This week, Holy Week no less, two stories broke that together illustrate a towering irony about the rise of violent Islamic extremism: In a growing number of places these days, nobody has more in common than Christians and atheists.

In Kenya, the militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab launched an assault on Garissa University College, beginning by shooting up a Christian prayer service. The gunmen then moved on, leaving Muslims unharmed while killing or abducting Christians. All told, 147 people are believed to have died.

It’s not clear if the militants deliberately chose one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar for the assault, though Christmas and Easter tend to be periods of special risk for Christian minorities in many parts of the world.

Prayers, fear mark Easter services in Garissa

In Bangladesh, a blogger passionately opposed to religious fundamentalism named Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death in Dhaka by two men wielding knives and meat cleavers. It followed the eerily similar murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger Avijit Roy in late February. Roy was assaulted by two men with machetes.

Reports out of Bangladesh assert that over the past two years, several other atheist bloggers have either been murdered or died under mysterious circumstances.

Both these Kenyan and Bangladeshi victims were targeted not just for being non-Muslims, but a specific kind of non-Muslim.

Among Islamic radicals incensed with the West, no two groups stir rage like Christians and atheists. Christians symbolize the perceived sins of the Western past, while atheists embody what Islamists see as the decadence and apostasy of the Western present.

In Europe and North America, we tend to think the primary cultural fault line pits liberals against conservatives, with religious believers often concentrated on one side. American pollsters, for instance, say one good predictor of whether someone will vote Republican or Democrat is how often that person goes to church.

In much of the rest of the world, that’s just not how things align.

Instead, the clash that matters is between those who support a secular state and those seeking to impose theocracy by force. Radical Islam tends to be the most lethal version of the latter option, but it takes other forms, too, including Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Hindu extremism in India, and even forms of Christian militancy in conflict zones such as the Central African Republic.

When the question is framed as pluralism vs. intolerance, the result is to put religious minorities, non-fundamentalist followers of the majority religion, and non-believers in the same boat, with Christians and atheists often at special risk should intolerance prevail.

That’s why no voice in the Catholic Church has emerged as a more eloquent advocate of secular governance than the bishops of the Middle East, for whom separation of religion from the state isn’t a theoretical concept, but a survival strategy.

When the Middle Eastern bishops gathered in Rome for a 2010 summit called a “synod,” they issued a strong call for “a sound democracy, positively secular in nature … completely respecting the distinction between the religious and civic orders.”

It’s a platform even the most ardent atheists ought to be able to embrace.

Given those dynamics, one unintended consequence of the threat posed by religious fanatics may be to recalibrate the relationship between non-believers and religious moderates.

Bangladesh, for instance, is a country of 156 million people that’s 86 percent Muslim; Christians form just 0.4 percent of the population. It’s hard to imagine any two groups there with more to gain from making citizenship, not religious affiliation, the basis of civil rights than Christians and atheists.

For such a coalition to emerge, each side will have to give.

Non-believers will have to move beyond the conceit that religion itself is the problem, acknowledging that one can be both a person of faith and also committed to pluralism and equality. That’s not just a theory, but the lived reality of untold millions of religious believers all around the world.

Believers, including Christians, will have to acknowledge that they’re not the only ones suffering. They’ll also need courage to say to fundamentalists that a secular society makes room not only for different religious traditions, but also for the Avijit Roys of the world.

If that kind of partnership is to become a global force, Pope Francis may be well positioned to help put it together.

The pontiff has already carved out a good relationship with some atheists, including a series of conversations with a leftist Italian journalist named Eugenio Scalfari, a man with a demonstrated knack for attracting admiration in secular circles.

As shocking as it may seem, one could almost imagine Francis inviting Richard Dawkins, the best-selling atheist pundit, to join him in denouncing the atrocities in Kenya and Bangladesh and defending “healthy secularism,” meaning a state that makes room for both religion and non-belief, but doesn’t impose either one.

Had Christopher Hitchens still been alive, perhaps the pontiff might have considered reaching out to him … and for the record, many of us would have paid real money to watch that exchange.

Whether such a dazzling gesture actually ensues is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that as Christians observe Easter today, a growing number may have good reason to look on their atheist neighbors as their new best friends.

Good Friday and martyrdom

On the subject of contemporary martyrdom, Crux’s Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín had a thoughtful piece on Friday about how Catholic leaders see the connection between Good Friday and the suffering of their fellow believers around the world.

If you missed it, it’s worth taking a look here.

The Vatican’s Italian challenge

One development last week that probably didn’t get the coverage it deserves is an agreement between the Vatican and Italy over the sharing of financial and tax information, designed to combat money-laundering and other illicit activities.

Among other things, the agreement should make it harder for depositors to use the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the Vatican bank, to evade their tax obligations in Italy. The possibility of that sort of dodge has been a complaint leveled by Italian politicians, bankers, and tax officials against the Vatican for generations.

It’s an important development for two reasons.

  • First, it’s another signal that Pope Francis is serious about financial reform, which has become a cornerstone of his broader Vatican cleanup operation.
  • Second, it should act as a firebreak against future scandals by giving Italian regulators a way, short of indictments and arrests, to get financial data out of the Vatican, in theory addressing many problems before they develop into a criminal probe.

Standing back from the details, the new deal also illustrates a larger point, which is that being located in Italy is one of the Vatican’s greatest strengths and also its most chronic Achilles’ heel.

On the positive side of things, Italian culture fosters a cosmopolitan view of the world that’s well-suited to a global Church. Just living in Italy offers an education in Catholic concepts of life, even if their imprint now can seem a bit vestigial. Until 1999, for instance, the country’s justice department was known as the “Ministry of Grace and Justice,” and you can still find that name etched over many of its buildings.

Italians also tend to have a healthy sense of relativism about law, which is essential in trying to craft rules for a Church that have to apply in every corner of the world and every historical circumstance. (If you ever want an example of how Italians understand the elasticity of rules, stand on a sidewalk sometime in Rome or Naples and watch how drivers approach traffic and parking laws.)

Another advantage is that Italians may be dreadful at systems, but they’re magnificent at relationships, and that’s often true of the Vatican. Once you’ve established even a nodding acquaintance with personnel, they feel obliged to help you in a way that most American functionaries never would.

Italians also tend to be patient with bureaucracies. They don’t have overly romantic expectations about the moral virtues of their clergy. And they long ago learned to distinguish the bedrock of their faith from the merits of the human beings running the church. All are key to maintaining sanity in Catholic life.

Do I even need to mention the food and the wine?

As with every culture, however, there’s a downside.

Anyone who’s ever tried to call a plumber or get the roof fixed in Italy knows that the pace of getting things done can be, to say the least, painfully slow. Though things have picked up under Francis, the same languor traditionally has characterized the Vatican. Its working motto seemed to be, “Talk to us on Wednesday and we’ll get back to you in 300 years.”

Further, the labor system makes firing people for non-performance exceptionally complicated. Virtually every workplace has at least one employee recognized as a menefreghista, which loosely translates as someone who just doesn’t give a damn. Tellingly, Italian business literature is full of advice on how to work around such people, but precious little about how to get rid of them.

Perhaps most troubling is that while things are slowly changing today, traditionally many Italians have tolerated, even celebrated, forms of mutual back-scratching that anywhere else would be seen as corrupt. For instance, rigging a competitive bidding process to benefit one’s relatives and friends, or making sweetheart deals for VIPs for a favor down the line, have long been considered par for the course.

A February 2014 report from the European Union estimated the cost of corruption in its 28 member states at $120 billion, with almost half coming in Italy alone. (The report acknowledged that differences in reporting standards might skew things, but it still wasn’t a pretty picture for the Italians.)

The same psychology has long permeated the Vatican. Over the years, many accounts of financial misconduct have been reported as Vatican stories, when in fact they’re really just Italian stories.

A scandal that broke out in 2010 about a Vatican official renting apartments to politicians at below-market rates in exchange for votes for public funding to rehab Vatican properties offered a classic example. Yes, in this instance it was a Vatican official, but any Italian bureaucrat of his generation would have done precisely the same thing, and – here’s the point – would not even have perceived it as a problem.

Such collusion at high levels, regardless of what the law may say, was long considered natural. In 2005 the Vatican’s then-Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, asked his American counterpart at the time, Condoleeza Rice, to get a lawsuit against the Vatican over the sexual abuse crisis in the States dismissed. While it seemed a perfectly reasonable request to Sodano, Rice had to explain that’s not how the American justice system works.

Pope Francis has taken steps towards fostering a more international ethos in the Vatican, including standing by his anointed financial reformer, Australian Cardinal George Pell, when some recoiled at the idea that English and Italian can both be official working languages in Pell’s new department.

Last week’s agreement is a reminder, however, that Italy and the Vatican are fated to remain entangled. The challenge for Francis, perhaps especially on the financial front, is to excise the most dysfunctional elements of the Italian imprint while preserving those features that lend the Vatican much of its charm.

On baseball and Catholicism

Easter is my favorite holiday, not only because it recalls the central event in the Christian account of salvation history, meaning Christ rising from the dead, but also because it coincides with baseball’s Opening Day.

A few years ago I published a list of nine reasons – with the number, obviously, chosen to represent the innings in a typical game – why Catholicism is to religion what baseball is to sports. In honor of first pitch this year, here’s the list again:

  • 1. Both baseball and Catholicism venerate the past. Both cherish the memories of a Communion of Saints, including popular shrines and holy cards.
  • 2. Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the infield fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)
  • 3. Both have a keen sense of ritual, in which pace is critically important. (As a footnote, that’s why basketball is more akin to Pentecostalism, since both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience. I’d go into why football is pagan, but that’s a different conversation.)
  • 4. Both baseball and Catholicism generate oceans of statistics, arcana, and lore. For entry-level examples, try: Who has the highest lifetime batting average, with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats? (Ty Cobb). Which popes had the longest and the shortest reigns? (Pius IX and Urban VII).
  • 5. In both baseball and Catholicism, you can dip in and out, but for serious devotees, the liturgy is a daily affair.
  • 6. Both are global games especially big in Latin America. The Detroit Tigers are thought to have one of the most potent batting orders in baseball, featuring two Venezuelans, a Cuban, and six Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Take a look at the presbyterates in many American dioceses, and the mix isn’t that different.
  • 7. Both baseball and Catholicism have been badly tainted by scandal, with the legacies of erstwhile superstars utterly ruined. Yet both have proved surprisingly resilient – perhaps demonstrating that the game is great enough to survive even the best efforts of those in charge at any given moment to ruin it.
  • 8. Both have a complex farm system, and fans love to speculate about who the next hot commodity will be in “The Show.”
  • 9. Both reward patience. If you’re the kind of person who needs immediate results, neither baseball nor Catholicism is really your game.

I threw in a bonus item, which was my argument as to why the American League is actually more Catholic because it permits a designated hitter. The National League’s refusal, I contended, smacks of a quasi-Calvinist fundamentalism, while the American League better embodies what Cardinal John Henry Newman once called the development of doctrine.

I conceded the irony that both the Padres and the Cardinals play in the more “Protestant” National League, which was seized upon by Catholic critics who found my case for the designated hitter almost heretical. I’m not sure I’ve ever written anything else that generated quite as much blowback.

Of all the reactions, my favorite came from my friend, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who writes a smart and influential blog under the name “Fr. Z.” (The fact that he often objects to what I write simply makes things all the more interesting.)

Fr. Z is fond of propounding an extra beatitude which, naturally, he insists on expressing in Latin rather than the vernacular: “Beati qui non expectant, quia non disappointabuntur.” Loosely, it means, “Blessed are those with no expectations, for they will not be disappointed.”

His point was that it’s equally applicable to the Church and to baseball, to which devotees who see their dreams deferred for yet another year in both venues can only say “Amen.”

As a footnote, I mentioned above that Urban VII had the shortest reign in papal history, serving for just 12 days from Sept. 15 to 27, 1590, before dying of malaria. Fr. Z observed that Urban VII was also the pope who threatened excommunication for anyone who used tobacco, marking the world’s first smoking ban.

I leave it to others to decide whether that means his record should come with an asterisk.

(Because I just can’t resist, the tobacco ban was repealed in 1725 by Pope Benedict XII, himself a smoker. It made a sort of comeback in 1982, when John Paul II banned smoking on Vatican property … an edict, like so many in Rome and not just a few in baseball, sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance. Pine tar, anyone?)

Finally, on the subject of courting blowback, is this a good time to admit on a site sponsored by The Boston Globe (and owned by the Red Sox owner) that I’m a Yankees fan?

(Note from John Henry: John, please see me in my office Monday.)