Martyrdom in Pakistan

Sixty-four years ago, on Aug. 14, 1947, Great Britain’s empire in the Indian subcontinent was divided into the independent, self-governing Dominions of India and Pakistan. The division of the subcontinent into two states was bitterly opposed by the Indian Congress Party and Winston Churchill, but supported by the Muslim League (with Congress, one of the two major pro-independence parties in the British Raj) and the Attlee government, which had displaced Churchill in 1945. Congress proposed power-sharing plans that would hold the subcontinent together as a political unit; they were all rejected by the leader of the Muslim League, a Scotch-drinking, pork-eating, and rather secular lawyer named Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

More than any other single factor, Jinnah’s iron will created Pakistan out of several Muslim-dominated provinces of the Raj, thus splitting the subcontinent into three parts (for the original Pakistan included East Bengal, which is now independent Bangladesh). Individuals rarely bend history, or colonial empires, to their wills. Jinnah was an exception: no Jinnah, almost certainly no Pakistan.

Thus the fact that Mohammad Ali Jinnah died on Sept. 11, 1948, a mere 13 months after Pakistani independence, poses one of the great “What if?” questions of modern history. What if Great Britain had held out for another 18 months, insisting on religious freedom and political power-sharing within a pluralistic India that included the provinces that became Pakistan? What if this pluralistic nation had, over time, become what India is today: the world’s largest democracy, with a vibrant free economy and the world’s biggest middle class? What if the experience of pluralism had led, not to the enduring hatreds born 64 years ago in the slaughters that followed mass population transfers as people sorted themselves out between “India” and “Pakistan,” but to a genuinely tolerant, multi-faith society in which religious freedom was respected? What if that experience of pluralism had bred, not the fanatical “Hindu fundamentalism” and Islamist jihadism that beset India and Pakistan today, but more tolerant forms of each faith, both of which could then accept the Christians in their midst with equanimity?

A lot of the history of the last six and a half decades has at least something to do with the failure of British intelligence to figure out that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a man whose time was running out just as the British Empire was preparing to divide its crown jewel at Jinnah’s insistence—including the personal history of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was born a generation after Jinnah’s will created Pakistan.

The 42-year-old Bhatti, a Catholic and Pakistan’s federal minister for religious minorities, was murdered—or, to be more precise, martyred—this past March 2 while being driven to work. His murderer left a note in which he explained that Bhatti had to die because he opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a crude attempt to oppose a form of Islamic sharia on the country.

Shahbaz Bhatti knew that his life was in danger. Some weeks before his death, he made clear in interviews that he was fully aware of the risks he was running. But he was determined to hold fast to his faith and to his convictions about religious freedom. “My struggle will continue,” he said, “despite the difficulties and threats I have received. My only aim is to defend fundamental rights, religious freedom, and the life of Christians and other religious minorities. I am prepared for any sacrifice for this mission, which I carry out with the spirit of a servant of God.”

One of those interviews was with Al-Jazeera, which seems an unlikely source for a reading in the Liturgy of the Hours. But if, as I am confident, the Church will one day celebrate the feast of Blessed Shahbaz Bhatti, martyr, this good and brave man’s confession of faith to Al-Jazeera—“I know the meaning of the Cross and I am following the Cross”—would make an exemplary second reading in the Office of Readings. Between now and then, spend a minute and a half with Shahbaz Bhatti, courtesy of YouTube, and be inspired by a 21st-century Thomas More: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBTBqUJomRE.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.