Conversion is good news

  • April 4, 2008
We could have predicted the outcry of Muslim clerics following the Easter Baptism of Italian journalist Magdi Allam (“Muslim writer’s public conversion upsets scholars ,” April 6).
Until his conversion, Allam had been Italy’s most conspicuous Muslim. Now the deputy editor and crusading columnist at Corriere della Sera, Italy’s influential daily newspaper, was Italy’s most conspicuous apostate from Islam, and the country’s most high-profile convert to the Catholic Church since Israel Anton Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome, who joined the church shortly after the Second World War.

Nor did Allam join the church in a low-profile manner. The rites of initiation were performed by Pope Benedict XVI at the televised first Mass of Easter, the most famous of our Christian festivals, in St. Peter’s Basilica, Catholicism’s most famous church — a headline-grabbing event that ensured the storm of public controversy that broke out immediately afterward in the Italian and European press.

But if the rage of Islamic officials was to be expected, I wasn’t quite ready for the grumbles of Catholic priests, as reported by Allam. “I am dismayed and saddened when even some members of the Catholic clergy say that it would have been preferable if my Baptism had taken place in a local parish, in a remote town,” he said. “As if my Baptism was something shameful to hide as much as possible.”

I don’t think these Catholic critics knew their man. Allam has never done anything quietly. He has been unsparing in his attacks on Islamic fundamentalism and Europe’s devotion to multiculturalism as a way to cure the Islamic extremism in its midst. More controversially, he has even gone so far as to denounce Islam as “physiologically violent and historically conflictive.”

He has also zealously backed Israel in its fight against Palestinian and other Islamic radicals — an exceedingly obnoxious position to many Muslims — and forcefully argued for the Jewish state’s right to exist and prosper. We may question Pope Benedict’s wisdom in extending the invitation to Allam to convert under the glare of television lights, but I am hardly surprised that this pugnacious, flamboyant writer did not turn it down.

I am not going to discuss here the fine points of our new brother’s political stances, which seem to me stark, but which certainly express points of view — especially on Islam — that are widespread, though rarely voiced so loudly, among European political observers.

The negative opinions of some Catholic clergy about the manner of Allam’s conversion, however, strike me as appalling, and deserve some comment.

How and where and when he joined the church was basically nobody’s business except his own and the Pope who baptized him. But if Allam and Benedict decided to make it all the world’s business, as they did in this instance, Christians should rejoice, not complain. Conversion can be — always should be — a proclamation of the Gospel’s power to save and heal, even if it makes some people angry. As every convert knows well, the decision to become a member of the Catholic Church often makes people angry. So be it.

But, the critics suggest, couldn’t Allam have converted in a more prudent way? This question can be answered by another one: When are Catholics going to see “prudence” as the often cowardly thing it is? Though our bishops are frequently outspoken on such matters as the right to life, immigration, human dignity and so on, they (and the rest of us Catholics) should take more direct, public aim at the anti-Christian forces arrayed against us and our Christian brothers and sisters, especially militant Islam and militant secularism.

Catholics sometimes act as though being “affirmative” and unprovocative all the time is the antidote to the “triumphalism” that presumably marred the church in former days. This attitude can easily shade off into a kind of Vichy mentality: humbly going about our business, being compliant and silent, so as not to upset the brutal armies occupying our territory. It is high time to stop acting like passive subjects of the powers that be and start acting like partisans, fighting to take back the freedom gradually (and, in many places, not so gradually) being taken from believers by aggressively secular and anti-Christian culture.

Whatever one makes of Magdi Allam’s political opinions, he is a courageous opponent of the anti-human forces abroad in the world, willing to fight on for what he believes despite the condemnations to death that have been issued against him by Muslim extremists. His witness to Christ and humanity is an example of resistance for all Christians, and encouragement to those, like the Catholic clergy who criticized him, to stop being timid about what we believe and the values we stand for. So what if Allam chose to convert in the most noticeable way possible? His turn to Christ from Islam is good news for all Christians — something worth shouting from the rooftops.

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