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October 6, 2006 
All Things Catholic
Vol. 6, No. 6

John L. Allen Jr. 
NCR Senior  



Cardinal Avery Dulles on Islam; Hijacking gives insight into Turkey's Christian minority; BBC documentary on clergy sex abuse; New report on global Christianity; The latest on Limbo; Column changes coming


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Christianity's original experts on Islam were neither impartial scholars nor specialists in inter-faith dialogue, but rough-and-tumble medieval apologists - that is to say, writers from the 7th through the 14th centuries whose aim, in no uncertain terms, was to show why Christianity is right and Islam is wrong.

This grab-bag of colorful ecclesiastical characters includes John Damascene, Theodore Abu Qurrah (a Melchite bishop in the 9th century who wrote treatises against the Muslims in Arabic), Peter the Venerable, Raymond Martini, Raymond Lull, Ricoldus de Monte Croce, Dionysius the Carthusian, Cardinal Juan Torquemada, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and even the Florentine reformer Savonarola (of "bonfire of the vanities" fame).

At first blush, their work might seem an unpromising vein to tap as Pope Benedict XVI tries to pick up the pieces following his controversial Sept. 12 comments on Islam. Yet whatever their limitations, the medieval apologists represent the first sustained Christian attempt to grapple with the challenges posed by Islam, based on knowledge of Arabic and the Koran, which was a project largely forgotten by the dawn of the modern period.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit widely considered one of America's premier Catholic theologians, believes a study of this history - both its strengths and its weaknesses - can offer useful insights for Muslim/Christian relations today.

On Oct. 2, I sat down with Dulles, still going strong at 88, in his office at Fordham University in the Bronx.

Back in 1971, Dulles published a unique survey titled A History of Apologetics (revised in 2005). It reviews medieval Christian writing on Islam, which often doesn't make for very edifying reading. Most apologists were fairly crude in their critique, deriding the way Islam had "spread by the sword" and even lampooning Mohammed's multiple wives or his earthy description of the afterlife. The title of one essay by Torquemada says it all: "Against the Principal Errors of the Miscreant Mohammed."

Yet in the same breath, this apologetic tradition can also exude a surprising sophistication.

Nicholas of Cusa, for example, produced "Sifting the Koran" in the 15th century, which argues that the Koran may profitably be used as an introduction to the gospel, and praises the human and religious virtues of Muslims. Peter the Venerable wrote in the 12th century that in addressing Muslims, Christians should proceed "not as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love."

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Dulles expressed the central error of the apologetic effort this way: "Western theologians were viewing the Muslim faith through Western eyes, and failing to meet it as a living religion."

The following are excerpts from my interview with Dulles.

* * *

What can we learn from the medieval apologists?
For one thing, they made a serious effort to understand the literature of Islam, usually in the original language. They were pretty frank in their criticism, but at the same time they tried to be fair as they understood it, and to base what they wrote on actual Islamic texts. There was some very interesting work done, from John of Damascene through Peter the Venerable and later, which hasn't really been repeated. Much of this was hostile, due to the situation in ancient Turkey and later in Spain. Yet it's also worth recalling that for centuries, Christians lived quite freely under Muslim rule, practiced their faith, held high office, and were close to the sovereigns. They had a civil, if not warm, relationship with Muslims in the Near East.

One big question is whether problems with pluralism in Islamic nations are due to historical, cultural and political factors, or something intrinsic to Islam. You seem to be saying that a rough sort of religious freedom was once the norm -- can that be done again?
I think it would be possible to do it again. I certainly hope so, because it's important that it be done again. We have to do everything we can to encourage that. We also have to remember our own history.

What do you mean?
Christianity was pretty violent itself in the early Middle Ages, into the late Middle Ages. It really wasn't until the experience of the Wars of Religion that we began to appreciate that it's not wise to try to use the sword to spread one's own religion, in part because others will also use their swords to advance their religion. This history is part of what brought religion into disrepute in the Enlightenment. In some ways, we're still paying a price for this history of hostility -- between the Orthodox and Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, and between Christians and both Jews and Muslims. John Paul II did everything he could to atone for that history, and to separate himself from it.

In your book, you said one failure of the medieval apologists was that they didn't approach Islam as a living religion. What did you mean?
Their writing was largely based on books they had read, rather than actual contact with Muslims. This was especially true in the later period, when you had people in France and England who were writing about Islam but who really didn't have any contact at all with Muslim communities. So for them Islam was largely an abstraction, without much complexity.

Some would say that this tendency to approach Islam almost exclusively from its texts, not as a living religion, is true of Benedict XVI as well. Is that fair?
Probably, yes. Of course, it's often not very easy to have dialogue with some Muslims. They generally consider dialogue a sign of weakness, to admit that they might have something to learn. They will confront you with the teaching of Islam, but they won't engage in what we would consider dialogue. Often they won't even show up at meetings.

Isn't there a related problem, in that some of the Muslims who do show up at dialogue meetings aren't representative of mainstream Islam?
Yes, that can be a problem. I remember back in 1968, there was a Christian/Muslim meeting at Woodstock that I attended. [Note: From 1966 to 1973, Dulles served as a consultor to the Papal Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers]. One of the Muslims had obviously read a lot of Kant, and the whole thing struck me as a little phony. He had studied in the West, and clearly didn't represent the Muslim tradition in a normative way. That happens fairly often in these sessions. It's going to take time for real dialogue to develop -- there's an internal process that has to happen.

To return to Pope Benedict, would it be helpful if he put himself in contact more thoroughly with Islam as a living religion, meeting with representative Muslim leaders?
Certainly, it would be helpful, and it's definitely worth trying. I'm sure he would love to do that. I believe the thinking around the Vatican these days is that the dialogue with Islam should start with things like ecology, poverty, these sorts of common human problems, before we get to more sensitive theological questions. This is part of Benedict's emphasis on reason. His approach seems to be, let's go as far as reason can take us before we get to these other issues.

Aside from the controversy over the remarks on Islam, what did you make of the Regensburg lecture?
I thought it was a very impressive address. The pope went amazingly far in laying out the principles of tolerance. It seems to me that he's read a lot of de Tocqueville, that he likes the American system on these matters and is trying to apply it to Europe. The idea is that there's a generic Christianity which is part of the culture. It's not enforced by the government, but it has social influence because it's the dominant popular religion, while still allowing for diversity. One finds this sort of generic Biblical religion in the founding documents of the United States. All this made the old European struggles to have either a Protestant or a Catholic government unnecessary, because it doesn't make so much difference who the ruler is. There is no automatic "transfer" from the state to the society of an official creed, but the basic Jewish and Christian values of Biblical religion form the bedrock of the culture. I think the Holy Father likes this model, which was expressed in the decree on religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council.

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* * *

When news events such as Pope Benedict's Sept. 12 comments on Islam set off a global earthquake, there are always a few after-shocks. Such was the case this week, with Tuesday's hijacking of a Turkish Airlines plane, en route from Albania to Istanbul, and its forced landing in Brindisi, Italy.

Initially, the hijacking was billed as a protest of Benedict's November trip to Turkey, and that briefly galvanized media interest. When it turned out, however, that hijacker Hakan Ekinci was not a Muslim but a Christian, and that his aim was not to protest the pope but to ask for his help, the story lost its legs.

According to news reports from Turkey, Ekinci, 28, is a convert to Christianity who fled Turkey to avoid compulsory military service. A Turkish blog published a letter he apparently wrote to Benedict last August: "Dear pope, I am a Christian and I do not want to serve in a Muslim army," it said, adding, "Only your sublime leadership will save me."

Ekinci told Italian authorities that he feared for his life after converting from Islam.

To what extent those fears are legitimate, or whether Ekinci is simply playing the religion card in order to avoid his country's draft, remains to be seen. There is no question, however, that a rising tide of Islamist sentiment in supposedly secular Turkey has made life more difficult for its Christian minority.

In February, following the murder of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro, I spoke with Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic administrator in Anatolia, about the situation facing Turkish Christians. He referred to an "anti-Christian climate" in the country manufactured by politicians and the press.

Padovese said that every week the Turkish bishops' conference prepares a bulletin citing "denigrating comments" or "banalities" about Christianity that have appeared in the media.

As one example, a rural Turkish newspaper recently carried an article titled, "A priest sighted." It reported that local children had seen a priest in the vicinity of the town, but chased him off to the great applause of the locals. The article then quoted a local politician: "Priests who arrive in our area want to re-establish the Christian Greek-Orthodox state that was here before. There are spies among these priests, working for the West. They are trying to destroy our peace."

In such a climate, fears such as those expressed by Ekinci may not be entirely unreasonable.

"There were several million Christians in Turkey at the fall of the Ottoman Empire," Padovese said. "How is it possible that in the arc of just 70 or 80 years we've become merely 60,000 or 70,000? The truth is that hundreds of thousands of Christians converted to Islam, taking Islamic names and hiding their identity, out of fear of persecution," he said.

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"The Christian presence is still there, I know it's there," Padovese said. "Many of these people know that they are Christians, or come from Christian families, but cannot say so."

The anxieties of Christian minorities in the Islamic world certainly do not justify hijacking airplanes, but they're undeniably part of the overall picture in Muslim/Christian relations. Unfortunately, because that doesn't jibe with the "Muslims mad at pope" storyline of the last few weeks, the Ekinci story was basically dropped.

Let's hope that when the pope actually goes to Turkey, assuming the security situation permits, we all dig a bit deeper.

* * *

The BBC aired a documentary on Sunday, Oct. 1, titled "Sex Crimes in the Vatican." Made by Irish journalist Colm O'Gorman, himself the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of an Irish priest, the program traced the sorry history of denial and cover-up of clerical abuse, suggesting this pattern is not entirely in the past by exposing a contemporary case in Brazil.

I was on a BBC Radio program with O'Gorman immediately after the documentary, and he came across as a sincere journalist trying to come to terms with a terrible tragedy.

The documentary, part of the prestigious BBC "Panorama" series, nevertheless exhibits a striking callousness with regard to the facts, especially concerning a 1962 Vatican document titled Crimen Sollicitationis, an instruction from the then-Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) laying out procedures to be followed in cases when priests used the confessional to solicit illicit acts. Predictably, it put much emphasis on secrecy.

O'Gorman's film presented the document as a "smoking gun" proving a Vatican-ordered conspiracy to protect pedophile priests.

If that charge has an eerily familiar ring, it's because we've been down this path before. In July 2003, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, followed by the CBS Evening News, aired the same charges. In the discussion that ensued three years ago, at least three points were established about Crimen Sollicitationis:

  • The document, which was supposed to be stored in each diocese's secret archives, was exceedingly obscure. Most canon lawyers and bishops had never heard of it prior to the controversy in 2003, so to suggest it played a crucial role in shaping the church's response to the crisis is an exaggeration;
  • As an "instruction," the document's legal force expired in 1983 with the revision of the Code of Canon Law;
  • The document was concerned only with secrecy in internal ecclesiastical procedures. There was nothing in it, nor anywhere else in church law, that would have prevented a bishop (or anyone else) from reporting a crime of sexual abuse to the local police or a prosecuting attorney. That bishops failed to do so is indicative of a widespread pattern of damage control, and the Vatican was as guilty of it as anyone else, but this was a matter of culture and institutional psychology rather than formal law.

Granted, some of this may be arcane to non-experts. But the BBC documentary was not charting unexplored territory; all of this had already been placed on the record, and one might have expected to find it reflected.

* * *

The film also suggests that since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has juridical responsibility for charges of sex abuse against priests, Pope Benedict XVI, the former prefect of the congregation, has been an architect of the Vatican's policy of cover-up and denial.

Here again, the facts sometimes became twisted in the presentation.

First, the documentary suggests that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for "enforcing" Crimen Sollicitationis. Yet he arrived in Rome in November 1981 and the document went out of force in January 1983, so at best he could have "enforced" it for 14 months, and there's no record that he ever referred to it during that time.

Second, as far as Ratzinger personally, he was as slow to grasp the dimensions of the crisis as most Vatican officials. In November 2002, for example, he addressed the American crisis during an appearance in Murcia, Spain, appearing to blame it on anti-Catholicism in the press.

"There is constant news on this topic, but less than one percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type. The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information or to the statistical objectivity of the facts. Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the church," Ratzinger said.

A John Jay study commissioned by the U.S. bishops eventually found that 4.3 percent of diocesan priests from 1950 to 2002 faced at least one accusation of sexual abuse.

Yet there is considerable evidence that his attitude has evolved, the most convincing example coming with his decision in May to remove Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, from public ministry because of charges of sexual abuse against the 86-year-old Mexican priest, a personal favorite of John Paul II.

This, too, was absent from the BBC report.

* * *

A new report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life gives voice to an enormously important and growing force within global Christianity, including Roman Catholicism -- a voice which, as it turns out, tends to speak in tongues.

The detailed report, released today, profiles Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity based on a survey in 10 nations. While beliefs and practices are basically the same, Pentecostals form their own denominations, while charismatics remain within their churches of origin, whether Protestant or Catholic.

The Pew report uses the generic term renewalist to describe this option within global Christianity.

The report analyzes data from Brazil , Chile , Guatemala , India , Kenya , Nigeria , the Philippines , South Africa , South Korea , and the United States . Three of the four largest Catholic countries in the world ( Brazil , the Philippines , and the United States ) are included; only Mexico is absent. The combined Catholic population of those 10 nations is 322.8 million, representing almost 30 percent of all Catholics worldwide.

Combing through the data, substantial percentages of Catholics in all 10 nations describe themselves as charismatic, ranging from a high of 62 percent in Guatemala to a low of 8 percent in India. In the three largest Catholic nations, 57 percent of Brazilian Catholics are charismatic, 44 percent of Filipino Catholics, and 36 percent of American Catholics.

Overall, 43 percent of Catholics in these nations say they are charismatic, representing a block of 141.7 million people. Even though the numbers are skewed by the unusually high percentage in Brazil, the findings leave no doubt that the renewalist block in the Catholic church is enormous, perhaps as much as one-third of all Catholics in the world, and it represents an especially substantial percentage in parts of the global south. Moreover, because renewalist Christians tend to be more practicing, the percentage of active Catholics who are charismatic is likely even greater.

What all this means is that the renewalist outlook, in its various permutations around the world, is likely to have an enormous influence in shaping the future of Roman Catholicism.

The Pew report finds that renewalist Christians tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Church services include the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, or prayer for miraculous healing, even though not all renewalists engage in these practices themselves;
  • Many say they have personally witnessed or experienced the divine healing of illness or injury;
  • Many also say they have witnessed the devil or evil spirits being driven out of someone;
  • A strong emphasis on a literal reading of the Bible;
  • Belief that miracles still occur as in biblical times;
  • A more explicitly evangelical commitment to sharing the faith with non-believers;
  • A more exclusive emphasis on Christ as the lone path to salvation;
  • At least as strong a commitment to engaging social and political questions as non-renewalist Christians;
  • A conservative moral code on issues such as homosexuality, extra-marital sex, abortion and divorce;
  • Higher-than-average rates of attendance at church services.

In some cases, these markers of identity are more pronounced among Pentecostals than charismatics, and there are a few clear differences between the two. In three nations, for example, more than half of Pentecostals said the government should take steps to make it a special Christian nation, while in no country did more than half of charismatics share this view. In general, however, the renewalists are much closer to one another than to other types of Christians.

Anyone looking for insight into the future of global Christianity, including global Catholicism, would do well to give the Pew report a careful read. It can be found here: http://pewforum.org/

* * *

The International Theological Commission, a body of 30 theologians who advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is meeting this week in the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where the cardinals were lodged during the conclave of 2005.

The commission is putting the finishing touches on a document concerned with the fate of unbaptized babies, seeking to push beyond the traditional solution of Limbo. Members say the document will have a broad sweep as a reflection on eschatological hope.

Two points that have been muddled in much media coverage:

  • The commission's documents have no official standing in themselves, so its conclusions do not automatically mean that the church has cancelled or dropped Limbo;
  • If that decision is eventually taken, it would not mean that for 2,000 years unbaptized babies couldn't get into Heaven, but as of a certain date they now can. It would mean instead that the church has rejected one hypothesis, which was never officially a matter of faith, as to how to reconcile two important truths: the generosity of God, and the necessity of baptism for salvation.

A Vatican Information Service news release of Oct. 2 indicated that Pope Benedict has furnished "precise indications" to the commission, urging it "to overcome the traditional orientation" of Limbo.

In this regard, it's worth recalling what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Vittorio Messori in an interview that became The Ratzinger Report in 1984:

"Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith. Personally - and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation - I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for the faith, namely, the importance of baptism. . One should not hesitate to give up the idea of 'limbo' if need be (and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed 'limbo' also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer); but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue for the faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be."

The commission is also working on documents on the role of theology as a "science of the faith," and on the foundations of natural moral law in the light of the teachings of John Paul II's encyclicals Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio. Sources say that one concern of the latter document is to clarify that the church's positions on moral questions such as abortion or homosexuality are not a matter of imposing a "Catholic" position in a pluralistic world, but rather a defense of universal principles arising from human nature.

* * *

Austrian scholar Johannes Schwarz recently completed a doctoral dissertation on the subject of Limbo, and discussed his conclusions in an interview with Kath.Net, the Austrian Catholic news agency.

Schwarz explained that the term "Limbo" (from the Latin limes, meaning "border") entered Catholic theological tradition in the 11th century, as a way of balancing the church's teaching on the necessary of baptism for salvation against the perceived injustice of excluding unbaptized babies. The idea was that unbaptized babies cannot enter Heaven, but they don't suffer the sensory pains of Hell and may enjoy a certain natural happiness.

Limbo was never officially defined, Schwarz explained, but it was more or less assumed in theological literature until the modern period.

In the 20th century, there have been two principal hypotheses that would allow unbaptized babies to reach Heaven: baptism by blood, and baptism by desire.

The first, Schwarz explained, holds that death is a quasi-sacrament because it conforms one to Christ. The "desire" theory takes various forms: that an illuminated soul desires baptism at the moment of death; that there's a vicarious desire for baptism on the part of the baby's parents or the church; that such a desire is a natural "relic of creation."

The lengths to which people will sometimes go, Schwarz said, was illustrated by the famed Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who flirted with the idea of reincarnation for unbaptized babies as a way of giving them a second chance.

Schwarz himself believes Limbo has a "greater probability" than other theories, but that doesn't seem to be the way the winds are blowing.

* * *

For the last five years, I've referred to "The Word from Rome," and now "All Things Catholic," as a "column," largely because it was the best word at hand for a regular piece of journalistic commentary. As regular readers know, however, it's never really been a column in the traditional sense, meaning a short reflection on a single theme. It's more like a mini-newsletter, usually featuring several unrelated points - some news, much context and analysis, a few bits of color and insider detail.

One implication is that every week I end up sitting on news items or chunks of analysis until Friday rolls around, by which point, in at least some cases, their relevance has been diminished. Moreover, the column can be unwieldy due to its length and the unrelated nature of the material it contains.

Over the next few weeks, "All Things Catholic" will evolve thanks to some technological leaps forward at the home office.

By now, most of you have already subscribed to "All Things Catholic" in its new format in the NCR Cafe, which allows readers to react to the column and to discuss the issues it raises. (Of course, there's no obligation to do so, and those who just want to read the damn thing still have that option).

The new format, however, is the tip of the iceberg. In fairly short order, there will be an entirely new "John Allen" page on the NCR Cafe which will contain three distinct elements:

  • Daily filings Monday through Friday, and more often when big news breaks, to help put Catholic stories in context in real time;
  • The regular weekly "All Things Catholic" column, which will more closely resemble a traditional column, tightly written and focused on a single idea;
  • Podcasts drawn from my lectures, interviews, media appearances, and other sources.

The daily feature, I hope, will be helpful, because in my experience the problem with most media coverage of the Catholic church is not so much text as context. It's no trick to churn out 500 words on whatever's happening today, but reliable accounts of why it happened, what it means, what the back-story is, and what its consequences might be are usually in much shorter supply. That's what "All Things Catholic" was always intended to provide, and now we'll be able to do so more quickly and flexibly.

My suggestion is that when it's ready, readers bookmark the johnallen.ncrcafe.org page and check in once a day to see what's new. Also, if you haven't yet done so, re-register for the "All Things Catholic" column, in order to get the standard e-mail alert each Friday letting you know it's ready. Existing readers must re-register before Oct. 12.

The daily filings will make no pretense of being comprehensive; I'm not trying to hold myself out as a one-man news agency. This is also not another Catholic blog, filled with my personal ruminations, which is quite possibly the last thing the world needs. Instead, the filings are a way to be timelier in delivering the information, background and color that readers expect, while retooling the column to focus on the most important stories or ideas of the week.

All this should debut in two or three weeks' time.

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Thee-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is  jallen@natcath.org

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