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When In Rome, Do As The Iranians Do?

Head coverings for foreign visitors to Iran would go over a lot better if other countries didn’t neglect their own cultural norms to please others.


As doctor of the church, bishop of Milan, and church father extraordinaire, St. Ambrose dealt with liturgical differences between local churches. He had a teaching, which St. Augustine conveyed in both “Epistle to Januarius” and “Epistle to Casualanus.” Here’s how Bartleby puts it:

The advice St. Ambrose gave St. Augustine in regard to conformity to local custom. The authority of the see of Milan almost equalled that of Rome, and each Christian society had its particular rule for the observance of rites and customs. “My mother,” said St. Augustine, “having joined me at Milan, found that the church there did not fast on Saturdays, as at Rome, and was at a loss what to do. I consulted St. Ambrose of holy memory, who replied, ‘When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday: when I am at Milan I do not. Do the same. Follow the custom of the church where you are.’” — Epistle to Januarius, II. 18.

In “Epistle to Casualanus,” it’s put the other way:

When I am here I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offense.

Anglican clergyman Jeremy Taylor, in his “Ductor Dubitantium,” turned this into the Latin verse:

Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more;
Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi.

Translation: If you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere, live as they live there.

We’ve shortened this to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Heck, we’re so lazy, we go with “When in Rome.” Speaking of When In Rome, the band by that name had that really good song “The Promise.” The 1980s were super.

Ambrose’s advice is so common it’s a cliché.

Except that some people are forgetting this long-held wisdom when it comes to cultural and political engagement. Look at what happened this week … in ROME OF ALL PLACES. Sorry, I’ll stop shouting:

Are you kidding me? The Guardian reports at the end of a story about the latest covering of nudes:

In October, a cordon was placed around a nude statue by the American artist Jeff Koons during a visit to Florence by Renzi and Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

A local Italian paper reports:

The decision to cover up nudity was seen as a mark of respect for the traditions of the Muslim country, which has only just had its trade sanctions lifted. Ansa reported that as a further mark of respect, no wine was served at the official dinner during Rouhani’s visit.

Unbelievable. This photoshopped image of Rouhani meeting with Pope Francis would have been awesome if it or the sentiment behind it were real. Now it would be one thing if Iranians deferred to non-Muslim sentiments when hosting non-Muslims. If they changed their dining practices or served wine while Italians visited. Or even if they suspended public executions of political prisoners, lifted the death penalty for juveniles, temporarily halted the “prevalent” child marriages or abuse of minorities. Or heck, even if they didn’t demand, say, female U.S. sailors they’d arrested to wear head coverings.

But, in fact, when Europeans visit Iran, they defer completely to Iranian sensibilities and when Iranians visit Europe, Europeans still defer to Iranian mores. Napoleon said that “A man who goes into a country must comply with the ceremonies in use there.” Seeing American and European women in head coverings in Iran and other Muslim countries goes over a lot better when their own civilizations don’t neglect their own cultural norms to please others. Civilizations that don’t respect their own religious and cultural views but cater to the religious views held by political and business interests abroad are both schizophrenic and dying. If our elites can’t even spread the message of tolerance for other cultures through diplomacy and business, we’re doomed. It’s not much but France shows what is to be done when visitors aren’t respectful of local customs:

That’s one way to handle it.