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."
Martino's comments came as campaigning in Italy's April 9 general election entered its final push. Two significant issues are the effect of massive Muslim immigration on Italian society and the ensuing place for government-sponsored Catholic religious education, mandated by the 1929 concordat between the Vatican and Italy that was renewed in 1984.
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.
"But for Cardinal Martino," Magister wrote, "this reciprocity would seem to be irrelevant."
Reaction was swift and fierce. Wrote Ernesto Galli della Loggia in a front-page editorial for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera on March 10:
"The words of Cardinal Martino on a host of highly important questions constitute a position clearly antithetical to the one repeatedly and vigorously marked out by Benedict XVI. One could even say that these words form a sort of embroidered design of a real and proper anti-Ratzingerian manifesto."
Another front-page editorial in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, stated March 11 that Martino's proposal contradicted Italy's constitution and Catholicism's place in Italian culture.
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:
"There does not exist in Italy an organized Islamic confession that is recognized by the state. There are various groups, which are not infrequently in conflict among themselves. And this prevents the implementation of teaching that would not be based on any community, institution, or confessional hierarchy.
"And then, one cannot ignore the potential conflict between some of the features of Islamism in its present state and fundamental questions for our society – the matter of human rights, beginning with religious freedom, the principles of equality between men and women, the monogamous structure of matrimony – which constitute the most valuable heritage of the secular-Christian tradition of Italy and the West.
"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."
Martino, whom Magister described as "a cardinal out of control," has a well-deserved reputation as a self-promoting loose cannon. One month before the invasion of Iraq, Martino blamed the West for the Muslim world's plight:
"Not only the United States but the entire West should make an examination of conscience of how we oppress the rest of the world -- unkept promises, spreading ways of life that are not moral or acceptable to the rest of the world (Reuters, Feb. 6, 2003)."
When American forces captured Saddam Hussein, Martino offered these thoughts:
"I feel pity to see this man destroyed, being treated like a cow as they checked his teeth (Dec. 16, 2003)."
Six days before commenting on Muslim education, Martino talked about his recent trip to Cuba, where he met Fidel Castro:
"Castro knows the social doctrine of the church. The times when the church was persecuted in Cuba are water under the bridge (ANSA news agency, March 3)."
But Martino's most recent comments also reflect the weight of outmoded policies and attitudes that Catholic leaders must shed as Benedict forges his own policy regarding Islam.
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."
Influencing that attitude was the work of European scholar Louis Massignon, who popularized the ideas of the Koran as a kind of biblical revelation and of Muslims as being among Abraham's spiritual children.
"An entire literature favorable to Islam has grown up in Europe," Besancon wrote, "much of it the work of Catholic priests under the sway of Massignon's ideas."
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."
Sentimental ecumenism and John Paul II's geopolitical agenda also prevented the Catholic Church from effectively confronting barbarism in Allah's name. Oriana Fallaci excoriated the church in a 2002 editorial in Corriere della Sera. Some excerpts:
"I find it shameful that the Catholic Church should permit a bishop (Hilarion Capucci), one with lodgings in the Vatican no less, a saintly man who was found in Jerusalem with an arsenal of arms and explosives hidden in the secret compartments of his sacred Mercedes, to...plant himself in front of a microphone to thank in the name of God the suicide bombers who massacre the Jews in pizzerias and supermarkets. To call them 'martyrs who go to their deaths as to a party.'
"I find it shameful that L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Pope--a Pope who not long ago left in the Wailing Wall a letter of apology for the Jews--accuses of extermination a people who were exterminated in the millions by Christians. By Europeans. I find it shameful that this newspaper denies to the survivors of that people (survivors who still have numbers tattooed on their arms) the right to react, to defend themselves, to not be exterminated again [parentheses in original].
"I find it shameful that in the name of Jesus Christ (a Jew without whom they would all be unemployed), the priests of our parishes or Social Centers or whatever they are flirt with the assassins of those in Jerusalem who cannot go to eat a pizza or buy some eggs without being blown up [parentheses in original].
"I find it shameful that they are on the side of the very ones who inaugurated terrorism, killing us on airplanes, in airports, at the Olympics, and who today entertain themselves by killing western journalists. By shooting them, abducting them, cutting their throats, decapitating them.
In her most recently translated work, The Force of Reason, Fallaci blamed the Catholic Church's lax policies on immigration and ecumenism for the disintegration of Europe's identity:
"This Catholic Church...gets on so well with Islam because not few of its priests and prelates are the first collaborators of Islam. The first traitors. This Catholic Church, without whose imprimatur the Euro-Arab dialogue could neither have begun nor gone ahead for 30 years. This Catholic Church without which the Islamization of Europe, the degeneration of Europe in Eurabia, could never have developed. This Catholic Church...remains silent even when the crucifix gets insulted derided, expelled from the hospitals. This Catholic Church...never roars against (Muslims') polygamy and wife-repudiation and slavery...."
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.
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