“The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1942 – “Letter 12″)
“There are no coincidences, only signs.” I have no idea who wrote that, but I have long remembered it, and it came spontaneously to mind as I began this post.
When I wrote “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata,” I described the famous John Guare play, “Six Degrees of Separation.” Its title was based on a 1967 theory by sociologist, Stanley Milgram who concluded that any two people on earth are connected to each other – directly or indirectly – by no more than six other people.
In that post, I wrote about the eerie coincidences I encountered during a prison visit from Pierre Matthews – my good friend and Pornchai’s Godfather. As a young man, Pierre met Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo, and received his blessing as the famous priest placed his bandaged hands upon the young Pierre’s head. Then when I wrote of the great cosmologist, Father Georges Lemaitre, in “A Day Without Yesterday,” Pierre sent me a photograph of himself as a boy serving Mass with Father LeMaitre who had signed the photo. I am in awe that my friend and Pornchai’s Godfather knew two of the great heroes of faith I have written about on These Stone Walls.
TSW reader, Jamil Malik had one of these strange “small world” encounters earlier this month. You may have read some memorable comments on These Stone Walls by Jamil Malik. Jamil is a young Egyptian student who first came across TSW late last year. From a recent snail-mail letter, I have learned that Jamil is one of a small minority of Coptic Christians living In Egypt. As legend has it, Christianity was brought to Alexandria in Egypt by Saint Mark the Evangelist.
The Coptic Christians are the Middle East’s most ancient expression of Christianity. They have co-existed as a small minority in Egypt – sometimes under great persecution – with the 95-percent Muslim majority since the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the year 642. Jamil commented on my post, “Saint Patrick and the Labyrthine Ways” that Patriarch Shenouda passed from this life on March 17th. Patriarch Shenouda led the Coptic Church of Egypt for the last four decades. Let us pray for him and for the Coptic Christians.
As an Egyptian student of Coptic Christianity, Jamil Malik has been especially interested in the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen Gnostic Christian texts dating as far back as 150 AD. The texts were written on papyrus in Greek and hidden, probably by Christian monks, by the Fifth Century. They were discovered 1,500 years later in Nag Hammadi along the Nile River in 1945. These texts are the very roots or the Coptic Christians’ existence in Egypt, and Jamil has devoted his young life to studying them.
One of the world’s leading experts on the Nag Hammadi Library, and one of its primary translators, was my late uncle, Father George W. MacRae. He was a Jesuit, Scripture scholar, who was Harvard University’s Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, and an authority on Ancient Near Eastern languages and texts. Uncle George was my father’s brother, older by two years, who died suddenly at age 57 in 1985.
He had to drop out of plans we had to visit the exhibit of Pharaoh Ramses II in Montreal because he was asked to present the annual Scripture symposium to a conference of bishops that year. While I stood alone before the artifacts of Pharaoh Ramses in Montreal, my Uncle George succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage following his treatise on the Gospel of Saint Mark. My uncle’s texts and commentaries on the Nag Hammadi Library were used in formal studies by Jamil Malik who is stunned to learn of this connection – as am I.
Jamil first learned of this when I mentioned my Uncle George four months ago in “What Do John Wayne and Pornchai Moontri Have in Common?” Jamil was drawn to that post because he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Pornchai Moontri, and especially in “Pornchai’s Story.” In his comments on TSW, Jamil often writes of his respect and admiration for our friend, Pornchai, and of how Pornchai’s conversion has influenced him and others among his friends struggling to live as Christians despite real persecution in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
Jamil communicates with me, and posts his comments on TSW, through a friend in the Boston area, but Jamil Malik is not his real name. In a recent snail-mail letter, he explained that he has been urged by his Muslim cousins not to use his real name “on the websites of the Infidels.” He asked me not to take that personally. Jamil wrote that some of his cousins were born in the United States, and are citizens, but they fear being seen by their Egyptian Muslim kin as entering into far too much accommodation with suspect American values. “The Infidel,” Jamil wrote, “is not how we see you or Pornchai, or even how we see Catholics, but it’s how we see most Americans, especially now.”
Jamil’s letter left me hanging with the “especially now” part, so if he’s reading this, I would really appreciate knowing what he meant by that. I asked Pornchai what he thinks Jamil meant by “especially now” in his letter. Pornchai thinks Jamil is concerned with Post 9/11 America, with the vast expansion of secularism, and with the ways the Catholic Church in America “has been kicked to the curb” (Pornchai’s words).
I think Pornchai is right. I have been very intrigued by most of Jamil’s comments on TSW, so I re-read some of his past comments hoping to gain some insight into his “especially now” remark. This one, posted on “Faith Trumps Relativism: Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day,” was one of Jamil’s first comments on TSW, and it’s an eye-opener – “especially now”!
“Many of us have wondered whether anyone in the West even noticed the difference between what happened in the Arab Spring and those shameful four days [of rioting] in London [last] summer. And if this is indeed the onset of a Catholic Spring . . . know this: my struggling young friends in Libya and Iran have something to say to Americans ready to disown their faith on the advice of pocket-lining lawyers and Snap’s obsession with their own selfish plight. I have friends who have been shot for their faith – in the last few months, not forty years ago.”
That, for me, is Jamil’s wake-up call. The Catholic Church in America – and I do not refer just to the United States of America – is in the process of being parked a block or so outside the Public Square, and it’s going to be accomplished by a force I have written of before on These Stone Walls. It is the most insidious force of all, but it is vague and subtle and indistinct, and we cannot blame President Obama for it. That force is best characterized as “the noise of a few, and the silence of many.”
It must seem an utter abomination to Jamil – whose faith and those with whom he shares it have endured 1,500 years of open persecution without ever caving in – to see so many American Catholics passively accept the new suppression of their Church’s moral authority in the American public square.
Let’s be clear. The issue is not whether Catholic Americans should bow to the values of their government on a matter like contraception. The issue is whether Catholic Americans are prepared to let their government dictate whether their faith even still has a right to hold forth a moral ideal.
Some of Jamil’s friends have died defending such a right. To see Americans squander it is a scandal in his eyes, an abomination that defines us as the infidels his Muslim countrymen suspect us to be. I wish there were a gentler way to say that. I suspect Jamil would be disappointed in me if I found one, however.
WITH BURNING ANXIETY
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial early this month entitled “Bishop Dolan’s Liberty Letter” (March 6, 2012). The Journal editorial quoted Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the United States Conference of Bishops, in a letter on religious freedom:
“We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans.”
Then the Journal editors went on to describe that the current Administration “is using raw political force” to dismantle a concordance and remove from the table a promised accommodation to religious freedom in the form of a religious exemption. The Wall Street Journal editorial defended Cardinal Dolan’s letter with something that I found perplexing:
“The test of pluralism in a democracy,” the editors wrote, “is the protection afforded to minority views, especially of religious faith and practice.” Have I missed something during 18 years of imprisonment? How and when did the moral voice of American Catholicism become a “minority view?”
TSW reader Dorothy Stein told me that she left a comment on that editorial at the Journal’s website. She said she left the comment on the same day it was published, but her’s was comment number 287. She knew her words would be lost among the onslaught of anti-Catholic rhetoric – not to mention anti-Clerical Catholic rhetoric – but she proceeded anyway. She wrote that it comes as no great mystery to her that the stage for dismantling Catholic moral authority in the public square was preceded by a decade of virulent Catholic scandal in the news media.
Writing for Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Charles P. Poole, Ph.D. pointed out that the American bishops speaking out on this is reminiscent of something that occurred seventy-five years ago:
“On Palm Sunday, 1937 . . . Pope Pius XI dispatched the encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”), which was smuggled into Nazi Germany to be read at all of the Masses that Sunday. It condemned the breaches of the Nazi government of the [concordat] agreement which it had signed with the Church four years earlier.” (“With Burning Anxiety,” HPR, Feb. 5, 2012).
Alert TSW readers might be having a deja vu moment right about now. A result of the Pope’s confrontation with the Third Reich in 1937 is something I have written extensively about in two posts worth reading anew “especially now,” as Jamil Malik declared. They are “Catholic Scandal & The Third Reich: The Rise & Fall of a Moral Panic” and “SNAP’s Last Gasp! The Pope’s ‘Crimes Against Humanity’.” I think Jamil might find them shocking. I think you might also if you haven’t already.
In those two posts, I described in great detail what happened in Nazi Germany when the Church asserted the inalienable right to religious liberty and the freedom of conscience over the demands of power. The result was that hundreds of Catholic priests in Germany were rounded up and accused of contrived sexual abuse claims. The entire debacle, it was later discovered, was the brainchild of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. It served but one purpose, and with great effect: to get the Catholic Church, and its public influence, and its moral authority out of Hitler’s way.
I hope Jamil Malik takes some solace in the fact that he has stirred in me, at least, a determination to hold fast against the never-ending accommodations to secularism now expected of Catholics living in the Garden of Good and Evil. For as Adolf Hitler himself summed it up:
“The great mass of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Ch. 10, 1925)
I think Hitler was onto something, for that seems very true.