Published October 30, 2002
The Catholic Difference
The French literary gadfly, André Malraux, once shocked (shocked!) the devoutly secular French professoriate by observing that “the twenty-first century will be religious, or it will not be.” Like other former Marxists, Malraux instinctively understood that the twentieth century’s lethal flirtations with utopian politics had left deep scars – including a diminished sense of human dignity. Only religious convictions, Malraux suggested, were capable of lifting our eyes to a nobler horizon of human possibility.
Malraux was right: the West’s seduction by secularism is not going to be replicated globally. Nor can that seduction sustain itself indefinitely within the West, if the West is not to commit demographic suicide. Religious conviction is now the primary culture-shaping agent in many parts of the world, from the favellas of Brazil to the forests of Africa to the teeming cities of the Asian subcontinent. The twenty-first century is going to be emphatically, assertively, boisterously religious.
The real question is, what kind of cultures (and thus what kind of politics and economics) will resurgent religion shape in the new century?
The Catholic Church is committed to interreligious dialogue in the belief that all truths come from, and lead toward, the one Truth – God. Thus interreligious dialogue, from a Catholic point of view, cannot be an exercise in political correctness governed by the notion that, since no one really knows the truth of anything, everyone’s opinions about the truth of things should be “tolerated.” That anorexic concept of interreligious dialogue is really a subtle form of disrespect for the deepest convictions of others. Genuine dialogue means real conversation that takes differences seriously, in the conviction that those differences make a real difference in individual lives, in cultures, and in history.
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has a new president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a 65-year old member of the Missionaries of Africa. Born in England, Archbishop Fitzgerald has been a close student of Islam for decades. The dialogue with Islam is the interreligious dialogue fraught with the most danger, and the greatest possibilities, today. What would a reinvigorated Catholic-Islamic dialogue look like?
It would begin by recognizing that there is a tremendous contest for the soul of Islam going on throughout the Muslim world today. Islamicists, bent on turning Islam into a violent revolutionary ideology with global reach, are not only a threat to the hated West. They are a threat to those Muslims who, while convinced of Islam’s truth, wish to promote their faith through persuasion rather than coercion. Only the latter seem likely to build Islamic societies that can enjoy the fruits of political and economic freedom without becoming Muslim imitations of Western decadence.
How can the Catholic Church, in its dialogue with the worlds-within-worlds of Islam, help marginalize the Islamicists while strengthening the hand of devout Muslims interested in building free societies and a new, law-governed world order? It would be fanciful to suggest that there is a lot the Catholic Church can do about this. But the Church’s official dialogues with Muslims can avoid the trap of giving credibility to Islamicist radicals by deeming them fit dialogue partners. At the same time, the Church can help give visibility to Islamic scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders who are wrestling in good faith with some very tough questions.
For example: Is it possible to ground a religious theory of religious freedom in the Qu’ran and other authoritative Muslim sources? Is it possible to imagine, in Islam, something similar to the crucial distinction that St. Augustine made between the City of God and the earthly city – a distinction that, over time, helped make possible pluralism and democracy? Can Islam develop a capacity for self-criticism, such that Muslims who argue against the Islamicists are neither in mortal peril nor religiously and socially ostracized? Can Islam imagine something like the “Day of Pardon” in St. Peter’s Basilica during the Great Jubilee of 2000, during which the Pope and the senior leaders of the Catholic Church asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of the people of the Church against those of other faiths?
A lot of twenty-first century history is riding on the answers to those questions. Archbishop Fitzgerald has his work cut out for him.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.