At National Catholic Reporter, John Allen reports on the renunciation of Catholic faith by the most acclaimed convert of the former pope Benedict’s tenure, Magdi Allam. Aside from the troubling case of a pope baptizing this public figure who misrepresents Islam as a violent ideology even as he enters the Catholic Church, John Allen ponders whether every Catholic struggles with the very reasons Allam is leaving the Church in some way.
In examining my own understanding of Catholicism, it becomes clear how afflicted by these the American Church (which I know primarily) is and how Allam’s criticism are truly those echoed by Catholics all over. Allam’s exit from the Catholic faith, namely in his essay explicating the reasons, is a perfect place to understand why the Catholic community is splintered. In it, I agree with John Allen’s assessment that Allam’s critiques are within each of us, but I extend that to celebrate the very things Allam critiques as fundamental to reconciling a splintered American Church.
Allam, in his own words, exits the Catholic community for four reasons, the first is:
“‘Relativism,’ meaning the fact that the church ‘welcomes inside itself an infinity of communities, congregations, ideologies and material interests that translate into containing everything and the opposite of everything.
Allam’s critique of the Church for what I perceive as a pastoral inclination, which he labels ‘relativism,’ is a search for purity. John Allen correctly writes:
“Catholicism is a church rather than a sect, meaning that membership in the family of the faith has always been more fundamental than ideological purity…
“This doesn’t mean absolutely anything goes, and negotiating the limits of this diversity is a constant source of heartburn. The point, however, is that anyone who enters the Catholic church or who remains in it expecting it to behave like a political party is destined for disappointment.”
Too often, in the American Church, many come to expect our faith to function as a vehicle for their political agendas or for the faith community itself to be a partisan player like Allam seems to expect. Recent debacles with feigned religious liberty issues around HHS mandate or marriage equality mean some of this is top-down imposition, while any Catholic on social media knows there is grassroots support for every side.
We’ve divided up into parish enclaves liturgically, devotionally, economically, socially, politically, and commenced purging, quietly, those who reject our vision of the Church. Allam rejects that the Catholic Church contains “everything and the opposite of everything,” but the principle of “both/and” is one of the most fundamental in our theology. When we demand purity from our fellow Catholics, intolerant of something that is most beautiful within the Catholic faith – the universality and inclusivity of expressions — then we similarly reject that “both/and” for “one/only.”
In restoring an appreciation for difference, for one faith expressed infinitely and yet intimately the same, we commence on a reconciling journey of embracing a universal church instead of rejecting it for the church made in our image.
Allen identifies Allam’s second point as:
‘Globalism,’ meaning the church ‘takes positions ideologically contrary to nations as identities and civilizations that must be preserved, preaching the overcoming of national boundaries.’
To enter the Catholic community with a strongly nationalist understanding as Allam seems to possess points to poor catechetics. More deeply, we find these nationalist undertones in many local churches even as Catholic speech preaches against it. The US bishops reticence to more vocally opposed the Iraq War when it was acknowledged before the first bombs fell that such an invasion would decimate Christian populations provides ample evidence that American nationalism triumphed in our Church, when commonalities with Christian sisters and brothers should have. American Catholics are, assuredly, not the only with unrestrained nationalistic priorities.
We must embrace more earnestly this ‘globalism’ that Allam rejects. John Allen again correctly writes:
“Once again, anyone who doesn’t want to experience a degree of tension between their national loyalties and their religious identity is never going to be completely comfortable in Catholicism.”
We must ask ourselves, how uncomfortable are we, as Americans, waving a flag that represents the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated. When is the last time our prayers in Mass repented for the many, many acts of terrorism the US government commits on the daily. To truly know and come to live solidarity, a global vision – universal even – is required for American Catholics to reconcile with those in the same church across borders.
Finally, Allam provides his third reason:
“A tendency to being ‘do-gooders,’ meaning ‘putting on the same level, if not actually preferring’ the interests of people outside one’s community with the community’s own interests…
“…the Italian word used by Allam that I translated above as being ‘do-gooders’ is actually buonista, which has the sense not only of doing good deeds but of being a bit weak, seeking compromise even with irreconcilably opposed positions for the sake of avoiding conflict.”
In this point, I perceive the most cutting critique of Catholics – and our finest gift Allam misses. The pastoral sensitivities and preference for compassion over conflict expressed by Catholics of all stripes is a distinguishing mark of faith, not a weakness. Living out in full this tendency to legitimate other’s interests and seek common goals together, even if in tension, is a question I ask myself routinely. The polarized political discourses in America infect our church communities as well, but we must continue striving to return to ‘do-gooder’ status each and every encounter.
WIthin Allam’s ‘relativism,’ ‘globalism’ and ‘do-gooder’ criticisms, I see Catholics failing to live these out enough and I also see answers for how we can restore a Church that splinters and fights more than unifying in love.