Pope Benedict Wants You!

source: newsweek, April, 2008

One thing that devout believers in ecumenical dialogue simply don't get about the Roman Catholic Church is that its leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, truly believe that theirs is the one, true faith. Although the church has given up conversion by the sword and waterboarding (a form of interrogation used on heretics during the Inquisition), the Vatican's raison d'etre remains the conversion of everyone–including Muslims. We don't hear much about this today, because the belief that your religion is truer and better than anyone else's doesn't sit well in democratic societies.


Let me interrupt my argument at this point to acknowledge the objections of those who chastise me for mentioning the Inquisition too frequently when I talk about Catholicism. Call me crazy, but whenever I hear the word "conversion," the Inquisition and its "special methods" just leap to mind.

The imperious Benedict has taken less trouble than his predecessor, John Paul II, to conceal his dedication to a theology that regards other religions (not to mention secularism) as inferior. The pope's personal baptism, at a widely publicized Easter vigil service, of an Egyptian-born Muslim, Magdi Allam–now an editor of one of Italy's most prominent newspapers, Corriere della Sera,–is a case in point. Allam, in a column discussing his conversion, wrote in his newspaper that the "root of all evil is innate in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual." (The word "conflictual" was probably issued by some Department of Translation Into Bad English.)

Allam, who once attended a Catholic school in Egypt, is persona non grata not only to most Muslims but to a great many secular Italians, who tend to view his conversion as an exemplary "out of the frying pan, into the fire" move. The Vatican took care to state that Allam was expressing his personal opinion, not the opinion of the Catholic Church. But a Vatican spokesmen also expressed displeasure at any suggestion that Allam's conversion was an example of the danger of placing Muslim students in Christian schools.

Does anyone seriously think that the Vatican finances mission schools around the world because it does not hope to gain converts? In this regard, it should be noted, the Catholic Church does not differ from other proselytizing Christian churches that offer a wide variety of social services along with a strong dose of religious indoctrination. Alas, some of these American churches are now subsidized by American taxpayer money for faith-based programs.

The Catholic emphasis on conversion has remained remarkably consistent throughout history. Pope John Paul II's canonization of the Carmelite nun Edith Stein, a German Catholic convert from Judaism who died in Auschwitz, is a prime example. Stein was sent to Auschwitz for one reason: she was born a Jew, and for the Nazis, no religious conversion wiped out the "racial" stain of Jewishness. Yet the church considers her a Catholic martyr–a position as offensive to many Jews, and as impervious to the fact of who was targeted for extermination during the Holocaust–as some of Benedict's statements about Islam have been to many Muslims. Stein was murdered by the Nazis because of her Jewish "blood," not her Catholic faith.

Of course, Benedict can get away with offending Muslims more easily at the moment than he can with offending Jews. Much of post-Christian, secular Europe is terrified of the Muslim immigrants in its midst and would probably love to see a population of Muslim converts to Catholicism.

I have little doubt, though, that Benedict will make nice with American Muslim leaders during his visit to the United States next week. Since his real purpose in visiting the U.S. is to stem the bleeding of American-born Catholics who have left the church during the past two decades, he won't be picking any fights with members of other faiths. In fact, Benedict's biggest admirers in America are right-wing Protestant evangelicals, and they certainly won't object to his desire to convert non-Christian "heretics."

Is the pope Catholic? You bet. And that means he wants to turn many more of the world's pesky inhabitants who believe in a "wrong" religion, or, worse yet, in no religion at all, into Catholics.

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