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Where Angels Fear to Tread
Pastoral pratfalls in the U.K.


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The wisest fool in Christendom. This moniker, first applied to England’s James I, was very much up for grabs late last week, as two senior British prelates — one Anglican, the other Roman Catholic — weighed in with uncommonly dumb and disedifying pronouncements on the latest Iranian-instigated hostage crisis.

In Iran’s decision to release 15 British servicemen held hostage for nearly two weeks, Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali professed to find genuine “spiritual and moral” values superior to Britain’s “free-floating attitudes.” Nazir-Ali seemed particularly taken with this remark by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad:

On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet [Mohammed] … and for the occasion of the passing of Christ [sic], I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers of trial — forgave these 15. This pardon is a gift to the British people.

It is one thing to take Ahmadinejad at his word, given his truly reprehensible record; but it is quite another to misperceive some moral or religious basis for Iran’s belated decision to right the ongoing wrong it was committing. Iran, after all, is the only existing state that has made hostage-taking a deliberate instrument of national policy ever since the Khomeinist regime emerged in 1979. Only by overlooking facts and context alike could one reach this bizarre conclusion:

I saw on the one hand what Iran was doing, and what the president [of Iran] said had much to do with their moral and spiritual tradition of their country. The president talked about the religious background to their release, with reference to the prophet’s birthday and the passing over [sic] of Christ. What struck me is that if there were any values on the British side they were free-floating and not anchored in a spiritual or moral tradition.

Perhaps Nazir-Ali merely meant to reiterate Chesterton’s point that a man who believes in nothing will believe anything. But there are better and worse beliefs, the latter including Iran’s distinctive brand of aggressive clerical totalitarianism; and it is the role of the bishop in the Christian tradition to draw these distinctions for the benefit of the faithful (as part of the threefold episcopal mission to teach, govern, and sanctify). At the same time, Nazir-Ali might have offered some explanation of the “passing” or “passing over” of Christ (a denial of the Resurrection?), a concept unknown to Christian theology.

Worse yet are two rambling statements by Bishop Thomas Burns, who happens to be (for now, at any rate) the senior Roman Catholic chaplain for Britain’s armed forces. The Iranians’ release of the British hostages, he said, showed that “they have chosen to put their faith into action to resolve the situation”:

Faith in a forgiving God has been exemplified in action by their good deeds. They are offering to release sailors and marines, not just as the result of diplomacy, but as an act of mercy in accordance with their religion. Over the past two weeks there has been a unity of purpose between Britain and Iran, whereby everybody has sought justice and forgiveness where that is appropriate. Repentance has a common root in each religion.

In parsing this mishmash, one scarcely knows where to begin. Is piracy “faith in action”? Or “good deeds” in disguise? Do gross violations of applicable international humanitarian law (see Andy McCarthy’s astute analysis) amount to “an act of mercy in accordance with” Islam? What “unity of purpose” exists between victim and aggressor while aggression proceeds apace? Who exactly stands in need of forgiveness and repentance? The British? Or the Iranians? One would like to believe that Bishop Burns simply misspoke, but his remarks were issued as written statements posted on the English and Welsh bishops’ website.

Not surprisingly, both bishops’ ill-judged remarks are the focus of growing controversy in Britain. This week’s Sunday Times weighed in with a highly critical editorial entitled “Misplaced Sympathy.” And various public figures were quoted in Monday’s Daily Telegraph piece “Fury as Bishops Back Iran.” Liam Fox, the shadow defense minister, rightly pointed out that “those who talk in religious terms while practicing abduction should be judged on what they have done, not what they have said. To do otherwise is naïve in the extreme.” Tim Collins, a highly decorated and widely respected retired army officer, said: “It is a close call as to which organization is in the deepest moral crisis — the Church or the Ministry of Defense.” And Damian Thompson, editor of the conservative Catholic Herald, said of Burns’ remarks: “In 20 years of covering religious affairs, I cannot recall a more offensive statement by a bishop, Catholic or Anglican.”

It is a pity that both prelates call to mind Pat Moynihan’s famous judgment of Jimmy Carter, namely that being “unable to distinguish between friends and enemies, he has essentially adopted our enemies’ view of the world.” What’s more, both have brought into disrepute the vital teaching role of the episcopacy in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. If bishops don’t do their homework and don’t apply the moral wisdom of scripture and tradition (as opposed to political correctness), few others will pay them any heed when they properly address issues within their particular competence.

In this case, an effective pastoral intervention might have begun with the basic truth that every human person is an end, not a means; and have continued with the valid observation that the Iranian regime effectively instrumentalized helpless captives for its own malign purposes. Instead, bad theology and political correctness were marshaled in a vain attempt to put a shine on a sneaker. Unfortunately, the resulting damage and loss of credibility will not be limited to the present case. For religious leaders have a unique and vital role to play in the public square, but only if they avoid speaking nonsense.

This sorry episode helps explain why churches are emptying while mosques are overflowing throughout the U.K. And it is a needed reminder of the biblical adage (Proverbs 14:3) that the words of a fool make a rod for his own back.

–John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.



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