Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Fasting in Ramadan: Come Again?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 08, 2009

Last Friday, Cardinal John Foley addressed a conference on “The Exodus of Christians from the Holy Land: A Challenge for a Sustainable Peace”. His thesis was that Christians in the Holy Land need to be willing to give up their ties to Western and ethnic ways in order to be perceived as less different, more integrated into the overall culture of the region. In this way, he argues, Christians can show the universality of their Faith, and serve as a bridge to Muslims in overcoming their own tendencies toward cultural isolation and hostility.

As summarized by Zenit on December 7th, Cardinal Foley’s address was extremely confusing and even self-contradictory. One moment the Christians of the Holy Land were too Western, the next they were too ethnic. One moment he was exhorting them to become more like their Islamic neighbors, the next he was insisting that they serve as a bridge to the values of peace and reconciliation valued by the modern world.

Consider the examples he gave of unfortunate Christian differences: “One of the problems in the Middle East is that Christians have asserted Western culture against Islamic culture. Muslims don't eat pork, we will. Muslims don't drink wine, we will. Muslims fast through Ramadan, we won't. It's a sense of, we have to be us and they have to be them.”

Cardinal Foley is quite correct that Christianity is a universal Faith, open to all, and not tied to any particular culture or geographical region. But it is more than “understandable” that Christians in the Holy Land should prize some “Western” ways, for until very recently Western ways were Christian ways, and they offered a significant alternative to Islamic ways which were, well, Islamic.

There are religious reasons why Muslims don’t eat pork and don’t drink wine. These reasons have nothing to do with Christ who, we may recall, first turned water into wine and then turned wine into blood. Moreover, Ramadan is a specifically Islamic observance, marking the time during which the first verses of the Koran were written down, and therefore an occasion for extra fasting and prayer by Muslims. Given the religious and cultural meaning of Ramadan, for Christians to adopt the same practices at the same time would not only tend to decouple them from Western ways or from their own ethnic ways, but it would weaken their very identity as Christians.

How has it worked for Western Catholics to give up abstaining from meet on Fridays, and to give up almost all signs of penance during Lent, in order to be more like everybody else? Hasn't this been the ultimate bridge to nowhere? Outward signs of Christianity are incorporated into a living culture only insofar as a vibrant faith community forms that culture. Deliberately giving up these cultural signs of religious identity, or adopting the cultural signs of a different religious identity, is a very risky business.

Again, Cardinal Foley would certainly be right in saying that Christianity doesn't have to be tied to the Western way of doing things. But what he actually said was “Christianity doesn't have to be—and shouldn't be—tied to the Western way of doing things.” The truth of that assertion rather depends on whether the Western way of doing things is also a Christian way of doing things, and whether the proposed alternative is a Muslim way of doing things.

Cardinal Foley is the Grand Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher. At one point in his speech he emphasized that Christianity is not tied to specific holy regions in the same way as Judaism and Islam are, for “Jesus is not buried in the Holy Sepulcher”—that is, the tomb is empty. But at times the Grand Knight almost seems to forget that it is precisely because the tomb is empty that Christianity consists not in openness to everything, but in openness to one thing. For it was not Mohammed who emptied the tomb by rising from the dead.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Dec. 14, 2009 12:04 PM ET USA

    Average Catholic, in itself, seems to be a contradiction in terms. Ordinary Catholics, however, seem to be the exception rather than the norm. How many religious education/formation programs require the children to have "x" amount of service hours for confirmation, but turn their noses up to memorization or testing? Indeed, if faith without works is dead, what then are works without faith? How much more is ecumenism without knowledge and discernment a snare rather than a blessing?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 10, 2009 8:25 PM ET USA

    We have been living in a reign of wishful thinking. We are to give up SOMETHING on Fridays, but it is no longer specified as to what--and so, we give up nothing. Well some Catholics sometimes had lobster on Friday, which is not perfect. We OUGHT to do everything for love with no thought of duty. We OUGHT--all of us--to be perfect as God is fact, that's a command. But the Church used to have a realism about the AVERAGE Catholic. Expecting utopia on earth has cost us dearly.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 09, 2009 12:57 PM ET USA

    While many Catholics have abandoned practices like fasting on Fridays, these disciplines are still required by the local ordinary in many areas, but lax enforcement has resulted in ambivalence. The Church, unlike many of her rivals, has a profound understanding of what it means to be human. Thus, her practices have the purpose of reinforcing fundamental truths of the Faith in our daily lives. Abandon these practices and you begin constructing a bridge to a place less desirable than nowhere.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 09, 2009 12:00 PM ET USA

    "So, Venerable Brethern, it is clear why this Apostolic Ses has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics...the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of those who are separated...." Pope Pius XI. The statistical and spiritual track record of ecumenism speaks for itself. It is tragic that lay folks are consistently forced to call out the princes of the Church--the very ones they desire to obey without reservation.