Last week the Vatican published an extraordinary letter, of the man-bites-dog genre. The letter was from Cardinal Tauran, head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and addressed simply to his “Dear Muslim friends.” Putting aside 1300 years of bitter rivalry, Cardinal Tauran called on his Muslim friends to unite with the Church to combat a common foe: you, me, and everyone else who objects to God expert domination of society. Cardinal Tauran warned Muslims to face up to “ a reality which Christians and Muslims consider to be of prime importance ... the challenges of materialism and secularisation.” Then he got down to brass tacks:
[T]he transmission of such human and moral values to the younger generations constitutes a common concern. It is our duty to help them discover that there is both good and evil, that conscience is a sanctuary to be respected, and that cultivating the spiritual dimension makes us more responsible, more supportive, more available for the common good.
Christians and Muslims are too often witnesses to the violation of the sacred, of the mistrust of which those who call themselves believers are the target. We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.
There are more code words here than you can shake a stick at. “Conscience is a sanctuary to be respected” is a code word for placing God experts above the law, so they can ignore rules that apply to the rest of us because God’s commandments (as communicated by them) are superior to the common sense solutions devised by mere mortals. Thus, for example, religious organizations must be free to discriminate against Jews and same-sex married couples, whether or not the law allows anyone else to do so. “Transmission of such human and moral values to the younger generations” is a code word for taxpayer financial support for the religious brainwashing of children, teaching them that people like you and me deserve to be tortured in hell forever. “Discrimination in the mass media” is a code word for the free expression of views like those you are reading now, views which I would have a hard time publishing in, say, Iran – a state of affairs leaving Cardinal Tauran green with envy.
This is not the first time Christians have reached out to Islam for cooperation against a common foe. To appreciate the magnitude of the irony, it is necessary to remember that Islam burst out of Arabia in the 7th century largely as a rebellion against a decrepit Roman empire of the east. The Arab barbarians who swept north as far as Hungary and west as far as Spain destroyed the institutions of Christian civilization as they went, replacing them with a desert offshoot of Jewish monotheism. Not until the end of the 11th century did Christendom strike back, with its ultimately unsuccessful Crusades to recapture Palestine. By the time the Protestant Reformation broke out, a neutral observer might have predicted that Islam, not Christianity, would ultimately dominate Europe. Indeed, one of the principal reasons why the Habsburg emperor Charles V failed to crush the upstart Martin Luther like a bug was that he was too busy defending Vienna itself from an Ottoman Muslim siege.
The Reformation itself was in many ways a rebellion of those motivated by Godliness against a Catholic Church that had grown rich, decadent, and (worst of all) secularized. Protestant reformers sought to purify Christianity against the influence of the “Whore of Babylon.” There was low-level violence between Protestants and Catholics throughout the 16th century, but the carnage commenced in earnest in 1618, with a dispute over whether a Catholic or a Protestant would rule Bohemia.
The resulting Thirty Years War, as it became known, was the greatest man-made disaster ever visited upon Europe, far worse than World War II. Things went poorly for the Protestant side from the outset. Not only was their man displaced from Bohemia, but the Jesuit-dominated Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II decided that this would be a great opportunity to wipe out Protestantism once and for all. Ferdinand's generals piled up victory after victory, and it looked like he was going to succeed.
Then Protestant diplomacy kicked into gear. The 17th century version of Cardinal Tauran persuaded the Ottoman Muslim Sultan, Murad IV, that if Ferdinand prevailed against the Protestants, the balance of power might be disrupted, and perhaps he might then turn to the east. The ploy worked, at least initially. Next thing you know, Muslim armies were drawn up alongside Protestant armies to face down a common enemy, just like the coalition the Vatican is trying to array against humanism today. In fact, the Protestant-Muslim alliance was not as farfetched as one might think; theologically, both believed in predestination of the elect, as opposed to the Catholic doctrine of free will.
People who speculate on the “what-ifs” of history have a hard time with what would have happened if the Muslim-Protestant coalition had destroyed the Habsburgs. My guess is that we’d all be praying to Allah today, since the Habsburgs were the only force that ever prevented the Muslims from overrunning the rest of Europe. What actually happened back in 1626, though, was that over on the other side of his empire Murad suffered an embarrassing defeat against the Persians, and thus hastily withdrew his armies from the Protestant camp. The abandoned Protestants then surrendered without a fight, signing a treaty at Bratislava giving Ferdinand nearly everything he wanted.
Ferdinand proceeded to squander his success, largely because the Jesuits persuaded him that his brilliant military commander wasn’t religious enough, but that’s another story. Today’s story is the travesty of Christians once again trying to ally with Muslims against a common enemy. When Cardinal Tauran gushes about the common “human and moral values” of Islam and Christianity, is he talking about polygamy? The Church prattles on until it’s blue in the face about marriage being between one man and one woman, yet is now delighted to ally with those who say no, it’s between one man and four women. Is he talking about genital mutilation? Al-Azhar, the Muslim equivalent of the Vatican, says it’s a critical part of Islam; when the Cardinal urges the rights of conscience to defy laws of the state, does he mean the anti-mutilation laws as well?
Is he talking about evolution? The Catholic Church, unlike many Protestants, today acknowledges the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution. Islam most emphatically does not. Since this is all about cynical politics rather than moral principles, would the Church be willing to throw evolution over the side in order to cement a more perfect union against humanism with its Muslim allies?
For your sake and mine, let’s hope this latest Christian-Muslim joint venture turns out as poorly as the one back in 1626.