Rorate Caeli

How to respond to Islam: reply to Geoffrey Sales. Op Ed

Ladies wearing mantillas at the St Catherine's Trust Summer School in Wales
Over on 'All Along the Watchtower' the blogger Geoffrey Sales has done me the honour of responding, mostly positively, to my short series of posts about Islam. My argument concluded with the suggestion that, if we want try to make the point that we aren't part of the decadent West, which revivalist Muslims (not just the really crazy ones), and the rising Hindus, Buddhists, and Pentecostalists, quite rightly reject, then we could try restoring the use of head coverings by Catholic women in church.

This would signal a rejection of both decadent sexual mores and of the attack on the difference between the sexes.

Contemplate the likelihood of this happening any time soon, and you will glimpse the depth of the problem.

Geoffrey Sales, though, is having none of it. He remarks:

Best of luck with that one – bound to work, make ourselves look more like the Taliban rather than challenging Islam with the Gospel Truth.

One the one hand, as I indicated there is going to be huge resistance to the restoration of head coverings precisely because it is instinctively understood as a move away from sexual liberation and the like. But to resist it as because it is in some kind of tension with 'Gospel truth': this just seems bizarre. Sales is a Baptist. He knows as well as I do - surely - that women covering their heads in church is sternly commanded by St Paul (1 Cor 11:5). Was St Paul steering his congregation away from 'Gospel truth'? Those who founded the Baptist tradition insisted on head coverings for women in church: were they against 'Gospel truth'? Was everyone in the Christian tradition against 'Gospel truth' up until the 20th century?

What I can't help wondering is that, despite engaging with my general argument that the Christians of the West have made a great mistake in throwing their lot in with a set of Western values which, on any mainstream religious view, are grossly decadent, Mr Sales remains attracted by the idea that by becoming decadent, by leaving behind the Gospel message as our ancestors of all times until less than a century ago understood it (fifty years ago for Catholics), we've become more faithful to the 'real Jesus' or some tripe like that. That, in short, a bit of decadence is actually a good thing.

But let's examine what Mr Sales balks at: doing something which gives us something in common with the Taliban (and every practicing Muslim on the planet); in this, he says, we would be making a mistake, because we should be confronting them with the 'Gospel truth'. Where, in fact, the divergence of our customs with theirs has created an obstacle to mutual understanding, we should refuse to reconsider our customs. And this even when this rebellion against this formerly shared custom was in truth a rebellion against a shared understanding, a shared understanding to which we continue to pay lip service. We claim to reject sexual decadence; the Muslims look at our lifestyle, and even the clothing in which we worship God, and draw the perfectly correct conclusion that we may talk the talk but we don't walk the walk.

For we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ our Lord: so says St Paul (2 Cor 4:5). This is a saying sometimes seized on by the enemies of Tradition. In this case, the boot is on the other foot. The decadent customs of the West are so important to liberal Christians that they don't want to give them up, whatever the cost for evangelisation. These personal preferences have become more precious than the Gospel message.

Ah but no, Mr Sales might say: what we want to evangelise is a Protestant notion of a completely unincarnated Christian message, a message with no social manifestation, the unvarnished, spiritual, Jesus:

If the Spirit moves you, then you don’t need a head-covering to show it – though, of course, it might lead that way.

Do you think they look like the Taliban? Neither do I. Receiving the 'first blessing' of
Fr Richard Bailey Cong Orat following Mass, at the Summer School.
As well as the sheer inconvenience and embarrassment of doing something which everyone can see flies in the face of the decadent Western lifestyle, there is always this kind of argument to fall back on. We don't want to do anything to show we love and honour God because what's important is that we love and honour God in our hearts - our Faith is purely spiritual. This argument needs only to be stated clearly to show its absurdity.

What strikes me is how often the Church has put herself in this situation.

We have a lot in common with the Orthodox, including the fundamental principles of our liturgical tradition. We don't formally deny those principles, but our worship - outside the places where the Traditional liturgy is celebrated - now looks utterly alien to them, because we have become embarrassed about those principles: the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice, the idea that it is offered to God and not to the congregation, the continuity of the liturgy with all times and places. Most Catholics, most bishops indeed, can't bear any more to worship in a way which actually shows we believe these things; we just write them down in a book and keep that book safely on a shelf, unopened.

We have a lot in common with evangelical Protestants, notably the very high honour Catholic theology gives to Scripture: the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, with a true Divine author, speaking to us today. But though the official documents still say that, we - as a whole, which is to say Catholics of the mainstream - can't actually bring ourselves to live like that, to talk like that, or to do our Biblical scholarship as if that were true. And so what we actually have in common with evangelicals, we hide, we pretend we don't believe.

Our embarrassment about the Tradition has cut us off from so much shared by non-Catholic Christians, and so much that is shared by non-Christian religions. Our modern customs, which appear so indispensable to so many Catholics today, obscure these opportunities for genuine dialogue and witness to the Gospel.

Fifty years ago it may have seemed more important to make ourselves less unacceptable to liberal Protestants  and the secular media, than to maintain some degree of mutual understanding and respect with non-Christians, with the Orthodox, and with 'biblical' Protestants. Now that calculation appears decidedly dated.
Catholic faithful in a Paul VI mass in Korea, which the Pope visits this week (source: Asianews)