Following the exciting election of a new head of the Roman Catholic Church, my mind could not help but stray back to the Dan Brown bestsellers The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, novels that reconstruct stories of the Catholic Church, the See of St Peter and the Vatican State and contextualise them for the present day. Whereas the first novel harks back to pre-Christian traditions, the second plays on the theme of the conflict between science and faith. Both offer new windows onto history and historiography, not only for historians but also for lay readers and eventually cinema audiences.
Tours of the US often offer book lovers the opportunity to browse in some of America’s famous bookstores. When taking advantage of such an opportunity in Princeton on one occasion, as soon as I had entered the bookstore in question I came across a table featuring a display of colourful books and maps explaining how Rome and the Vatican had been reproduced for the purposes of the film version of Angels and Demons.
As I leafed through some of the books, it occurred to me that we have little in the way of a literary genre of this sort in Arab bookstores. Apart from Azazil and The Nabatean by Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan, one would be hard put to find works that address the thrilling moments in history that brought forth the birth of the divinely revealed religions, these creating a history of their own that disavows the past and tells the true story of humankind.
After the white smoke had appeared from the chimney above the famous Sistine Chapel in Rome last week, Jorge Mario Bergolio was proclaimed the new Roman Catholic pope and sovereign of the Vatican State. In keeping with the ancient custom of selecting a papal name that would commemorate the saintly figure that the new pope will seek to emulate, Bergolio chose the name of Francis on his accession to the papacy in honour of St Francis of Assisi who was famous for his vow of poverty and his dedication to the poor. Bergolio, elected by his peers in the conclave of Catholic cardinals from all the corners of the world, will henceforth be known as Pope Francis.
This year’s papal election was also brought about by an extraordinary and unexpected turn of events, in that for the first time in 600 years a Roman Catholic pope resigned. The world was stunned to see the head of the Roman Catholic Church step down as though he were the chief of a municipal council. Whether or not Pope Benedict XVI felt that he could no longer sustain the burdens of his office, or perhaps that he was tired of his mission, he had the courage to acknowledge that someone from a new generation was needed.
However, his resignation and its repercussions still carried overtones of many of the dilemmas that are now facing the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. At a broader level, it also cast into relief the age-old confrontation between religion and the world, in which the former is compelled to adjust to new and rapidly changing realities, possibly at the risk of forfeiting something of the essence of the religious idea.
In such circumstances, one natural reaction is to return to the basics, to traditions, and to the fact that mankind needs faith in God in order to give the world meaning and to shape a perception of life after death that makes life itself livable. This helps to explain why an institution like the Roman Catholic Church has not only survived through the centuries, but that it has also continued to have the allegiance of around a billion people around the world who continue to look to the Vatican and try to live their lives in accordance with its teachings.
Because the Vatican is often seen as a small or even hypothetical state, Egyptian ambassadors to the Vatican often describe themselves as being ambassadors to the Catholic World in a way that emphasises the importance of their posting and their status. They have a point. From an historical perspective, Roman Catholicism continues to thrive, in spite of the collapse of the old Holy Roman Empire, the rise of Protestantism and other reform movements, the emergence of the nation state and the arrival of the world wars, and the geographical shrinkage of the Pope’s domains, such that Catholic territory today has been reduced to a small area in the centre of the capital of Italy.
The Roman Catholic Church has also paid a heavy price for its hostility to modern science, as occurred when it had to buckle before the findings of Galileo in the 17th century and acknowledge that science was also of the Creator’s making and was an exploration of the working out of the divine logic in the creation of the world.
The international media has been quick to set a global agenda for the new incumbent of St Peter’s. Pope Francis will have to determine the Church’s position on the appointment of women priests and on gay marriage, and he will have to address a history in which the Church has not been able to avoid accommodating itself to various forms of oppression and persecution, whether in Europe or in Latin America.
Such tests may face all religions. With regard to our part of the world, it was no coincidence that four years after the fall of the Islamic Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt and other Islamist movements emerged throughout the Islamic world in order to affirm that the spiritual bond was still stronger than any nationalist or pan-nationalist bonds.
Perhaps these movements epitomised a significant difference in the reactions of the Muslim and the Christian worlds to modernity. Whereas the former still contains many people who believe in the necessity of reviving the empire of the Caliphate, no one in the latter has ever contemplated reviving the Holy Roman Empire. The whole idea would be regarded as impossible, if not absurd, though this is not to say that some European leaders may not have couched the idea in a different form when describing the EU as a club of Christian states. Although the latter has been a political posture designed to keep Turkey out of the EU, it seems also to have been fed by the idea that there is a kind of unity between the Christian denominations that exist today in the EU member states.
As it confronts modernist globalisation today, as opposed to religious globalisation, the Roman Catholic Church has attempted to take up forms of humanitarianism, often drawing on traditions pertaining to the relief of the poor and underprivileged, and it has played on the mystique of centuries-old rites and rituals of conclave, election and investiture.
In Islam, this confrontation has taken other forms. Moderates emphasise that there is no contradiction between Islam, science and modernity, and from the midst of the Islamist groups there recently came the cry that the Islamic state was essentially a civil state, a claim that rings false given the importance that these groups give not to science and knowledge of the affairs of the world but to literalist interpretations of scripture and ancient legalistic forms of interpretation that in their view should determine people’s affairs and society in the world today.
More dangerous have been the forceful and sometimes violent attempts to halt the course of history and to coerce societies back to ancient times, wreaking massive bloodshed, the persecution of women and religious and ethnic minorities, and other horrors in the process. In the experiences of Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, we find much to suggest that these countries’ attempts to reproduce the forms of ancient societies, with all their brutalities, in modern times have been a way of seeking a kind of easy way out of the challenges of the modern era.
Turning the clock back requires much less thought and effort than rising to the demands of engaging with and surviving in the world as it is today.