If some folks – including many Catholics – have felt uneasy about some of the things the current Pope has said about Islam, they would be quite right to feel that way. Even allowing for a hostile secular media, when we read his actual words – sometimes from a speech, sometimes from an impromptu media interview given on an airplane, etc – we find much that is of concern.
It is not my intention here to list every worrying thing he has said and done, nor to get into a fight with my Catholic friends. And of course as a Protestant, I am quite aware of, but not bound by, notions of Popes speaking ex cathedra and so on. What is my intention is to point out a few basic truths.
One, not all Catholics are so easy going about Islam and the very real threat it poses as some are. And some Catholics are very cluey indeed as to the menace of Islam, its theological incompatibility with Christianity, and the very real problem of Islamic jihad.
To help make this discussion, I want to rely upon just one very aware and well-read Catholic, William Kilpatrick. He has written plenty on Islam, and I continually find his observations and assessments to be top-notch. Back in 2012 he wrote a superlative volume entitled Christianity, Islam and Atheism. I review it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/26/a-review-of-christianity-islam-and-atheism-by-william-kilpatrick/
I encourage everyone to grab a copy of this masterful book and read it carefully. He has also written scores of invaluable articles on this topic as well, and they are all well worth reading. So let me offer some of his remarks on various aspects of this.
It would be well known that in one key Catholic document, its Catechism, next to nothing is said on Islam. Indeed, we simply find one very short paragraph which many of us find far from ideal:
The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
This of course is simply a quote from the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. So that is all we have on the issue of Islam, and many will find it theologically unsatisfactory. But I will leave theological concerns aside here, and devote my time to the rather unhelpful view of Islam itself as a political ideology. Says Kilpatrick:
It’s not at all clear that today’s Church leaders possess a … clear-eyed understanding of Islamic theology/ideology. The current outreach to Islam seems to be based more on wishful thinking than on fact. And, as Pope Francis himself observed in Evangelii Gaudium, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232).
“Ideas disconnected from realities” is a good way to describe the Church’s Islam policy. That policy does not seem to have done much to prevent persecution of Christians in Muslim lands. How about Catholics who do not live in the danger zones? Catholics who live in the West and rely on the Church for their understanding of Islam can be forgiven if they still remain complacent about the Islamic threat. That’s because there is absolutely nothing in recent official Church statements that would lead them to think that there is anything to worry about. Lumen Gentium? Nostra Aetate? The Catechism of the Catholic Church? Evangelii Gaudium? All discuss Islam, but not in a way that would raise the slightest concern. The Catholic who wonders what to think about Islamic terrorism and then consults his Catechism only to find that “together with us they adore the one, merciful God” will likely conclude that terrorists are distorting and misinterpreting their religion. Confident that the Church has spoken definitively on the matter, he’ll roll over and go back to sleep.
Conversely, Catholics who do not rely strictly on the Church for their assessment of Islam are in for a bout of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they know what the Church says. On the other hand, they can read the news and note the obvious discrepancy. As time goes by and as car bombings and beheadings occur at more frequent intervals in the West, dissonance is likely to be replaced by disrespect. Church officials who keep repeating the one-sided narrative about “authentic” Islam will lose credibility. Catholics won’t necessarily lose their faith, but it will be sorely tested. At the least, they will stop trusting their bishops on this issue. The trouble with “ideas disconnected from realities” is that they eventually do bump up against realities, and when they do, the bearers of those ideas lose respect. A good case can be made that Catholic leaders should pursue a policy geared toward weakening Muslims’ faith in Islam (a proposition I will discuss in the next installment), but the current policy seems more likely to undermine the faith that Catholics have in their shepherds. It’s ironic that a Catholic can get a better grasp of the Islamic threat by listening to a short speech by President el-Sisi than by listening to a hundred reassuring statements from Catholic bishops.
Like me and many others, Kilpatrick is not exactly thrilled with the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I have written on this often, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/08/19/no-we-do-not-worship-the-same-god/
As Kilpatrick writes:
The Supreme Being as depicted in the Koran is an entirely different sort of being from the one depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although a lot of Christians like to say that “We all worship the same God,” the Koran explicitly rejects Christianity and the Christian notion of God. It does this on several occasions and in no uncertain terms. The Jesus of the Koran, for example, seems to have been introduced into it for the sole purpose of denying the claims of Jesus of Nazareth.
In any event, Muslims are not called to the imitation of the Muslim Jesus, but to the imitation of Muhammad. In Islamic tradition he is considered the perfect man, the supreme model of conduct. Just as Christians are supposed to conform their lives to Christ, Muslims are expected to conform their lives to Muhammad. Unfortunately, for those who think that religions are interchangeable, the imitation of Muhammad leads in a very different direction than the imitation of Christ. The imitation of Muhammad leads to unequal treatment of believers and non-believers, to child brides, polygamy, wife beating, stoning for adulterers, the murder of apostates, and various other, shall we say, un-American activities.
What about the naïve notion that Islam itself can somehow be reformed? Kilpatrick also demolishes this fuzzy and dangerous thinking:
Islam, not just radical Islam, is a threat to Christianity. The Muslim world can go through periods of quiescence in which Islam itself recedes into the background, but radicalism is part of the genetic structure of Islam. Any true “reform” of Islam is going to be of the “operation-was-successful-but-the-patient-died” variety. That is, if you were to eliminate all the violent, supremacist, and misogynist elements in Islam’s basic texts you wouldn’t have much left.”
Unlike what many Catholics are advocating, Kilpatrick is under no illusion as to what is the proper approach to take when it comes to Islam:
To put it bluntly (although for prudential reasons you might want to blunt your bluntness) Church policy should be aimed at weakening faith in Islam. This is the reverse of the current policy, which is built on the assumption that there is a good (authentic) Islam and a bad (inauthentic) Islam and we should therefore reinforce Muslims’ faith in “true” Islam and encourage them to go deeper into it. This, as I’ve argued before, is an impossible project. “Good” Islam and “bad” Islam are as intimately related as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde always predominates in the end.
Put another way, we should work at discrediting Islam just as Western leaders, clergy, and intellectuals once worked to discredit other totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and communism. Jihad for the sake of Allah is not some unfortunate deviation from the true faith, it’s an integral part of that faith. As long as the faith is taken seriously, jihad will be taken seriously. The jihad won’t stop until the belief system that inspires it is undermined and dismantled. It is greatly in our interest that Muslims begin to take their faith less seriously. Thus, it is necessary to undertake the difficult and subtle work of discrediting Islam. Among other things, this discrediting process would involve questioning the authenticity of Muhammad’s revelation, questioning his character and reliability, and even questioning his existence.
The Christian thing to do here is to tell Muslims the truth. And the truth certainly is not that we all belong to one big happy religious family:
The objective is not to make Muslims angry, but to make them uncomfortable with their faith. If enough questions are raised, some, at least, will begin to ask the same questions. To reiterate the main point, our aim should not be to separate Muslims from radical manifestations of their faith, but to separate them from their faith—albeit gradually. The former is an impossible task because Islam is essentially a radical religion. For proof, look at Saudi Arabia, the quintessential Islamic state. It’s the most Islamic nation in the Muslim world and also the most radical. Although the Saudi government knows enough to publicly condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it does not hesitate to imprison its own blasphemers. While the Saudi Ambassador was marching in the “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris, back in the home country a young blogger, Raif Badawi, was receiving the first 50-lash installment of his 1000-lash sentence for “insulting Islam.” Saudi Arabia also conducts amputations (for thieves) and beheadings (for apostates) on a weekly basis in public squares. Moreover, bibles, rosaries, and churches are strictly forbidden. When you encourage Muslims to go deeper into their faith, what you get is places like Saudi Arabia. Or, in the Shia Muslim world, places like the Islamic Republic of Iran.
If all of the above still seems too confrontational toward Muslims to suit ecclesiastical tastes, then Church policy should at least be redirected toward telling the truth to fellow Catholics. Right now, Catholics are being seriously misled about the nature of Islam. Popes and prelates don’t have to go around poking holes in the Islamic narrative, but neither should they be reinforcing it. The bishops don’t necessarily have to censure Islam, but they also don’t have to talk about their esteem for it, or to dwell on its (supposed) similarities to Christianity. You can express your respect for Muslims, but do you really want to express your respect for Islam?
Not all Popes have been naïve about the nature of Islam. Pope Benedict XVI for example was one of them. But the current Pope has said so many worrying things about Islam that many folks – including plenty of Catholics – are quite concerned about where he is heading with all this.
Thankfully there are Catholics like William Kilpatrick and others who can see clearly the nature of the threat we face, and how everything is not simply sweetness and light out there. More power to him.