The Church’s Strange Reappraisal of Islam

By Timothy D. Lusch
June 2017

Ed. Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the Catholic Church and Islam. The first installment, “The Interfaith Delusion” and the second, “Dawah, Dislocation & the Hijacking of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue”

In a recent article at National Review Online, Fr. Benedict Kiely describes a visit he had with a Catholic priest in Iraq, the pastor of a ruined church in the empty Christian town of Karemlash, which has been ravaged by the Islamic State. “Surveying the horror and the eerily silent town, punctuated only by the distant thump of explosions in Mosul, nine miles away,” Fr. Kiely writes, “I asked Father Thabet, the Chaldean Catholic priest who serves as pastor of St. Addai, whether all this destruction represented real Islam. ‘Yes,’ he answered strongly, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘You wouldn’t be allowed to say that in the West,’ I said smiling. He didn’t smile back” (Apr. 3).

Fr. Kiely’s encounter highlights the chasm between Church leaders in the West and persecuted Christians in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. Pope Francis, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and any number of ill-informed clergy at the pulpit bombard us with blind and bland sloganeering that Islam is a “religion of peace,” that there’s “no such thing” as Muslim terrorism, and that the real problem today is the “scourge of Islamophobia” — all routinely said with a straight face. Meanwhile, bishops and priests in the Middle East and their dwindling flock confront the brutal reality of persecution and death at the hands of Islamists on a daily basis.

How did we get here? A cursory glance at history shows that the Catholic hierarchy hasn’t always extolled Islam. The misguided public-relations campaign lauding a “peaceful” Islam is entirely of recent vintage. If anything, Church history over the past fourteen hundred years has been dominated by our oppositional relationship with Muslims. (Where episodes of cooperation have occurred, they have been limited geographically and politically in scale and scope). For Christians (and Jews) living in Muslim-controlled lands, violent persecution and enslavement, relegation to subservient dhimmi status, and financial extortion via the jizya, the Sharia-mandated tax of non-Muslim “People of the Book,” have been common occurrences. These practices, to a greater or lesser degree, continue unabated today where Islam is the reigning politico-religious system. Groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, for all their particular horror, are simply practicing Islam as it has been practiced since the days of Muhammad. It is not Islam that has changed, thereby warranting reappraisal in our time; rather, it is the Church leadership’s view of Islam that has changed. Our current leaders have altered their view arbitrarily, without authoritative textual or behavioral evidence from Islamic sources. Worse, they have disregarded the lessons of history and the teachings of their forebears.


In the ninth century, when Muslim ships threatened Rome and its environs, Pope Leo IV organized a defense league to fight them. Culminating in the famous Battle of Ostia (A.D. 849), Christian navies prevailed over the Muslim pirates. Captured Muslim warriors were made to help build the Leonine Wall that once surrounded the Vatican, parts of which still stand to this day. So significant was the Christian victory that, centuries later, Renaissance artist Raphael commemorated it with a magnificent fresco in the Apostolic Palace. Due in no small part to Leo’s efforts, Rome remains the only apostolic see that never succumbed to Muslim conquest. Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria were all captured by Islamic jihadists in the first millennium.

Other examples abound. Pope John VIII led a fight against Muslims in southern Italy in the latter part of the ninth century. In 1095, in a belated response to centuries of Muslim aggression in Christian lands — most significantly, in Jerusalem — Pope Urban II (once the cardinal-bishop of Ostia) preached the First Crusade. Decades later, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian abbot and Doctor of the Church, preached the Second Crusade. None of these men was confused about the nature of Islam or deceived by the threat that its followers posed to the Catholic Church. This is also true of John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Clement V, Callixtus III, Benedict XIV, and others.

Then came the Second Vatican Council. After centuries of viewing Islam as “diabolical” and an “abominable sect,” and Muhammad as a “false prophet,” Church leaders cast aside the condemnatory language in favor of the kinder, gentler declarations of Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium. The latter specifically states, “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind” (no. 16).

Howard P. Kainz, emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University, argues that the portions of the documents regarding Muslims weren’t part of the Council’s original vision:

A significant factor behind this movement was the work of Louis Massignon (1883-1962), a Catholic scholar of Islam and a pioneer of Catholic-Muslim mutual understanding. Massignon taught that we need a “Copernican revolution” in our approach to understanding Islam. We have to place ourselves in the center of the Islamic mindset, understanding Islamic spirituality, and conduct dialogues from that vantage point.

During the Council, one of Massignon’s disciples, the Egyptian Dominican theologian, Georges Anawati (1905-1994), actively “lobbied,” in conjunction with other council members, for positive statements about Islam in official documents. (“The Church and Islam,” TheCatholicThing.com, Mar. 2, 2016)

Clearly, Massignon and company succeeded. The conditions were right. The Council sought to reflect a modern attitude toward Muslims, unchained from the Church’s past experience — a new attitude of encounter, a formal acknowledgement of the Muslim presence in the world and in God’s plan of salvation. The Council documents were a marked departure from past thinking on Islam and led to confusion rather than clarity.

At a most basic level, confusion persists because the revolution in the Catholic approach to Islam that Massignon sought never happened. Instead, the Church revolutionized how she understood Islam, rather than understanding how Muslims understood Islam.

Nevertheless, arguments have been advanced in the years since the Council that a nuanced reading of Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium need not yield to current confusion about the Church’s position on Islam and its followers. Apologist Tim Staples, for example, has argued that “we Catholics have to be careful to distinguish between the fact that Muslims believe in the one true God ‘living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,’ and the fact that they get it wrong — profoundly wrong — when it comes to both who God has revealed himself to be in the New Testament, and what he has taught his people” (“Do Muslims Worship the Same God Catholics Do?” Catholic.com, May 30, 2014).

The warnings regarding the modern Catholic approach to Islam given by Staples and others were perhaps best expressed by Pope St. John Paul II:

Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

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. (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994)

Beyond these arguments, what prevails in the Church today is not John Paul’s assessment, Staples’s warning, Massignon’s “revolution,” or the hazy and unhelpful declarations of Vatican II. It is something altogether different. What has emerged in the papacy of Francis and in recent pronouncements of the USCCB is nothing more than a sales pitch for Islam. And it’s false advertising at its finest.


Rehabilitating Islam is neither the province nor the place of Catholic leaders. Routine statements from the mouths of prelates touting the merits of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and other faiths are scarce. Why the exceptional treatment of Islam? As I have argued previously in these pages (April and May), Pope Francis and the USCCB are willing captives to the contemporary ideology of multiculturalism, which enforces a moral equivalence between religions. It therefore violates ideological norms, whether in public discourse or interreligious dialogue, to criticize or confront negative aspects of another faith. This isn’t significant when it involves faiths like Buddhism that preach peace and love. But it is a serious problem when it involves an aggressive political ideology and belief system like Islam that has a fourteen-hundred-year history of conquest and terror. Thus, to avoid conflict with and condemnation from Muslims, Church leaders, including Pope Francis, leap to the ridiculous and ignorant conclusion that terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam aren’t real Muslims. They can be called anything else — criminals, racists, mental incompetents, violent extremists — so long as they aren’t identified with the politically correct version of Islam as a religion of peace. And yet, Christians in the East — most recently our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt — experience Islam in very different and very violent ways. The chasm between their lives and the rhetoric of the Church has never been wider.

The problem is exacerbated when Catholic leaders choose Islamist groups as their interreligious dialogue partners. In the U.S., these groups — the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Circle of North America — have used the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue as a platform from which to advance the agenda of political Islam, and they have convinced their Catholic counterparts to carry their water for them. Many of the faithful in this country are at best confused and at worst deceived by such a troubling phenomenon. We watch as Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are actively persecuted by Muslims, only to be told by our leaders they most certainly are not, that the violence they suffer has nothing to do with Islam or with their Christian beliefs. And yet, in these countries, it is Muslims who are spilling Christian blood, torching Christian churches, and endangering Christian families because of their Christian faith. As TV’s Dr. Phil says, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Unless and until our Catholic leaders name and condemn the evil that has set upon Christians worldwide, the genocide of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East will continue unabated.


This sad state stands in marked contrast to the way the Church fought other totalitarian ideologies in the past. Historians might debate the role of the Church in the struggle against the twin terrors of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism (though they largely acknowledge that the Church fought on the side of human dignity and freedom), but what isn’t debated is that the Church recognized the demonic forces arrayed before her (thanks, in part, to Our Lady of Fatima) and, in the persons of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, and St. John Paul II, worked to defeat them. Not so with Islam. Not after the Second Vatican Council. Why?

One answer is that the Church came to see Islam as meriting a change in treatment precisely because it is a religion (incorrectly called an Abrahamic faith), unlike Nazism and Communism, which were secular and atheistic ideologies. Dialogue, then, is favored over resistance. This might be an easy answer, but it is the wrong one. Nazism and Communism might not have been religions in name, but both admitted of religious fervor and ritual and sought transcendence in the realization of utopian visions. Moreover, outside of Massignon’s efforts during the Second Vatican Council, there is scant evidence to support this view of Islam as a basis for the Church’s dramatic change in course.

It is more likely that the Church’s general openness to all religious belief was animated by the emerging Zeitgeist of the revolutionary decade of the 1960s. This is not regrettable so long as it is responsible. The Church, though, seemed eager to taste the fruits of encounter, even without the aid of discernment. She engaged Muslims on the basis of her understanding of Islam (and without much investigation) and on the faulty assumption that Muslims too desire encounter over conquest — which would represent a complete departure from Islam’s past goals, foundational and historical texts, and the stated aims of Muhammad himself. Since then, we find ourselves trying to reconcile optimistic ecclesial statements about Islam with the hard reality of the lived experience of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

This is not to say, of course, that all Muslims are bad people, or that all Muslims are terrorists, or that Muslims and Christians cannot co-exist peacefully in certain circumstances or engage in mutual efforts to promote justice and human dignity — e.g., in the fight against abortion and family breakdown. These are familiar retorts commonly relied upon by well-meaning, but often ignorant, Christians. They are also irrelevant, as they can apply to virtually any organized group of people. What is relevant, however, is what Islam itself teaches and how that teaching is reinforced by Muslim leaders and carried out by their followers. That is what we ought to be paying attention to — not to what Pope Francis, the USCCB, or our parish priests say when they conceive of Islam in their minds. We should be paying attention to what the Koran, Sunna, and Hadith say; what imams, muftis, and qadis say in mosques, on foreign television, and in social media; and how Muslims put these teachings into practice in real life.

The cognitive dissonance the Catholic faithful must endure due to our leaders’ Pollyannaism is not healthy. In fact, it is a sign of persistent dysfunction. It is another dimension of the same dysfunctional denial that gave rise to the priest sex-abuse scandal. The hierarchy failed to protect victims from sexual abuse, and it fails to protect the most vulnerable Christians from Islamic terror.

The clergy, from priests to prelates to Pope, can heal the divide between the Western Church and Eastern Christians. But to heal the divide, they need to end their denial. Islam is not a religion of peace. It is not an Abrahamic faith. It was not founded on love and is not maintained by love. Our Catholic leaders must abandon the pretense that Islam is what they say it is. Rather, they must look deeply into what Islam really is. They must stop speaking for Islam. There are Christians in the East who desperately need the Church to speak for them.

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