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Not-so-simple conversion

March 25, 2008 |  3:03 pm

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a baptism is valid even if it is performed by a layperson and even if it takes place in private. My sainted mother remembered that when she administered a "kitchen baptism" (head under the spigot) to a grandson she wasn't sure would be dipped by his parents.

So why did Pope Benedict XVI have to baptize Magdi Allam, a journalist from a Muslim background, not just in public but at a televised Easter Vigil service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome? Was the pope offensively flaunting a prized conversion and giving credence to Osama bin Laden's taunt that Benedict was playing a "large and lengthy role" in a "new Crusade" against Islam? Was this an another affont, intended or not, from a pope who raised Muslim hackles in 2006 when, during a lecture in Germany, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who accused the Prophet Muhammad of commanding that Islam be "spread by the sword"?

I don't think so. First, Allam was one of seven people received into the fold by Benedict, Second, the  baptism of new Christians is an Easter Vigil tradition. In 2005, the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, baptized five new Christians at the vigil, filling in for the ailing Pope John Paul II. Third, even if Allam was chosen because of his prominence, there is nothing new about Christians (or adherents of other faiths) trumpeting the admission of a high-profile convert. Certainly Buddhists take pride in the fact that Richard Gere is one of them. Fourth and most important, Allam's conspicuous conversion was a matter of his own choice, a choice the Roman Catholic Church would have been bound by a decree of the Second Vatican Council to respect even if he had decided to become a devout Muslim.

It wasn't always thus. You don't have to be Osama bin Laden to recognize that Christianity also has been "spread by the sword" or that in the past the Vatican operated on the assumption that "error has no rights." And Allam's voluntary conversion contrasts dramatically with the 19th century case of the kidnapping and Christianization of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy from Bologna who was seized from his parents by papal police after the local Inquisition discovered that he had been baptized as an infant by a Christian servant girl. Pope Pius IX (whose humongous miter Benedict recently wore) rejected appeals that the boy be returned to his family. Edgardo later was ordained a Catholic priest. (The Catholic League on its website offers a tortured defense of Pio Nono's conduct in this case.)

Intolerance is an occupational hazard for believers of all kinds.   But the Catholic Church of which Allam is now a member eventually joined other Christian bodies in recognizing that belief cannot be compelled and that, in the words of Vatican II, "the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature." It's too much to hope that Osama bin Laden will accept this teaching, but other Muslims do. An increase in their numbers is the best insurance against the "clash of civilzations" between Christians and Muslims.

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