Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Here’s something you don’t read every day. Some years back, the Middle East Media Research Institute reported the following:
An uproar in the Egyptian media followed the recent publication of a book by Egyptian Mufti Dr. Ali Gum'a in which he claimed that the companions of the Prophet Muhammad would drink his urine to be blessed.
Many people don’t know that a “fatwa” is not a “death sentence” but an opinion by a Muslim leader. Because of this many western readers, merely glancing at the story, assumed that somebody has yet again been sentenced to death for saying something untoward about Mohammed. But the story is stranger than that. It turns out the fatwa by Dr. Ali Gum’a was not condemning, but endorsing, the idea that some people believed drinking Mohammed’s urine brought a blessing.
Other Muslims were upset with this. Much bustle and shouting, etc. We see this sort of stuff all the time on TV. The Islamic world is full of angry bearded men screaming about something. And when the something they are screaming about is “drinking the urine of Mohammed” it becomes a matter fatally easy for Westerners, including Christians, to make fun of. Especially because, in addition to our being mortally sick of ululating Bronze Age thugs screaming about things on TV, there is just a strong “ick” factor which drives our reaction to the story.
Still and all, Catholics interested in intelligent defenses of the Faith should be cautious about just jumping on any bandwagon of contemporary culture that rolls by when we run into such stories. Why? Because “Eww! Gross! Body fluids!” is an aesthetic reaction, not an argument. And, if we do not think things through, our kneejerk ridicule of a story like this can leave the Church wide open to exactly the same ridicule from her enemies here in the West.
Here’s how it works: Modern secularists of the "Religion Poisons Everything" school (such as the late Christopher Hitchens), of course, dismiss all this sort of fooferah about the Urine of the Prophet as one more illustration of the barbarism of Islam. Such polemicists (especially the English ones) have a knack for delivering themselves of witty putdowns of the Bronze Age fanatics and their crude superstitions and they are, I freely confess, awfully fun to read. But then, conservative Christians get on board with our own guffaws because (particularly in the case of Hitchens) his views of Islam coincide, not only with Christian rejection of Muslim claims, but with Western rejection of the assorted barbarisms of Radical Islam. Hitchens and his fanboi seem like convenient allies.
And so conservative Catholics are suckered into a trap by the peculiar prejudices of this particular hour in history. For those who base their Faith purely on aesthetics will soon find themselves hoist on our own petard by the atheist polemicist.
“What,” says the Hitchenseque atheist as he rounds on us, “are you Catholics guffawing about? You’re just as idiotic! You are, after all, the ones with the mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena looking down at you from a reliquary in a European shrine. You are the ones who divvy up the bones of St. Teresa of Avila and scatter her all over Spain. And supremely, you are the ones who take with utmost seriousness the words ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.’ Blood drinkers laughing at urine drinkers! That’s rich!”
In short, if we thoughtlessly make “ick!” our sole argument in dealing with the challenge of Islam we leave ourselves wide open to the atheist who will instantly turn around and insist that the only real difference between Muslims and Christians is which magical body fluids they happen to superstitiously revere. If we have only aesthetics to back us up, we will be in a very poor position to answer a world that says now just what it said 2000 years ago, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? This is a hard saying! Who can hear it?”
What Catholics need to do is recognize that, in certain ways, we are far closer to Muslims than we are to secular postmodernists. That’s not because, as atheists say, the Catholic faith is a barbaric oriental superstition indistinguishable from Islam. It’s because Christians share something not just with Muslims, but with most of the rest of the human race that the tiny minority of western atheists have labored to extirpate from their souls: a sense of the sacramental in created things.
Next time, we’ll talk about how to (pardon the pun) flesh that out.