Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †
-Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani
"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Toward the New Serfdom
How America came to accept using human embryos for research

June 17, 2008

9:00 AM EST

In the ten years since Dr. James Thomson at the University of Madison first procured human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), support for the prospect of using human embryos and fetuses for research purposes has gradually seeped into the American mindset to the point at which it is now broadly tolerated, if not openly endorsed, especially in the political arena, in academia, and certainly within the scientific community.[i][1]
As we continue to advance as a nation into the age of developmental biology there is reason to fear that Americans are slowly coming to embrace the idea of submitting one class of our citizenry to a lethal form of biotech serfdom. The class I am talking about, of course, are ex utero human embryos and early stage human fetuses.

How have we gotten to the point now where arguably half of the American population claims to approve of embryo-destructive biomedical research?

The very prospect of conducting direct research on human embryos, or creating them explicitly for the purposes of research, had been until very recently the object of near universal moral opprobrium in the public square. That began to change, however, with the advent of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the 1970s which made it possible to create human embryos in the laboratory and to engage in research on human embryonic development in addition to fertility problems. From that point on, the biomedical establishment's prospects for incorporating human embryos into their preferred research platforms was on the horizon as never before. Advocates knew at the time that progress in this direction would require a process of slowly eroding away popular resistance to the idea of using embryos for research purposes.

In 1994, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened the Human Embryo Research Panel in response to growing tensions over this prospect. The panel was designed to exclude from membership individuals who objected to embryo-destructive research. In its 1994 "Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel" the panel stated:

From the perspective of public policy, the Panel concludes that sufficient arguments exist to support the permissibility of certain areas of research involving the preimplantation human embryo within a framework of stringent guidelines. This conclusion is based on an assessment of the moral status of the preimplantation embryo from various viewpoints and not solely on its location ex utero... Although the preimplantation human embryo warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life, it does not have the same moral status as an infant or a child (p. x).

That panel went on to recommend[ii][2] federal funding for (1) the use of left over IVF embryos, as well as for (2) the direct creation of human embryos for research purposes. Both proposals received immediate public moral reprehension, including bipartisan rebukes from within Congress, consternation from the Clinton White House, and even a rebuke from The Washington Post editorial board: "The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable," said the Post editorial. "[I]t is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists' purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction."[iii][3]

Not withstanding the rebukes, however, the panel's enthusiasm for ushering in the era of embryo and fetal-based biomedical research was a clarion call to a broad body of researchers to continue to advance the overarching project of using embryos for research. The next crucial step in that project would come into play just four years later, namely, to garner broad public acceptance for human embryonic stem cell research.

Under immediate and severe pressure from Congress, President Clinton rejected the panel's second recommendation, but embraced the first and permitted the NIH to consider applications for the funding of research using embryos left over from IVF procedures. Congress disagreed, however, and attached language to the 1996 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (the annual budget bill that funds the HHS and the National Institutes of Health) prohibiting the use of federal funds for any research that destroys, discards or seriously endangers human embryos, or that creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment,[iv][4] has been attached to the HHS appropriations bill each year since then.

The following year, 1997, Ian Wilmut announced the birth of Dolly the sheep--the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned. This added further impetus to the hopes of harnessing the laws not only of mammalian development in general but especially of primate development. A year later, 1998, the science of developmental biology went mainstream when Dr. Thomson announced the isolation of hESCs for the first time.

This event added new and severe pressure on the Clinton administration to open the coffers of the NIH to fund research on hESCs. In response, the Clinton administration settled on a loophole in the Dickey Amendment. While the latter prohibits federal funding on research that would directly harm or destroy embryos, it did not appear to prohibit federal funding of research on the cells derived from human embryos once the act of embryo destruction had been accomplished and the lines of embryonic stem cells derived. Accordingly, the Clinton administration determined that federal funding could be used to fund research on cells derived from human embryos and requested that adequate guidelines be drawn up to govern the use of federal monies in this way. Those guidelines were never implemented, however. It was not until August 9, 2001 when President Bush announced a carefully crafted policy that would allow a limited amount of federal funding on the then already existing lines of hESCs, a policy he believed would not involve federal taxpayer money to be used for further embryo-destructive research, but which at the same time would allow research on hESCs to go forward.

Meanwhile, over the course of time, as the creation, donation and destruction of human embryos for research continued, vocal advocates of such research engaged in a constant and effective - if somewhat misleading - effort aimed at swaying public opinion in their favor. As a result, public opinion has gradually grown more tolerant of the once almost universally condemned notion that some human life is expendable if it can be of benefit to others.

Such is the road[v][5] that has brought us to where we are today in which polls will invariably state that approximately 50% of the country will tolerate embryo-destructive research on the belief that this will lead to ground-breaking therapies. I personally hold out hope that we can still get ourselves off the road to biotech serfdom. But it will continue to take enormous amounts of time, money, and energy to educate Americans on the moral and scientific facts which must inform their attitudes and opinions about stem cell research.

What Americans Think About Embryo Research
A new poll tells us we shouldn't be so sure we know.

June 24, 2008

9:00 AM EST

In my column last week, I explored the recent historical events and politicking that have come to shape contemporary American attitudes toward embryo-destructive stem cell research. Arguably, most polls in recent years have indicated a slowly growing acceptance of such research. A new poll, however, conducted by Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center and recently published in the journal The New Atlantis, challenges us to be cautious about our claims in this area.

In the stem cell wars, "all sides," writes Yuval Levin, "have wanted to claim a preexisting bedrock of widely shared attitudes backing their favored policy outcome." The EPPC poll suggests, by contrast, that "to better understand public opinion on bioethics, one must begin by abandoning the premise of just about all those who have sought to wield such opinion in the political arena: that the public has views that are clearly defined or strongly held" (emphasis added).

Now, it is well known that polls will report views differently depending on how questions are formulated by the pollsters - this is no secret to anyone who has studied or conducted polling or used polling research to build an argument. The EPPC poll [1] reveals something different. By altering the formulation of questions within the poll itself, EPPC pollsters have garnered convincing evidence that Americans' views on stem cell research in general, and embryo-destructive research in particular, will not only be reported differently depending on how a question is asked, but that their views are simply not well defined at all. Their views are ill-defined because, as those being polled will generally admit, their knowledge of stem cell science is exceptionally poor. [2]

Here is a sampling of its findings.

Regarding embryo-destructive stem cell research specifically, when the question was posed in ethical terms, a small majority of respondents expressed opposition:

It is unethical to destroy human embryos for the purposes of research because doing so destroys human embryos that are human beings and could otherwise have developed and grown like every other human being.

Total agree: 51%

But when the question was rephrased in terms of curing diseases the result was different:

The social, economic and personal costs of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos.

Total agree: 54%

But when the question was cast as a more crystalline moral principle, the same respondents shifted their responses again:

An embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.

Total agree: 62%

Yuval Levin is the author of the study and director of the EPPC's program on Bioethics and American Democracy. One important conclusion Yuval notes in the article is that:

Such glaring contradictions in opinions about the basic facts and circumstances of embryo research suggest that most Americans simply do not grasp how these different pieces hang together, and therefore respond positively or negatively based on the portion of the larger picture they happen to be presented with. Both medical promise and ethical concern prove highly persuasive, even though they point in opposite directions.

In an email, I asked Yuval to elaborate further on this finding in particular. On this point, he underlined the key finding of the poll: Americans know they don't know enough about embryo research to have well formed opinions. Quoting Yuval:

One of the lessons of the poll is... that the level of substantive public knowledge of the embryo ethics issues in particular is extremely low, and that people's confidence in their knowledge is also extremely low. That latter point is especially important, because it is very unusual. There are very few issues on which pollsters find respondents telling them frankly that they have little or no knowledge. This acknowledged lack of confidence offers an opening for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues.

Consequently, as Yuval cogently insists in the article, "the goal of activists and interested parties to the bioethics debates should be to learn how best to educate the public, rather than to wield essentially meaningless statistics about existing attitudes." I couldn't agree more.

What is desperately needed, at the current juncture in the stem cell wars, is an on-going, honest, and accessible presentation of the facts of stem cell science in the public square.

Yuval went on to describe for me what he considers the most salient of the lessons learned from this poll:

These lessons add up to a very important whole: people want a way forward that respects ethics and advances medicine, and they don't know enough to know if such a way is possible. That is the mission for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues: to show them that there are ways to advance medical research while respecting ethical boundaries, and that a greater understanding of the facts involved will demonstrate that. It is not the case that the desire for cures trumps all. That creates a huge opening for us, and helps us begin to see how we might walk through it and influence public opinion to support ethical research.

In a word, Yuval is saying that we have to seize the moment. With the evidence mounting every day that ethically acceptable alternatives to embryo-destructive research may well prove to be even more effective and efficient than their immoral alternatives, we have to continue to make this known to the broader public and to our elected officials. As Yuval puts it, it would indeed be a happy day when we could see science and ethics marching together, rather than in opposition.


Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.


[1] The poll was conducted by the polling company, inc., beginning in August 2007 with two focus groups conducted in Illinois, and concluding in February 2008 with a national telephone survey based on information garnered from the focus groups and some past polling on similar issues. The survey involved 1,003 American adults, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

[2] Notes Levin: "This relative absence of knowledge about even the most prominent of the embryo-research issues is made emphatically clearer in the responses to particular questions of fact. Asked, for instance, whether adult or embryonic stem cell research had yielded any therapeutic results, only 23% of respondents answered correctly that, to date, only adult stem cells have resulted in treatments for disease. This lack of basic knowledge and confidence means that people are uncertain of the facts and the issues at stake, so that how the subject is framed makes an enormous difference in shaping judgments about policy preferences."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jihad- Part II

America and Jihad-A Gathering Storm?
An interview with Rick Santorum

June 10, 2008

9:00 AM EST

In last week's column, I reflected on the often starkly contrasting interpretations of America's situation in the world vis-à-vis militant Islam. I raised a number of troubling questions which we as a nation must continue to grapple with, most especially as we poise ourselves to elect a new president. I recently shared my uncertainties with Rick Santorum.

Most people remember Rick as the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania who served three terms in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007. Rick was also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995. Today he is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. where he established and currently directs the Program to Protect America's Freedom. Rick is currently writing a book on what the EPPC website describes as the "gathering storm" of the 21st century: the challenges posed by radical Islam throughout the world.

I was delighted when Rick accepted my invitation to be interviewed. Here's what he had to say.

Berg: How would you assess the current state of American security against terrorist attacks? Is America safe?

Santorum: Had someone suggested in late 2001-02 that America would not have seen a major terrorist incident on our soil over the next seven years, he would have been dismissed as delusional. We all were quite convinced that another major terrorist incident was nearly certain. It was not a question of "if" but "when." While the Bush administration certainly deserves criticism on many issues related to national security, it has not received sufficient credit for preventing another attack.

How do we account for this? Quite simply, following 9/11 we decided to play offense against Al Qaeda and associated jihadist networks, most obviously in Afghanistan, but also in the Philippines, and in the Horn of Africa. We made the jihadis play strategic defense as we went on the strategic offense.

Also, it seems that when Al Qaeda chose to mount a counter-offensive, they decided to confront us in Iraq. They decided that Iraq would be the central front of the "war on terror." And now, by all accounts we have them on the run there as well. Just last week, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told us that al Qaeda was approaching strategic defeat in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and is on the defensive in much of the rest of the world. And Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, has told us, "You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now."

In addition to playing offense militarily, our success on this score is without question due in part to much more aggressive surveillance (spying) on their communications network and in attacking their financial networks. Of course, the "defensive" security tightening efforts here in America are important, and we need to continue those efforts to secure the homeland, but I think that we have been spared a future attack primarily because we have been playing offense. Of course, as they say in the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future returns and we must remain vigilant.

Berg: Is it an exaggeration in any way to continue to believe that the US is in a state of war with world-wide Jihadism? Do most Americans believe this? What about the millions of Americans who simply reject this outright? Where does that leave us in terms of preparedness?

It is not an exaggeration. It is a simple fact of life in the 21st century. The Islamists have declared war on us and defend their attacks on the West with appeals to Koran and other classic canonical Islamic texts and with Sharia reasoning. This is not to say that all Muslims are terrorists or that all Muslims agree with the arguments and justifications of the Islamists. But it is important to recognize that the jihadists are making a claim to represent authentic Islam and that they have a great many sympathizers and supporters throughout the Islamic world.

One of the great failures of this administration is precisely on this point, and I have been speaking out on this for the past few years. We have failed to properly identify and name the enemy. As a result, our greatest failure has been in the "war of ideas." The administration continues to talk about a "war on terror." But terror is a tactic and we are no more at war with "terror" than we were with submarine attacks or "blitzkrieg" in WWII. Because we have not been clear about defining the enemy, we have not sufficiently educated the American people as to the nature of the long term threat at home. The language about the "war on terror" misleads the American public to think we are at war with a band of terrorists who have no driving ideology or theology.

Finally, I think I should add that it is a mistake to say, as President Bush says, that "Islam is a religion of peace." With all due respect, that is a theological pronouncement, and the President should refrain from theological pronouncements. He is not the 'theologian-in-chief'. There is, in fact, a serious debate in the Islamic world over whether the jihadis have a claim to "authentic Islam." Americans obviously have an interest in how that internal theological debate will be decided. But that is for the Islamic world to resolve. Our task is to fight and defeat the Islamo-fascists regardless of the outcome of that theological debate.

Berg: In hindsight, do you now believe that it was a mistake to invade Iraq?

Santorum: It depends on what you mean by "hindsight." If we knew at the time that Saddam did not have WMD, it would have seriously changed the calculus on when and if to confront the Iraqi regime with military force. Even without WMD, however, Saddam would have remained a serious threat and would have to be dealt with eventually.

But hindsight is twenty-twenty, and such Monday-morning quarterbacking is not constructive. Given what we knew at the time, it was the correct decision, not to mention that it had overwhelming bi-partisan and public support. The big lie perpetrated by the left (which has gained too much public traction) is that the administration knew that Iraq did not have WMD, and yet they lied about it. But we all saw the same intelligence and there was no deliberate deception. The Director of the CIA told the President it was a "slam dunk." Even allies who opposed the use of military force did believe that Saddam had WMD. That wasn't a lie, it was an intelligence failure.

Berg: Let me ask you the same question I asked George Weigel a few months ago in a similar interview: We grew accustomed to Pope John Paul II reiterating the need to get at the "roots" of terrorism, which he identified as various forms of injustice. For instance:

History, in fact, shows that the recruitment of terrorists is more easily achieved in areas where human rights are trampled upon and where injustice is a part of daily life. This is not to say that the inequalities and abuses existing in the world excuse acts of terrorism: there can never, of course, be any justification for violence and disregard for human life. However, the international community can no longer overlook the underlying causes that lead young people especially to despair of humanity, of life itself and of the future, and to fall prey to the temptations of violence, hatred, and a desire for revenge at any cost (Address to new British ambassador, Sept. 2002).

Do you find in this notion--particularly as it is insisted on today--at all naïve or misguided?

Santorum: I don't doubt that poverty and injustice leads many young Muslims to take up the cause of violent jihad. And I am certainly a big supporter of taking measures to alleviate such poverty. But this is far from the entire story, and faithful Catholics who believe that theology and religious conviction matter beyond our private spiritual lives should be particularly suspicious of such "reductionist" explanations of violent jihad. They simply do not account adequately for the jihadists' own justifications for their jihad against the West.

Let me recommend one very helpful scholarly book published by the Hoover Institution titled Warrant for Terror: The Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad by Shmuel Bar. Bar examines fatwas, which are rigorously written legal opinions declaring whether certain actions under Islam are obligatory, permitted or forbidden. They serve as a major instrument by which Islamic religious leaders influence Muslims to engage in acts of violent jihad. The crucial point is that these fatwas should not be dismissed as merely a cynical use of theology and religious terminology in the service of political propaganda. The violent jihadists themselves believe they are acting in accordance with the precepts of Islam and in accordance with Islamic (sharia) law. In short, we must take far more seriously the jihadis' own stated theological-jurisprudential justifications for their jihad.

Berg: Magdi Allam, the high profile Italian convert from Islam to Catholicism affirmed in a letter to his editor at Corriere della Serra that: " I am absolutely convinced that it is possible to dialogue and that we should dialogue with all Muslims who share a respect for the fundamental rights of the human person... and foster the common pursuit of civility." Are you optimistic about such dialogues, for example, the dialogues that have initiated at the Vatican with Islamic intellectuals?

I'm not opposed to talking with Islamic intellectuals, but I would want to cut through the typical cant you often find in such "dialogue." One way to do that is to focus on the issue of religious freedom in general, but more particularly on a basic issue - such as legal sanctions in Islamic regimes for apostasy and blasphemy. If our Islamic "dialogue partners" are not willing to publicly and officially defend the rights of individuals who live in Islamic regimes to change their religion from Islam to some other faith, then I think we ought to question whether they are really committed to "a respect for the fundamental rights of the human person." If they are not willing publicly and officially to defend the right of Christians to print and distribute Arabic language Bibles in Islamic countries, then I think we ought to question their "respect for the fundamental rights of the human person." If they will not publicly and officially embrace Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance", then we are right to question whether they indeed have "a respect for the fundamental rights of the human person."

After discovering just where our "Islamic dialogue partners" really stand on these and related issues, we should ask them when they will allow Protestant, Catholic and Jewish churches to worship openly and freely without fear in places like, say, Riyahd, Saudi Arabia. And if they're not willing openly and publicly to support such a minimal request, then perhaps we can question their "respect for the fundamental rights of the human person."

And then perhaps we can seek out "Islamic dialogue partners" who are true reformers, such as my friend Tawfik Hamid. Born into a secular Muslim family in Egypt, Dr. Hamid joined an extremist group called Jamma's Islameia while still a medical student. In class he was learning how to heal the sick, but his thoughts, he says, were to "die for Allah and share in terrorist acts." Today he is seeking to build a new way of thinking within the Islamic world. Hamid writes:

"It may seem bizarre, but Islamic reformers are not immune to the charge of 'Islamophobia' either. For 20 years, I have preached a reformed interpretation of Islam that teaches peace and respects human rights. I have consistently spoken out - with dozens of other Muslim and Arab reformers - against the mistreatment of women, gays and religious minorities in the Islamic world. We have pointed out the violent teachings of Salafism and the imperative of Westerners to protect themselves against it. Muslims must ask what prompts this "phobia" in the first place. When we in the West examine the worldwide atrocities perpetrated daily in the name of Islam, it is vital to question if we - Muslims - should lay the blame on others for Islamophobia or if we should first look hard at ourselves."

Berg: Do you hold that Islam itself is intrinsically flawed in any way?

Santorum: I'm a Christian. I believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity and all the other truths affirmed in the Apostles Creed, Nicean Creed and other classic creeds of Christianity. So, if in a "dialogue," a Muslim were to claim, as he must, that these beliefs are false, that Jesus is not really the Messiah, not really the Son of God, not really the Second Person of the Trinity, that the Trinity is a form of polytheism that should be rejected and so forth, then by definition he thinks that my theology and religion are "intrinsically flawed." I'm not particularly "offended" by that. But, for the same reason, because he denies what I hold to be true, I am logically bound to believe that his theology and religion are "intrinsically flawed." Needless to say, this isn't being "Islamophobic" and my "dialogue partner" is not being "Christophobic;" it is simply recognizing the law of non-contradiction. It is logically possible for us both to be wrong in our truth claims about the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, whether Mohammed was a true prophet and such. The atheist and secularist would say we are both wrong. However we can't both be right. In short, it would seem to me that any Christian worth his salt must conclude that Islam is "intrinsically flawed" just as any Muslim must conclude that Christianity is "intrinsically flawed."

The question, then, is how do we live together peaceably given our theological differences. How do we openly, freely, and peacefully seek to persuade each other of the truth of our deepest theological and religious convictions? But it is here that the issue is joined. Can an Islamic state permit the free expression of religious ideas and disagreement? Is this compatible with any recognizable understanding of Sharia law? If not, then that would seem another reason for Christians to think that Islam is "intrinsically flawed."


Rick writes a bi-weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I invite you to keep an eye on his columns. For instance, you might want to take a look at a column he wrote a few weeks ago in which he addresses the recommendations on "Terminology to Define Terrorists," that nine-page, "Official Use Only" memo issued in January by Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties-the topic of my column last week. Rick Santorum is a profound, provocative, and timely thinker. He is also a wonderful human being, a husband and father, a person I am proud to call a friend. Thanks for taking the time, Rick.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

Copyright 2008 The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

Jihad- Part I

America and Jihad-Where Do We Stand?
Assorted thoughts as we approach the summer

June 3, 2008

9:00 AM EST

This week's column results from the convergence of three elements: my reading recently of Magdi Allam's personal account of his conversion from Islam to Catholicism; a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by my friend, the ever prescient, Bret Stephens, entitled "Homeland Security Newspeak"; and my having just finished Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power. At the risk of rambling a bit, I want to share some portions of these readings, but only to culminate in the observation that they leave me in a state of pensiveness--not unlike the kind of pensiveness I shared in an article I wrote for National Review Online for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. At the time I wrote:

Five years after 9/11 and the launch of the "war on terror," this chasmal disparity of views and perspectives on war, on the nature of the threat posed by militant Islam, and what our proper response ought to be, raise some gut-wrenching questions.

First of all, what is our real situation at present? Are we - as Newt Gingrich would have us believe - on the verge of WW III, worldwide anti-American/anit-Israeali/anti-West Islamic Jihad? Or, as Niall Ferguson fantasizes, will further conflict be obviated and the "shock and awe" of the "war on terror" mollify itself into the quiet hum of hard drives as advanced intelligence techniques cum nanotechnology allow us to track and neutralize terrorists 24/7? Is Islamic terrorism an unstoppable Hydra monster, reappearing twice as strong wherever one of its heads has been lopped off, spreading its clutches over the entire globe and proliferating mass destruction? Or can this Hydra be pacified if - once and for all - we just get down to the business of addressing the injustices that give rise to terrorism?

That question--What is our real situation?--is the one that remains very troubling in my mind precisely because there remain so many different takes on what our real situation is at present.

So, let me start with Allam.

Magdi Christian Allam was baptized on Easter Sunday of this year by his holiness Pope Benedict XVI. He chose 'Christian' as his baptismal name for its simplicity among other things. Allam, for many years a high profile Muslim and deputy director of the Italian daily Corriere della Serra, professes to have been a "free spirit" in Islam and took pride in his efforts to bring "moderate" Islamic perspectives into the cultural mainstream.

His account of his conversion to Catholicism is deeply moving. It carries the emotive resonance of an Augustinian-style intellectual conversion. Describing what he calls "the most beautiful day" of his life, Allam observes:

The miracle of Christ's resurrection reverberated through my soul, liberating it from the darkness in which the preaching of hatred and intolerance in the face of the "different," uncritically condemned as "enemy," were privileged over love and respect of "neighbor," who is always, an in every case, "person"; thus, as my mind was freed from the obscurantism of an ideology that legitimates lies and deception, violent death that leads to murder and suicide, the blind submission to tyranny, I was able to adhere to the authentic religion of truth, of life and of freedom.

Allam, as the reader quickly notes, pulls no punches in his wholesale rejection of Islam. He continues:

I have been criminalized and there have not lacked those who compare me to the very Islamic extremists who have condemned me to death, simply because I have expressed a radically negative judgment of Islam. A throng of 'chrisitian-communist-Islamicists', adorers of ethical, cultural and religious relativism (not to mention political correctness) would have preferred that I limit my denunciation to that of Islamic terrorism, while maintaining an overall positive assessment of Islam. After all, as they see it, all religions can be susceptible from time to time of failing to be consistent with creedal contents, and, at any rate, one should never say things than can hurt another's susceptibility. But excuse me, gentlemen: if I have converted to Catholicism, this is obviously because I've developed a negative assessment of Islam. If I really believed that Islam was a true and good religion, why would I have abandoned it?[1]

All of this comes from a man who affirms that "on my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason," a man who in large parts credits Pope Benedict XVI for the discovery particularly of the harmony between faith and reason which Christianity presupposes.

Then there's Bret Stephens' column from last Tuesday's WSJ. His point of departure was the newly published recommendations on "Terminology to Define Terrorists," a nine-page, "Official Use Only" memo issued by Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Stephens notes that the memo supposedly represents the suggestions of a "wide variety" of unnamed American Muslim leaders. Though not a statement of official policy, it gives us the unsettling notion that the rhetoric of "the global war on terror" may be morphing into an innocuous (and supremely ineffectual) blather. According to Stephens, in the minds of many at the State Department, terms such as 'Islamic' and 'Jihad' are to be extricated from official parlance, as is the--apparently explosive term--'liberty.' Writes Stephens:

In its most eye-catching recommendation...the DHS authors explain their preference for the word 'progress' over 'liberty.' "The struggle is for 'progress,' over which no nation has a monopoly," reads the memo. "The experts we consulted debated the word 'liberty,' but rejected it because many around the world would discount the term as a buzzword for American hegemony. But all people want to support 'progress,' ... And progress is precisely what the terrorists oppose through their violent tactics and through their efforts to impose a totalitarian world view."

It seems to have escaped the authors' notice that the most formidable totalitarian movement of the 20th century - communism - was, by its own lights, "progressive." It seems to have escaped their notice that the essence of a totalitarian system is the denial of liberty (often in the name of progress). It seems to have escaped their notice that "progress" is a word that signifies nothing. Exactly what is one progressing to?

"Perhaps with further moral and intellectual refinement," muses Stephens, "we can someday embark on a 'General Effort Against Negativity and Ungoodness.' One wonders if, on the rhetorical level, such will not be the final product after the same political correctness decried by Allam corrodes the very meaning of what was once called a "war on terror."

Kagan's Of Paradise and Power (first published in 2003, and with a new Afterword in 2004) is an enormously insightful essay on what ails European-American relations these days. On the very meaning of such things as a 'war on terror', the threat posed at one time by Saddam Hussein, the dangers posed by militant Islam, Americans and Europeans have generally tended to, shall we say, disagree.

Kagan's essay tracks the historical events and conceptual changes that have caused the strained relations between these two political entities whose well being, fortunes and futures were once intimately moored together in what, as Kagan would put it, used to be called "the West."

In a final section of the essay entitled "Adjusting to Hegemony," Kagan explores the multiple implications of America's remaining in the world as a sole superpower after the fall of Communism. Europe, he observes, has become something of a modern miracle. Having overcome its own centuries-old demons of internal belligerence (having definitively resolved "the German question"), today a united Europe has exorcised those demons and emerged as a modern paradise, largely united around an ideology that adamantly rejects the notion of power politics. "The problem," observes Kagan, "is that the United States must sometimes play by the rules of a Hobbesian world, even though in doing so it violates Europe's postmodern norms...It must live by a double standard. And it must sometimes act unilaterally, not out of a passion for unilateralism but only because, given a weak Europe that has moved beyond power, the United States has no choice but to act unilaterally."

All of which, again, leaves me pensive. Islam--dare I repeat it?--in the opinion of Magdi Allam, is intrinsically flawed; Catholicism, in his opinion, the domain of faith and reason, a sphere in which respect for the most basic human values (respect for the person, human rights, religious freedom) can flourish. Both on the Continent, and within an ever more highly politicized and ideologically charged America, the competing perceptions of our world and America's situation in that world are sharply and radically divergent.

Much to think and pray about. Now, more than ever--especially as we approach the November elections--we need answers: Just how dangerous is our world? How do we determine that? What do we do about it?


Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the

Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

[1] My own translation from the Italian. An abbreviated form of this account appeared as a letter to Paolo Mieli, the director of the Corriere della Sera. The Italian version of Magdi's complete account of his conversion can be found at Allam wrote this in the form of a letter to Mieli. An English translation of Magdi's conversion story can be found here although the Italian version of what was later actually published in the Corriere as a letter to Mieli contains interesting content not found-as far as I can tell-in the letter published on Magdi's website, including the paragraph just cited.