In the spirit of Advent, the President of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, issued a statement yesterday calling upon all people of good will to unite in confronting the “Violence and hate in the world around us [meeting them] with resolve and courage.” Furthermore he promised that the Bishops’ Conference would “advocate on behalf of people facing religious discrimination, including our Muslim brothers and sisters.” This was followed by the call to “confront the extremist threat with courage and compassion, recognizing that Christianity, Islam, Judaism and many other religions are united in opposition to violence carried out in their name.”
While the Archbishop should be applauded for his effort of sowing seeds of peace, especially with Muslims, his statement papers over some very important differences that it is time the shepherds of the Church address. Namely, he says that “When we fail to see the difference between our enemies and people of good will, we lose a part of who we are as people of faith.” While this comment may in fact be true, the opposite is also true—when we fail to see the difference between our friends and our enemies, we also lose something of who we are. In other words, there is an equal danger of calling someone an enemy who is a friend and of calling someone a friend who is really an enemy. Rather than issuing statements filled with the puree of political correctness, it would be good to give us the meat of truth about Islam so that we can discern the difference. Without this, there is a certain gravity that naturally pulls anyone of goodwill into one camp or the other. Only with a proper understanding of Islam, can someone love Muslims while rejecting Islam. This can only happen when the Church speaks in a clear voice about the subject of Islam.
The most recent authoritative statement regarding Islam comes from the Catechism— “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’” (CCC 841). This statement is a direct quote from the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium (16). Like many statements contained in documents of the Council, it is plagued by a certain amount of ambiguity. With some context and explanation, this statement can be better understood and lead to a sense of clarity.
Certainly the accusation that the Council Fathers were overly optimistic about the world, and specifically about Islam, has some merit to it. But the world of Islam in the 1960s is not the same world today. The amount of hostility that the Muslim world displayed towards Christianity was at an all-time low. Most people thought that secularization and Westernization had left the Islamic world in ruins. So of course in that climate, such a statement that emphasized commonalities was in order. A plea to “forget the past” and the recommendation that both sides “work sincerely for mutual understanding” is appropriate. With the “Arab Spring” uprisings came a reassertion of the political aspects of Islam all across the Middle East.
In short, I think the Council Fathers read the signs of the times correctly, but those times have passed. Many prelates and priests in the Church are still living in those times and need to bring their understanding and teaching up to date.
A careful reading of the paragraph from the Catechism yields certain questions that bear further explanation. Specifically:
What does it mean when it says “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims”?
The context of Lumen Gentium is important here. First of all in speaking of the “plan of salvation” it refers to the universality of Christ’s redemptive act. Muslims are awaiting their redemption from Christ, not as Muslims, but as potential Christians. They should be targets of evangelization (more on this below) just like everyone else is, but in a manner that respects where they are beginning from. Furthermore, the paragraph also is referring to the fact that among all the non-Christian religions (Judaism excepted), Muslims are “in the first place” because they profess monotheism. All the other religions mentioned in the document (Buddhism, Hinduism, even atheism) do not have this.
What does it mean when it says “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 statement is particularly ambiguous, but the key to understanding lies in the fact that they profess to hold the faith of Abraham. The Church is not saying that they actually do hold the faith of Abraham, only that they profess to.
There seems to be a contradiction in this interpretation when it says “with us they adore the one, merciful God.” The point of this qualifier is that they adore the one merciful God in much the same way St. Paul found the Athenians in the Aeropogus. St Paul tells them,
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
The analogy between Islam and the Athenians is that both are aiming at the true God, even if they were missing. For the Athenians they were blind and could not see where to aim, the Church seems to be suggesting that Muslims are in fact aiming at the correct target, even if they miss very badly. St. John Paul II in his book-length interview, Crossing the Threshold of Hope suggests the same thing:
“Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”(Emphasis added).
All of which leads to another oft-asked question, namely:
Is the God of Islam the “same” God as the Christian God?
In a 1999 General Audience, John Paul II seems to give an answer to this in the affirmative. But in many ways this is the wrong question. Whether we classify Islam as a Christian heresy or not isn’t really that important. What is important is to understand how fundamentally flawed their conception of God is and to show them the freedom that Christ is offering to them.
In St. John’s Gospel (8:31-59), Jesus engages “those Jews who believed in Him” regarding the question of Abraham’s fatherhood. He tells them that they are indeed children of Abraham, but not children of the promise like Isaac, but slave children like Ishmael. Rather than seeing God as master, they should look upon Him as Father.
This dialogue could very easily be applied to “dialogue” between Christians and Muslims. For Muslims, Allah is Master and man his slaves. He is not Father, and has no sons. To call Allah Father is a great sin in Islamic law. And yet, like Jesus, we need to offer to them the “freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) by introducing them to God as Father.
Despite the fact that it may be met with hostility, Christians need to show Muslims the Fatherhood of God. Ultimately it is God as Father that meets every longing of the human heart. The path to evangelizing Muslims lies precisely in this—“formed by Divine teaching” having the courage to call Him Our Father.
Here ultimately lies the problem with the Archbishop’s statement. By referring to Muslims as “brothers and sisters,” Archbishop Kurtz does both Christians and Muslims a great disservice. If we are brothers and sisters, then this means we have a common father. Who is this father?
A fundamental belief of Christianity is that despite being creatures, God in Jesus Christ, is offering us adoption as sons and daughters. But this adoption is not something automatic, but instead something that is offered to us. It remains our choice to accept this adoption and to live as sons and daughters. The Muslim conception of God would forbid this view and thus they are not open to being adopted into the Family of the Trinity unless someone preaches it to them.
By calling them “brothers and sisters” we are doing the exact opposite. We are saying that they already are in that relationship with God. It confuses both Christians and Muslims alike.
First of all, anyone familiar with Islamic teaching knows that no follower of Islam (radical or not) would ever view a Christian as his brother or sister. While they may offer solidarity with Christians after a great tragedy like occurred in San Bernardino that solidarity sits on a shaky foundation. That solidarity sits upon a political unity as Americans that is foreign to the Islamic mindset. There is only one source of unity in the Islamic mindset and that is the Dar al-Islam, or abode of Islam. In other words, it is unreasonable to expect that when push comes to shove the moderate Muslims will be allies in a fight against radical elements.
From a Christian standpoint, the only conclusion to the label of “brothers and sisters” is that we do not need to preach the Gospel to them. Ultimately we can just “Coexist.” This is why the proper identification of friends and enemies that the Archbishop mentioned is so important. Muslims certainly can be our friends, but Islamic teaching itself is not friendly to Christianity. It regards itself as an enemy of Christianity. But properly understood, Muslims are not yet brothers and sisters. And the only way to ensure that those who are our friends remain so is to make them true brothers and sisters. Let’s stop wasting time and energy spouting out politically correct drivel. If we focus on converting the “moderates”, the blood of the martyrs in the East will take care of the “extremists.” One has to wonder, what is the USCCB’s plan for converting Muslims? Could we have a document on that? While the Archbishop is right that “Policies of fear and inflammatory rhetoric will only offer extremists fertile soil and pave the way toward a divisive, fearful future,” the surest path to a divisive and fearful eternal future for all of us, is to just let them be—“woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1Cor 9:16).