in audience with his entourage. During the historic meeting it was the first visit of a Saudi sovereign to the pope mention was also made of the positive presence of the Christian community in the country (representing about 3 percent of an almost entirely Muslim population). Several days ago, the government of Riyadh decided to begin refresher courses for forty thousand imams, in the attempt to foster a more moderate interpretation of Islam and to discourage the extremists."
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.
As for Benedict XVI, it is increasingly evident that both his lecture in Regensburg and his decision to baptize a convert from Islam at the Easter vigil in St. Peter's are not gestures of rupture, but, on the contrary, are precisely that which makes intelligible and unequivocal for Muslims just as for Christians his desire for dialogue, expressed for example in his silent prayer at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and in his warm encounter with the king of Saudi Arabia.
Returning to the criticisms of the pope over the baptism of Allam both on the part of Catholics, and on the part of Muslim scholar Aref Ali Nayed here follows a methodical reply to both, written for www.chiesa by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy:
Twofold response: to the Catholics, and to Aref Ali Nayed
by Pietro De Marco
I. To read some of the reactions to the baptism of Magdi Cristiano Allam, administered by the pope during the Easter vigil in the basilica of St. Peter's for example, when it is maintained that "baptism should be a private act" one gets the impression that it is no longer understood what conversion and baptism are.
Nor, to tell the truth, is this taught to us by the ritually superficial baptisms, almost ashamed of themselves, celebrated in our parishes.
Even the writer Claudio Magris, a Catholic, expressed his displeasure in "Corriere della Sera," of which Allam is vice director "ad personam." Magris writes that "baptism is an act of the interior life," and that, eventually, its "political dimension comes later, as the fruit of conversion and not at the moment in which the water of life is received."
Now, baptism is certainly not a private act, nor one "of the interior life." Magris himself recognizes that it is "a radical transformation of existence." A rite is an action and sign "for many," an ordered manifestation of symbols, and especially that of light in baptism: "lumina neophitorum splendida." It is like an icon of the mystery of Salvation. In sacramental actions, the Church transcends the Sacred Scripture, actualizing its very origin, the Incarnation.
Although the personal decision is interior, baptism turns this decision into an event in which entire communities participate. This is the way it has been for centuries. The baptismal event no longer belongs to an individual person, as if he could hide this within himself. Paul describes his baptism in these words: "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). In the journey marked by conversion, the I becomes no-longer-I.
Other Catholic commentators fell even more than Magris into knee-jerk reactions of immediate censure of Magdi Allam's media "exhibitionism" no less than that of the pontiff. This seems to be the residue of the unhappy decades that have sought to destroy and extinguish our joy over a conversion to the Catholic Church, and even the greater joy of the newly baptized. These two things, in fact, do not necessarily go together. For the baptized person of another Christian faith, or for a return to the faith by an unbelieving baptized person, the decisive factor remains the "unum baptismum" already received, the indelible sign whose unicity we proclaim in the Credo.
I cannot forget the instinctive reaction of a friend together with whom, a number of years ago, I planned a series of studies on religion in Florence during the twentieth century. To my proposal to include the conversion of Giovanni Papini and others, he replied: "Why, does this seem like a good thing to you?". He didn't see it that way, and it had nothing to do with a dislike for Papini; the scandal was conversion. Many have maintained, since the 1970's, that the Christian community has no reason to want to be a specific institution, with its own identity. Under pressure from secularization, the new apologetics of the faith in history was founded upon the premise that wherever the faith sets down roots, there fundamental human values are at work. And therefore the Church, by marking out boundaries and wanting to become an institution, is believed to destroy the terrain upon which Christianity can exist and renew itself, or the unity of the human race sealed by a moral conscience, realized in the revolutions of the poor and religiously revealed, to the person, only by the universality of the mystical way, which obliterates all individuality.
Thus the process of the overturning of the relationship between Revelation and humanity that has marked recent modernity was manifested even in the Catholic Church. Only the human, according to this logic, is universally constituted; while all Revelation can be nothing other than individually given or founded. From this it emerges that the passage, or the return, to a religion can be seen as an undesirable, incomprehensible act, and all the more so when the elites of this religion are trying to emancipate themselves from this individuality.
Fortunately, the current terms of Catholic reflection are no longer the ones just described, but trans-religious spirituality and vague philosophical religions still tempt it. And conversion is still not admired, even today. Magdi Cristiano Allam will have the chance to see this for himself: among the intricacies of the splendor of the City of God, he will experience the bitter side of the Catholic "complexio oppositorum."
In effect, conversion is always the crossing of a threshold. It marks this threshold, it shows it where it had not appeared before, making it visible to those who out of habit or through cloudiness of vision no longer recognized it, or to those who, although knowing it, deny it out of ideology, nihilistically. Against theologies, literatures, and "arcana" that by Salvation mean an immobile self-contemplation and a supreme indifference, while religious conversion declares difference as decisive. The threshold denies the indifferent nature of the points along the journey, as if all were of equal value.
The threshold implies the human-divine in the search for transcendence. The Augustinian expression "return within yourself" is itself par excellence a journey and a passage to the Other, because the soul is open, theocentric. Difference attributes the only possible meaning to Hope.
The convert Paul Claudel used to say that the threshold revealed by conversion is crossed through slow, small successes. It is an often painful journey through unknown lands, following the splendor of a call, following the appearance of a "certainty of a pure Presence" (Louis Massignon) that judges and burns the heart. It is the exit from a spiritual Egypt, by a voyage whose arrival point transcends the search, and reveals a land that is not that of the departure.
The fact that the arrival point is not guaranteed, that it must always be desired as if it were not possessed, as a gift that remains under the sovereignty of the Giver, all of this does not negate, but rather confirms the reality of the threshold. The precariousness of the gift, in fact, is such only for man. But with the crossing of the threshold, we know that He, the divine Lover (as the true mystics know him, beyond his ineffability) "takes us as it were by the hand, and introduces us to lasting life, to the true and correct life." And therefore: "Let us hold on tightly to his hand!". These are the tender, perfect words dedicated to baptism by Benedict XVI at the homily for the Easter vigil, at which Allam was baptized.
The topic of conversion to the Catholic Church prompted me to reopen a brief book, "The Mystery of the Church, " by Fr. Humbert Clérissac, the keystone of the spiritual geography of the "great friendships" of Raïssa and Jacques Maritain, who were also converts. "Outside of the Church," Clérissac wrote, in this work issued posthumously by Jacques in 1918, "the individualist error also leads to a kind of moral fatalism. One does not to believe in the passage from evil to goodness, in the transformation of sin into sanctity: a transformation that is worked only through the solitude that is peculiar to the Church. Only the Church knows how to connect the path through the desert and the needs of the person."
It is in the "maternity and sovereignty" of the Church that is found the "perfect peace and tranquility" that John Henry Newman attested to after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, a tranquillity that is unbearable for those who are always restless. "I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption." And this in spite of the fact that his penetrating intelligence grasped the infinite difficulties of "every article of the Christian Creed." There appears in this evocation of the joy of arrival the famous formula of the "Apologia": "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject."
If this is the profile drawn from just a very few of the countless testimonies of the spiritual arrival in the harbor, at the maternity of the Catholic Church, it is possible to understand the revelatory passion with which the convert communicates to others his own exit from aimless uncertainty, from the incompleteness of a roofless building, from the prodding of the insignificance of himself and of the world.
Much more so if the crossing of the spiritual Red Sea is marked by and actualized in its preeminent Christian figure, baptism. This is an event of the entire City of God, the public par excellence, extended by the individual community to the heavenly City, from those present to the entire communion of the saints. A passage from Origen is often cited: "When the sacrament of the faith was given to you, the celestial powers, the ministers of the angels, the Church of the firstborn were present." There is joy among the angels . . . This is what was seen in Saint Peter's on Easter night.
In such an order of beauty, the intensity of the interpretation that Magdi Cristiano then gave to his own baptism is not out of place. Allam crossed a true threshold, from one framework of meaning to another, from one membership to another. The House at which he arrived, the embrace of the Father than he has permitted to envelop him, mark him and confirm him in the novelty, neither utopian nor evolutionary, but the ancienty novelty of the "Church of the firstborn" in the risen Christ. And it is not easy to recognize and accept at the end of the journey of freedom a Father, a sovereign love. The decisive act of welcoming the faith was, for Louis Massignon, his succeeding in kneeling before his spiritual director, and through him, before God. When Allam sees this House, the universal destination for man, as a place of freedom and truth with respect to his own past, he is operating at the level of the essential meaning of his baptism.
The Catholic writer Vittorio Messori also, in an article in "Corriere della Sera" parallel to the one by Magris, expressed reservations over the harshness of some of Allam's statements about Islam. I observe that today in Magdi Cristiano, the experience of crossing the threshold, of leaving behind a "slavery to sin" (not only individual and interior, and much less metaphorical) is too strong for him not to speak by way of opposition. His former Muslim identity is still too capable of striking against his life itself not to take on for him the names and forms of radicalism, fanaticism, terrorism. Perhaps the happiness of his being Christian today, the very maternity of the Church that was already attracting him during his childhood, will permit him in time to think of the ocean he has crossed not only in terms (extremely real, but not exclusive) of danger and abyss.
* * *
II. I now turn to the semi-official comments dated March 24, Amman from professor Aref Ali Nayed, which have the paradoxical characteristic of using, in a Muslim context, "Western" and "secular" tones and arguments, together with a threatening reference to the "proselytism" of the Catholic schools, which, unfortunately, seems tailor-made to confirm Allam's positions. I address myself to his text and to him, as a religious man.
After recalling a foundation of Islam that in truth unites us, Christians and Muslims meaning faith as a gift from God Nayed decides to interpret Magdi Allam's account of his religious upbringing, including occasional attendance at Mass and, once, the reception of communion, as the effect of deliberate Christianizing pressure on the part of his teachers.
Now, those who know something about religious behaviors know that the attraction of Eucharistic communion is very strong, even among believers outside of the practice of Catholicism, and is facilitated by the fact that anyone can attend the rite. But professor Nayed instead takes those memories of adolescence as a launching point for an unpleasant reference to what he alleges to take place in the Catholic schools in contrast with "human dignity," including among the questions to be discussed with the Church of Rome the practice designated with the derogatory term of "proselytism," a clearly illegitimate and actionable practice.
Because, moreover, he is imagined to have been the victim of a Christianizing education, Magdi Allam cannot say that he was formed by Islam. By this professor Nayed means, at the same time, to devalue his conversion from Islam (in that he was a Christian) and to attribute the main responsibility for his conversion and baptism to the Church of Rome and to the pontiff. Because for Nayed, Allam's moral freedom doesn't count, there was nothing but the political initiative of Rome, which he thinks has these characteristics:
1. Rome has exploited a person to "score points" against Islam, and this is "against human dignity" (a remarkable argument, which sounds like a convoluted redirection of the accusation of attacking human rights that the West brings against Islam fundamentalism).
2. Allam was chosen for this public act because he foments hatred (but professor Nayed does not see fit to refer to the death threats that Allam has received). In particular, Nayed argues, in his article-confession in "Corriere della Sera" Allam seems to confirm the "infamous" lecture in Regensburg on the violent nature of Islam. To avoid this deduction, the Holy See must distance itself from the newly baptized.
3. Benedict XVI gave a "quasi-Manichean" character to his Easter message, introducing the categories of light and darkness and attributing the light to himself, and the darkness to others. The peace offered by Rome therefore consists in submitting the other to it, through baptism.
Nayed then asks who among the pope's advisers on Islamic questions is responsible for the Easter "spectacle." And he ends by affirming, in any case, the search for a shared world of peace, through "a compassionate theology of mending the in-between for the sake of Love God and Love of neighbor."
In my view, professor Nayed, as men of dialogue from the different traditions often do, shows himself little aware of theological and historical-religious reality. How is it possible, beginning with point 3, to evoke Manicheism in connection with the pope's splendid remarks on light in the baptismal liturgy? Pope Benedict XVI speaks to us of "powers" (which in the language of the New Testament include both men and angels) that want to thrust us into darkness concerning God and ourselves, or into the substantial denial of God and the distortion of human nature. It is hard to see how this warning, posed so profoundly (with the light-darkness symbolism that Islamic tradition also recognizes and uses) should not be shared by every religious man of every tradition.
And Benedict continues: "This light is also fire [present in the Easter liturgy since ancient times], a powerful force coming from God, a force that does not destroy, but seeks to transform our hearts." The pope had just spoken in this context of baptism as a mystery, or as the revelation and efficacious sign of God's drawing us to Himself (blessed be His name). Also immersed in this mystery of the love of God are those who were baptized on Easter night. Is it really so difficult for a Muslim, a religious man of the biblical tradition, to understand that in situating Allam's baptism in its theological context, the pope removes it from any narrow political perspective?
On point 2, I repeat what I have already written in regard to Regensburg. Benedict XVI appreciates dialogue among religions without pretending to ignore the weight of historical-political reality. This is a matter of a dialectic that grasps what leads to fraternity among believers in God, but also seeks to confront critically that which, in its outward manifestation, opposes this fraternity.
This is Christian theological-political realism, against the moralism of those who do nothing but speak emotionally about peace, and underestimate the power of the facts. Just as the emperor Manuel extended his peaceful doctrinal dialogue while the Ottoman army was besieging Constantinople, and could not ignore it, so also Pope Benedict speaks with his mind and heart to Islam, being unable to ignore that it has, in some of its forces and representatives, an aggressive face. That there are those who work against the very life of Magdi Allam, which has been in danger for years.
A religious man should grasp the fact that Magdi Allam, while denouncing that which threatens him on the part of Islamic extremism and calling the Muslim world to co-responsibility (does professor Nayed have, perhaps, a single word that would do justice to Magdi Cristiano?), nevertheless makes a religious choice with his baptism.
Unlike others who, like Salman Rushdie, opt to condemn all faiths, Allam chooses faith in God, in the God of Jesus. From Catholicism, which he now contrasts with the tradition of his upbringing, it will be possible for him to testify to contemporary man as a man of faith. Within the profundity of the dialogue promoted by Rome, by taking the conversion of Magdi Cristiano under his own direct protection Benedict XVI is not issuing a challenge to Islam, but the offer of a challenging reminder.
The Muslim intellectuals, the Islamic men of faith who have agreed to conduct dialogue with Rome can, but only if they want to, interpret the lofty paternal protection offered by Benedict XVI to the Egyptian writer (who considers the pope his teacher), as the sign of a possible offering to the contemporary Muslim. In its encounter with Christianity above all, with the great Catholic Church Islam can seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam (I do not say either modern or liberal, because these are not the categories that are truly relevant for a religious tradition).
At this point, it is not helpful to discuss Nayed's point 1, which is solely polemical. Magdi Allam's openness to the Catholic faith was a free act that sprang from the spiritual richness of a Muslim man. No one could force him. Just as no one can transform into a pure partisan instrument the potential richness of such an encounter.
We would like professor Nayed to reflect upon the evidence that his criticisms risk resembling, in their extremism, those of a secularized and anticlerical Westerner, according to whom the behaviors of a religious institution are always cynically geared toward its power over consciences.
This hostile and losing incomprehension cannot be adopted by an Islamic intellectual and religious man. By denying the veracity of the Catholic Church, he also denies himself. And, in effect, under the attack of anticlerical, even antireligious denial, Roman Catholicism and Islam often find themselves in the same position.
Muslims outraged? What???? </sarcasm>
Pretty cool how Benedict had the picture taken in front of a depiction of the Resurrection, which event, of course, Muslims deny. They deny this on the grounds that Jesus was never really crucified in the first place, but Judas (according to widespread Muslim supposition) was substituted for him on the cross.
...the gates of Hell shall not prevail.
Yes, I agree! Very shrewd indeed!