Props to the Pope, please

September 28, 2006

Being a liberal and Catholic at Georgetown is challenging. Being both in Cairo is another story. But today is a special day for me: I’m going to agree with the Pope. Sort of.

Writing about the challenges of American Catholicism within the pages of this newspaper—its intolerance towards homosexuality and contraception, the crisis of a shrinking and damaged priesthood, its tangled relationship with modernity—has led to letters urging us to recant our statements, reconsider our path to darkness, and, on one memorable occasion, led a well-meaning reader to send us the 800-plus page biography of the founder of a Catholic order.

So when the Pope I didn’t like gave a speech including the quote, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached,” my reaction was immediately negative—besides a small feeling of gratitude for making my religion so popular in the Middle East.

The rip-roaring, Muslim response—a small-scale reenactment of the Danish cartoon scandal—brought protesters and police out to Cairo’s streets. The Pope apologized, as he should have, twice, and the situation calmed as much as can be expected. Now, besides trying to explain U.S. foreign policy to my Egyptian and Lebanese friends, I get to do Catholicism, too.

To this end, I read the text of the Pope’s speech, and realized that throughout the press coverage of the speech and the resultant controversy, most observers spent their time meditating on the Pope’s gaffe and the Muslim response. They offered either vague prescriptions for dialogue and education or criticized the Pope’s apology as a failure to stand for free speech.

But we should look into the substance of his speech. Past the crude and counterproductive mischaracterization of Islam, the Pope’s point is worth considering. He criticized those in the West who have given up all religiosity in favor of modernity; his call is to see “reason and faith come together in a new way.” The Pope thinks, and I agree, that modernity has yet to offer the profound moral and ethical guides to our life that religion does; to see religion laid by the wayside in the West is to see a vital part of our heritage tossed aside. Modernity is the what and how of our lives, but faith is the why.

This is not to say, of course, that this faith must be Catholic, or that there is something wrong with agnosticism or atheism—this is the liberal part (I told you it was challenging). Preserving the fundamental freedom to choose or avoid religion is the first step towards real faith. As the Prophet Mohammed and others, have noted, the imposition of faith is no faith at all.

There is a second insight in the Pope’s speech: the fact that in other societies around the world, specifically in Islamic countries, religiosity is held in high regard. To communicate effectively with these cultures, we must understand spirituality. Muslims I know in Egypt often speak of a kinship they feel with America because we are known abroad as a religious nation. Living here, in a place that moves to the rhythms of prayer and sprinkles each phrase with references to the Lord has made me conscious of my own faith.

But my fellow study-abroad students studying international relations, Arabic or political science with an implied ambition towards future public service, on the whole shun religion. This does not bode well for future understanding.

The final implication of the Pope’s speech is that there is a problem of balance in Islam, whose transnational persona is legalistic, politicized and non-rational in the eyes of the Western world. Islam is not a monolithic institution and the Pope did it a disservice when he spoke of it as such. But he is right that Islam must engage modernity. There are facets of Islam that already integrate rationality and humanity, just as some Catholics seek ecumenicalism and a broadening of spiritual knowledge even as other branches of the church represent a narrow and legalistic Catholicism. In the Muslim world, it is often authoritarian governments that hinder this development, but Western Christianity has no excuse.

The Pope’s main point deserves real consideration; it is a symptom of his papacy that his remarks were clouded by controversy. The more that is written and discussed about this, the better. In Arabic, the word for writing and editing is from the same root as the word for liberation and freedom.

The more that is shared from our traditions, the closer we come to liberating the truth.

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