What the Popes Don’t Say About Islam

What the Popes Don’t Say About Islam

By David Mills | December 23, 2015 | Ethika Politika

The politician who declares Islam a “religion of peace” almost certainly has no idea what he’s talking about. He makes the claim assuming that some Americans await the excuse to release their inner Islamophobe, which though true doesn’t settle the vexing question of what Islam is and where its beliefs lead. The popes have not been as helpful in answering the question as they might have been.

Genuine Religions

Most westerners assume that all religions are basically alike, not just in being oriented to the divine but in what they think that divine requires. (See here for more on this.) We take Christianity, and to a great extent Judaism, as the template. As Pope Benedict told Muslims in Cameroon in 2009, “genuine religion”

widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.

This describes Christianity, the religion we know, but whether it describes other religions is a question. We believe in this idea of genuine religion because we believe that God has told us certain truths through his Scriptures and his Church. Those who believe he has said other things through other sources—Muhammad would be one—may wind up with very different beliefs. They may reject the idea that reason purifies and structures religion, for example. One legitimate response to Benedict’s definition is that if this is genuine religion, Islam is not a genuine religion.

A religion might assert dogmas that lead to violence, oppression, hatred, or an unjust social order. A religion may be a crazy religion. That Islam is a religion does not mean that it is a faith and life that recognizes human dignity and leads to human flourishing. It may do so imperfectly, partly, or not at all. If it does so, it may do so for some but not everyone, for the insiders but not the outsiders.

The Second Vatican Council gave us in Nostra Aetate an optimistic description of Islam that does not answer concretely the question of what it believes and where those beliefs go. Indeed that section of the declaration begins “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” not Islam. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself,” it says, but someone might adore the one God and mishear most of what he’s said.

Islam and the Christian Template

Here—I don’t say this happily—the prudential judgments of recent popes seem to me over-optimistically to reflect the assumption that Islam is a religion fitting the Christian template. That is, at least, the natural reading. I will take Benedict as my example because he observed more of recent history than St. John Paul II and is less controversial (to some) than Francis, and because he has a mind of astonishing penetration and subtlety.

Here are a few examples, taken (as was the quote above) from the USCCB’s helpful collection of statements on Islam.

“Since the Second Vatican Council,” Benedict told the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2008, “attention has been focused on the spiritual elements which different religious traditions have in common. In many ways, this has helped to build bridges of understanding across religious boundaries.” He said that working together lets the different religions—including Islam—express their “highest ideals,” mentioning “helping the sick, bringing relief to the victims of natural disasters or violence, [and] caring for the aged and the poor.”

Benedict uses “highest” in the Christian sense. What if for Islam these are not its highest ideals or are only among its highest ideals? What if its highest ideals include the spread of Islam throughout the world, if necessary through forcible conversion and the oppression or killing of infidels and apostates? Suppose its highest ideals include the kind of sexually segregated society we see in Saudi Arabia?

Benedict’s Call

In a message to Muslims at the beginning of Ramadan in 2006, the pope called them to defend and promote “the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity. . . . [B]y recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.”

In another address to Muslims, he said that in pluralistic societies, “care must be taken to guarantee that the other is always treated with respect.” This respect

grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person as created by God. Such agreement does not limit the expression of individual religions; on the contrary, it allows each person to bear witness explicitly to what he believes, not avoiding comparison with other

What if Islam doesn’t recognize what as a Catholic Benedict sees as “the central character of the human person” and “the inviolable dignity of every single person”? The way Benedict puts this suggests that he is not sure they do, but the average reader will take the words as a statement that they believe this, just like Christians and Jews.

Benedict’s other remarks are of the same sort with the same apparent meaning. He doesn’t define Islam and much of what he says consists of appeals to Muslims to act like Christians without actually saying so. The effect is to present Islam as a religion understood through the Christian template, and not to consider whether its beliefs direct it to peace or to war, to freedom or to slavery, to equality or to oppression.

What Islam Is

Islam is the religion we need to understand at the moment. Some Muslims kill innocent people and a greater number wish innocent people to be killed. They’re also the religious group most likely to suffer harassment and abuse and to find themselves the targets of louts, fools, and demagogues (and demagogues who are also louts and fools).

Is Islam capable of growth into a modern universalistic religion like Christianity that respects the dignity and freedom of every human person in a pluralistic society? Or isn’t it? Or is substnatially shaped by the society in which it finds itself? Are Islamist terrorists the Muslim equivalent of the Christian inquisitors of the past, something the religion will outgrow, or are they something the religion itself creates? Are they are a perversion or a product of the religion? Are they in its DNA or are they a mutation that can’t long survive? Can it develop? Will it be universalized by modernity or directed by the natural law?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t have even enough knowledge to venture a very amateur opinion, and people I trust disagree on the matter. I’m not even sure how authoritative is what seems to me the papal assumption, since as far as I can find we have no Magisterial statement on the nature of Islam. But it’s a question that must be asked, difficult though the answer may be.

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8 comments on “What the Popes Don’t Say About Islam

  1. Since when did the Ratzingerian vision of Catholicism become the standard official one? Are our highest ideals supposed to be endless yammering about man’s dignity? Or have we had traditional tenets about schismatics, heretics, and obligations of government to the true faith that are rightfully Catholic? That make our recent popes uncomfortable? That make Mills uncomfortable?

    According to Mills, our religion has wonderfully grown into a universalist religion that affirms everybody’s dignity and freedom in a pluralist society, and we’ve left those nasty inquisitors behind. Is that what’s supposed to become of us? Is that what we’re pressing for in the Islamic world? If Muslims resist this, are they completely unreasonable? Or is it our Church that has lost is ecclesial mind?

  2. Exactly, oremus. I got sucked into reading with the hope of hearing from several popes, not just Ratzinger. Mills wraps up saying, ” I don’t have even enough knowledge to venture a very amateur opinion, …” That’s nice. That’s why I write comments, not articles pretending to edify.

    What is the group “Ethika Politica” and “The Center for Morality in Public Life?” Do they have unnamed sponsors?

  3. The author writes: “I don’t know the answer to these questions…”
    Rush offers an answer here:
    www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2015/12/22/mandy_patinkin_ruins_homeland
    “Islam is a conquest ideology. Not even a religion.”
    If Rush is right, then it’s evident that Vatican II contains error…

  4. www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/12/27/thomas-aquinas-distrusted-islam/
    Why Thomas Aquinas Distrusted Islam
    The 13th-century scholar Thomas Aquinas, regarded as one of the most eminent medieval philosophers and theologians, offered a biting critique of Islam based in large part on the questionable character and methods of its founder, Mohammed.

    According to Aquinas, Islam appealed to ignorant, brutish, carnal men and spread not by the power of its arguments or divine grace but by the power of the sword.

    Aquinas, a keen observer of the human condition, was familiar with the chief works of the Muslim philosophers of his day–including Avicenna, Algazel, and Averroes–and engaged them in his writings.

    Since Islam was founded and spread in the seventh century, Aquinas—considered by Catholics as a saint and doctor of the Church—lived in a period closer to that of Mohammed than to our own day.

    In one of his most significant works, the voluminous Summa contra gentiles, which Aquinas wrote between 1258 and 1264 AD, the scholar argued for the truth of Christianity against other belief systems, including Islam.
    Aquinas contrasts the spread of Christianity with that of Islam, arguing that much of Christianity’s early success stemmed from widespread belief in the miracles of Jesus, whereas the spread of Islam was worked through the promise of sensual pleasures and the violence of the sword.

    Mohammad, Aquinas wrote, “seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure.”

    Such an offer, Aquinas contended, appealed to a certain type of person of limited virtue and wisdom.

    “In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men,” he wrote. “As for proofs of the truth of his doctrine, he brought forward only such as could be grasped by the natural ability of anyone with a very modest wisdom. Indeed, the truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity.”

    Because of the weakness of Islam’s contentions, Aquinas argued, “no wise men, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning.” Instead, those who believed in him “were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Muhammad forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms.”
    Islam’s violent methods of propagation were especially unconvincing to Aquinas, since he found that the use of such force does not prove the truth of one’s claims, and are the means typically used by evil men.

    “Mohammad said that he was sent in the power of his arms,” Aquinas wrote, “which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants.”

    At the time Aquinas was writing, Islam was generally considered a Christian heresy, since it drew so heavily on Christian texts and beliefs. Aquinas wrote that Mohammed “perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments by making them into fabrications of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law.”

    According to the noted historian Hilaire Belloc, Islam “began as a heresy, not as a new religion. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was—not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.”

    In his Summa contra gentiles, Aquinas ends his argument against Islam by offering a backhanded compliment to Mohammed, noting that he had to keep his followers ignorant in order for them to remain faithful.

    It was, Aquinas wrote, “a shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity.”

    “It is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly,” he wrote.

    • (Is this detraction?) I can’t help but point out the irony of this article by Rev. Thomas D. Williams, L.C. Ph.D. Despite the fine content in the article, the spectacle of a Maciel facilitator and defender, himself a seducer and father out-of-wedlock, toting out the bane of NewChurch, the Great Angelic Doctor, to condemn Muhammad — who “seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure” — is a bit much to swallow. Could Tom Williams be waking up? Naw!

  5. What is it with these Vatican II Kool-Aid drinkers and Qu’ran-kissers that believe all we need to do is be “nice” to the Muslims and everything will be OK?. St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” said all that needs to be said about Muslims in Summa contra gentiles. And, remember Our Lord Himself is reputed to have said: “Thou has spoken well of me, Thomas.” Now, we are told by some that the Muslim religion is a religion of peace but we know that Christians and others have been told: “Submit or we will lop off your heads”. And today there is a report in the news that some Muslim leaders, reportedly including the President of Egypt, are asking: where is the United States in this fight against ISIS?” Listen, buddy, the United States has already given up too much blood and treasure in this Fight so man-up and defeat the enemy in your part of the world. Don’t ask us to fight your battles when you yourselves have the wherewithal to get the job done. And to the deranged members of the Church-hierarchy who refuse to call Evil what it really is, we can say: Though we do not judge you, you will in fact be judged one day and we hope you will be prepared for that awesome Day.

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