Spengler wrote in this space on Monday about how, at the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI baptized and received into the Catholic Church Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born author and critic of Islamic fundamentalism. Just last week, Osama bin Laden had rather absurdly accused Benedict XVI of participating in a “crusade” against Islam, a charge that the Vatican of course denies. In these circumstances, when the pope personally baptizes a Muslim man who is a famous public critic of Islam and does so on international television, well, it seems pretty obvious that the Holy Father is giving radical Islam one in the eye.
But then Reuters reports that Cardinal Re tells an Italian newspaper, “Conversion is a private matter, a personal thing, and we hope that the baptism will not be interpreted negatively by Islam.” A private matter? When it takes place at the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica and on international television? Good luck with that one, Eminence. Not surprisingly, the conversion of Mr. Allam was big news in the Italian press, and the Vatican certainly foresaw this result. That, presumably, is why the pope’s staff did not disclose to the media that Benedict would baptize Mr. Allam at the vigil until less than an hour before the ceremony began.
What about Cardinal Re’s hope that “the baptism will not be interpreted negatively” by Muslims? Well, Yaha Sergio Yahe Pallavinci, the vice-president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community seems to be interpreting it negatively. “What amazed me is the high profile the Vatican has given this conversion. Why could he have not done this in his local parish?” No word from bin Laden yet, but I venture to say that his interpretation will be even more negative than that of Mr. Pallavinci.
Now, if the pope wants to send a message to bin Laden and his ilk that he will not be intimidated by their threats and that he will preach the Gospel in season and out, including to Muslims, then well and good. That’s a message of which I heartily approve. But the Vatican should be straightforward about it. It shouldn’t try to say that when the pope baptizes a famous public critic of Islam on international television it’s “a private matter” or that it thinks that Muslims will not interpret the event negatively. Both ideas are ridiculous, and saying such things makes the Vatican look either foolish or disingenuous. Winston Churchill once said that if you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite. There’s a converse to this maxim: if you intentionally flip someone the bird, don’t pretend afterwards you did it by accident.
This sort of thing has happened before in Benedict’s pontificate. At Regensburg, Benedict wanted to take Islam to task for being insufficiently amendable to reason, and so he made a very strong speech, needlessly quoting, albeit without endorsing, a Byzantine emperor who said that everything new in Islam was “evil and inhuman.” This was a shot across the bow of Islam. But then, when the Muslim reaction—which anyone in public life should have foreseen—was extremely angry and in some cases even violent, Benedict issued a series of increasingly sweeping apologies. With the Regensburg speech and now again with the conversion of Mr. Allam, it seems that Benedict wants to speak and act boldly, but when the inevitable reactions come, he wants to avoid responsibility by saying he was misunderstood. He can’t have it both ways.
It would be better to take one position and stick to it, to say in effect, “Here are our real beliefs and our real values. If you don’t like them, that’s too bad. You have some beliefs and values we don’t like much either.” Don’t say one thing one minute and another the next.
I have Scripture on my side here. Do I make plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes (2 Cor. 1:17-19).