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There are many things that need to be said about the Muslim reaction to those cartoons in the Danish newspaper, and yesterday in this space Joseph Bottum said some of them very well. They need to be said because the most frontal challenge imaginable has been put to the West. It is a challenge that may soon be backed up by a nuclear threat from Iran.

The challenge is simply this: A very large sector of the Islamic world is now demanding that the West live by Islamic rules. The challenge is issued not just by radical jihadists but by governments such as Syria where “spontaneous” demonstrations are orchestrated by the state.

The conflagration is not, as many American and European editorialists are opining, about sensitivity to the religious feelings of others. The same editorialists routinely approve of “transgressive” art and vituperative rhetoric that trashes Christianity. Nor is it about the “hypocrisy” or “unfairness” of Muslims who incessantly publish vile anti-Semitic and anti-Christian caricatures, although what they do is certainly not nice.

No, the teaching of Islam is that it is blasphemy to visually depict Muhammed, whether favorably or unfavorably, but especially unfavorably. It is also impermissible to criticize the teachings of the Qur’an and the hadith. These and many other prohibitions are part of the sharia law that militant Islamists are intent upon imposing upon Islam and, insofar as they are able, on the world.

The current explosion of violent protest is to be understood as a demand that Denmark, and the West more generally, subject itself to Islamic rules about what can and cannot be published. The European response to date, unfortunately aided by pusillanimous comments by our State Department, is an instance of what Margaret Thatcher called “going wobbly.” Warnings by some that Europe is on the way to becoming “Eurabia” have gained further credibility.

A free press is by no means an unmixed blessing, but it is an essential part of the democratic way of life that we cherish and, as a nation, intend to advance elsewhere. It could turn out to be the case that most of the Islamic world, under the control of those who hold political and religious power, ends up by rejecting the democratic way, which would be very sad. But there should not be the slightest hesitation on our part in making clear that we will not compromise our freedoms by submitting to their rules. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a great deal of timorous hesitation at present.

Of course, it would be much easier to resist Muslim demands if Europe in particular had a positive identity to which it could appeal. In response to those offended by the exercise of freedom, Europe could then say, “Ah yes, we understand your point of view, and you may very well be right about the requirements of Islam. But, you see, we are Christian, not Muslim, countries, and, meaning no offense, your rules don’t apply here.”

It has been a very long time since Europe could speak with such confidence. And, if we are not alert to the nature of the challenge posed, America could be similarly unnerved.

The National Catholic Reporter has a dispiriting story on the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. The center was the 1989 idea of Adam Maida, then bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and now Cardinal Archbishop of Detroit. He sold Pope John Paul II on the proposal and the center, built at a cost of about $70 million, was dedicated in 2001.

Interest in the center has been grievously disappointing. The hundreds of thousands of tourists and schoolchildren simply haven’t shown up. Part of the reason is that it is located in an out-of-the-way section of Washington near Catholic University, although the nearby Shrine of the Immaculate Conception attracts steady crowds. A bigger problem is that it was never quite clear what the center was supposed to be.

Early on, Cardinal Maida recruited George Weigel and me as consultants, and it was hoped that, in addition to being a tourist attraction, the center would have a significant study and research component focused on the pontificate of John Paul the Great within the context of Catholic history and contemporary challenges.

The focus of the planning, however, was soon dominated by Ed Schlossberg, the gifted head of ESI, an “experiential design” company. I lost interest and dropped out of the project when it became evident that it would be chiefly a constellation of high-tech and very expensive interactive exhibits aimed at minimal education through entertainment. The center is housed in a building that is acclaimed by some critics as daring but suggests to others a NASA tourist facility with an inconspicuous cross inexplicably tacked on to one corner. According to a Washington tourism directory, the center “provides a serene and engaging space for visitors to explore their spiritual journey.”

I take no satisfaction whatever in the apparent failure of the center, and hope that it may yet find a mission to justify the enormous investment, financial and otherwise. One part of the NCR story should be challenged, however. Much is made of the enormous debt the Archdiocese of Detroit has incurred because of the center¯estimated to be about $36 million. It is pointed out that this comes at a time when the archdiocese is still closing parishes and schools in the city.

Fifty years ago Detroit had a population of two million, with half of the people being Catholic. Today it has a population of less than one million, and about 12 percent are Catholic. The reality is that there are parishes with almost no resident parishioners. These parishes are marginally supported by Catholics who come in from the suburbs on Sundays because of nostalgia for the church in which they or their parents were baptized, or because a parish offers a distinctive liturgical or theological style. Such parishes serve a niche market, so to speak. For instance, Thomas Gumbleton, whose resignation as auxiliary bishop was recently accepted, is pastor of St. Leo’s on the West Side of Detroit which is a parochial center of anti-war and gay activism.

However disappointing the response to the John Paul II Cultural Center, and however great the financial problems it has created for the archdiocese, the closing and realignment of parishes in the city of Detroit is a problem distinct from the center. In most respects, the archdiocese is flourishing in the affluent suburbs surrounding the city. It is simply that it has been for a long time, and is increasingly, somewhat of a misnomer to call it the Archdiocese of Detroit .

In addition to which :

Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth is the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, out from Basic Books on February 1. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal and author of John Paul the Great says this:

"This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you’re a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book."

Catholic Matters can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here .

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