From Convent to Mosque… on Staten Island

Living through the postconciliar crisis in the Church, I’ve often felt I could empathize a little with those who endured the Reformation. This came home to me most vividly in 1986, when I attended my first academic conference in Maryland, on Christianity and Literature. The people from the host institution, Washington Bible College, were friendly and welcoming. My Evangelical colleagues offered fine and scholarly papers, and gave a warm reception to my paper on Richard Crashaw and St. Teresa of Avila. Having grown up in New York City, I really had never met any Protestants till I went to college — and they still seemed new and alien to me. (“How are you?” I was often tempted to ask them. “Tell me, what do you think of our country?”)

I was feeling all warm and ecumenical, which was appropriate to the occasion — until I went for a walk on the grounds. I blundered into the chapel, where I saw the traces of an altar rail, the niches where statues used to be, and shadows of old confessionals. Had this place been high Episcopal or something? I went outside to ask someone about the place’s history — and that was when I knew. I drew near to the lumpy stone structure that sat out in the garden: an empty Fatima grotto, complete with a gaping niche where Our Lady once had stood. How strange to see this ill-assorted pile of random rocks, as incomprehensible to the unschooled as Stonehenge is to us. What strange cult, the Bible students must wonder, had once piled stones in such a cryptic pattern?

I was on the grounds of a former seminary, one that had closed in the 1970s during the “postconciliar renewal.” A kindly host explained that the place had been sold by the local diocese to his denomination, which now used it as a school to train “Christian missionaries to Latin America.” I smiled, “I’m sure they’re needed down there,” and excused myself, thinking now not of Crashaw but Shakespeare: “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73).

My next Reformation experience was a little more tragicomic. I was visiting the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) up in Hyde Park, New York. What I hadn’t realized until I set foot on the grounds was that the place was a former Jesuit novitiate (St. Andrew-on-Hudson, where Avery Cardinal Dulles was trained). The new owners had done a very good job preserving the architecture of that gorgeous Gothic place. The old chapel, now used for cooking demonstrations, still held exquisitely wrought windows depicting the seven sacraments on one side, with the minor and major orders (from acolyte up to priest) on the other.

How curious it was, though, to see the former sanctuary set up as a model kitchen. In the place of the old tabernacle and high altar were a row of refrigerators and sinks, and where we might expect to see one of those utilitarian tables set up for Mass facing the people instead stood an ornate, gourmet oven range — gleaming with vessels and instruments wrought of the finest materials, respectfully arrayed according to scrupulous rubrics. At least they hadn’t torn the building down, I reflected. Someday we might be able to buy it back. The tour guide cracked a few mild jokes about how “cooking is the new religion,” then told the history of the place — and explained that the only section of the seminary not owned by the CIA was a private Jesuit graveyard out in the back, where a famous author was buried — Rev. Teilhard de Chardin. How fitting, I thought, that the creature who ate the Jesuits is now buried at a cooking school.

The Reformation is one thing; the Islamic wars of jihad are quite another. I’m less able to muse in wistful, comic fashion about the latest ecclesiastical land transfer I’ve learned about: the shady sale of a Catholic convent in my native New York City to an Islamic group founded by members of the terrorist-sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamic supremacist Egyptian group that encourages the persecution of that country’s beleaguered Coptic Christians. Church officials have been (characteristically) shifty and evasive about how this sale occurred, and locals still hope it may be reversed, thanks to all the controversy it has provoked.

There are so many places that once stood at the heart of Christendom — Constantinople, Alexandria, Damascus, Hippo, now Kosovo — where churches were seized by Islamic conquerors and gutted, the icons’ eyes gouged out, the statues beheaded, the altars smashed. The whole of the Middle East was majority Christian right up through the time of the First Crusade, though its population gradually succumbed to the conquering faith under the pressure of constant, grinding persecution. Does the Archdiocese of New York really have to add one more Christian building to this sad catalog of ruin?

However painful the history of the Reformation, whatever our forefathers in the Faith suffered throughout its progress, at least its leaders were mostly sincere, if misguided, Christians. I’ve written before to warn against “the easy scorn some Catholics feel for the Protestantism that founded their native country and guaranteed their liberty to follow their consciences.” Indeed:
Protestantism is not some alien religion, nor are Protestants in any sense unbelievers. Viewed technically, according to the strictest principles of traditional Catholic theology, “orthodox” Protestantism is simply a truncated form of Catholicism — a constellation of churches that hold to every line of the Nicene Creed, but fail to draw from them several important inferences regarding religious authority and sacraments. The distinctively Protestant theories of free will, grace, and salvation are somewhat unbalanced forms of Augustinianism — overly literal readings of the greatest Father of the Western Church. From a Catholic perspective, people validly baptized and reared as Protestants are not “heretics,” but poorly catechized Christians with mistaken religious opinions, whose souls may be judged only by God. And He is a merciful judge. We who have been given the fullness of the truth, and have done so little with it, should all be glad of that.
We can’t say the same for Muslims. It’s true that Belloc considered Islam not a new religion but merely a heresy: “It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine.” And it’s true that Mohammed’s creed shows extensive borrowings from the writings of unorthodox Christian monks, alongside all that he lifted (in garbled form) from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. But, at some point, quantitative changes add up to qualitative. Move enough increments down the road away from the Truth, and what you have is no longer a half-truth but a new and exciting fiction. And there was nothing more thrilling to its early partisans than Islam, a religion ideally suited to the impulses of excitable teenaged boys. (You mean God wants me to kill or subdue my enemies? And I can have how many women? Cool!)
That new faith — whose modern partisans call it a “religion of peace” — was founded by a man who preached tolerance while he was weak and poor, then after he gained followers and an army “abrogated” his earlier statements and encouraged conversion by the sword. (To be fair, Christians after the conversion of Constantine also embraced using the power of the State to advance the Faith — but Jesus never did.) Unlike the founder of our religion, Mohammed conducted raids to accumulate wealth to fund his faith, led and fought in more than a dozen bloody battles, ordered the slaughter of prisoners, took multiple wives and slave girls, and ruled his native country as an absolute dictator. In every other way, though, he was really quite a lot like Jesus — and we can learn much from ecumenical dialogue with his followers.
The book Mohammed claimed was dictated to him by the Angel Gabriel, the Koran, not only permits defensive wars but encourages expeditions of pillage and conquest, promising plunder, power, and the free use of captured slave women to those who survive its battles — and an eternity in a very sensual-sounding Paradise for those who die while fighting.
Those whom Mohammed conquered, if they were polytheists, faced only two choices: conversion or death. If they were lucky enough to be one of a small list of approved monotheist religions (“People of the Book”), then defeated unbelievers had a third, appealing option: To accept their role as “dhimmis,” second-class citizens. Pets, really.
Scholar and critic of Islam Robert Spencer describes their fate as follows:
Dhimmitude is the status that Islamic law, the Sharia, mandates for non-Muslims, primarily Jews and Christians. Dhimmis, “protected” or “guilty” people, are free to practice their religion in a Sharia regime, but are made subject to a number of humiliating regulations designed to enforce the Qur’an’s command that they “feel themselves subdued” (Sura 9:29). This denial of equality of rights and dignity remains part of the Sharia, and, as such, are part of the legal superstructure that global jihadists are laboring through violence to restore everywhere in the Islamic world, and wish ultimately to impose on the entire human race.
The “regulations” imposed on Jews and Christians in Islamic regimes (and secular regimes influenced by Islamic law) forbid public services, the display of religious symbols, the ringing of bells, the building of new houses of worship, and the repair of those that have fallen down. Non-Muslims pay a special, heavy tax called the “jizya” and take no part in public life. Apart from that, of course, they’re free!
While I don’t favor any legal or personal mistreatment of Muslims who live in America legally and follow its laws, I see no reason why the Church should ever permit a single building within its control to fall into the hands of those whose holy book commands them to oppress us — and who do so from Egypt to Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia to Sudan. The only common ground we can share with Muslims will be to insist on religious freedom — a freedom that their creed sees as only a temporary truce, to be rectified at the first opportunity.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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