Evangelicals and Jews get it, but most Catholics don't. It doesn't help that our Church's most authoritative documents are vague.
Have you heard of the counter-jihad movement? It’s not an official organization, but simply a loosely connected collection of individuals and groups who are concerned about the dangers of Islamic expansion. One of the interesting aspects of the movement is that although its members are often invited to speak to evangelical and Jewish groups, they are rarely invited to speak to Catholic groups.
Do evangelicals know something about Islam that Catholics don’t know? Or do Catholics already know all they need to know about Islam? Or, to put it another way, why are Catholics seemingly less worried about the threat from Islam?
The answer, I believe, is that although Catholics don’t know much about Islam, they are pretty sure about what they do know because it comes with an official stamp. The treatment accorded to Islam in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in two Vatican II documents (Lumen Gentium and Nostra Ætate) is quite brief, but at the same time reassuring. A quick read of these documents gives the impression that Muslim beliefs are just like ours. Therefore, one can safely conclude that there is nothing inherently threatening about Islam.
Or perhaps not so safely. Considering that Christians are the most persecuted religious group on the globe and that most of the persecution comes at the hands of Muslims, it might be time for Catholics to reconsider their rush to non-judgmentalism.
Catholics who jump to conclusions based on these three documents are jumping from a relatively small knowledge base. For example, the statement about Muslims in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only forty-four words in length, which is about eighty words less than the warning label on a bottle of Tylenol. However, it contains no warning. Given the risks involved in getting it wrong, a slight paraphrase of Churchill’s famous reference to the RAF might be in order – something along the lines of: “Never in the field of interreligious endeavor was so much staked by so many on so few words.”
As noted above, those few words emphasize the similarities between Muslim beliefs and Catholic beliefs. And for many Catholics, that seems to be enough to calm whatever doubts they may have about Islam. As Islam scholar Robert Spencer observes, “[t]he idea that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are sister faiths, differing but closely related elaborations of the same religious tradition, is so commonplace today that for many Catholics, it is essentially everything they know about Islam.”
This is curious. Catholicism is supposedly the religion of faith and reason par excellence, but when it comes to Islam, Catholics seem to be relying far more on faith than on reason. Reasoning usually begins with facts, and the more facts you have at your disposal about a particular subject, the better you can reason about it. But by and large, Catholics don’t know much about Islam. The fact that “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems” () seems to have provided an excuse for putting off the acquisition of further knowledge on the subject.
Reasoning also requires logic, and according to Aristotle the first principle of logical reasoning is the law of non-contradiction. One version of the law says that “opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time.” Without the law of non-contradiction, said Aristotle, it would be impossible to make distinctions or to engage in rational discussions. In the case of Islam, however, many Catholics seem to have suspended the principle of non-contradiction. Indeed, they seem to have flung it to the ground and trampled on it.
For example, if one religion says that God is a Trinity and another religion explicitly says that he is not a Trinity, one of them has to be wrong (technically, of course, both could be wrong). If one religion says man fell through Original Sin and another religion says there was no fall of man, one of them has to be wrong. If one religion says Jesus is divine and the other explicitly denies his divinity, one of them has to be wrong. If one religion says Jesus was crucified and the other religion says he was not, how can they both be correct? And since we’re on the topic of reason, how can it be the same thing to say that God always acts in accordance with reason (the Catholic position) and to say that God is not bound by reason (the Islamic position)?
These are not minor differences that can be ironed out in dialogue sessions; moreover, there are many other areas in which Muslim beliefs and Catholic beliefs contradict each other – for example, on divorce, polygamy, and the equality of men and women. Why, in light of these numerous contradictions, do Catholic educators, academics, and prelates keep emphasizing the commonalities between the two “Abrahamic” faiths? A quick inventory suggests that there are at least as many differences as similarities. If the similarities outweigh the differences, what are the reasons for believing they are more significant?
Where, in short, is the intellectual curiosity that Catholics usually display when faced with theological difficulties? “Together with us they adore the one, merciful God”? It doesn’t seem to be the same God. Please explain. Muslims “value the moral life”? Is it the same moral life that Catholics value? Again, it doesn’t seem to be. Please elaborate.
It’s been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council, yet too many Catholics are content to simply parrot rather than parse the statements on the “Moslems” in Lumen Gentium and Nostra Ætate. It’s as though the doctrine “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (outside the Church there is no salvation) were proclaimed but never explained or elaborated, leaving the faithful with nothing but a simple formula easily subject to misinterpretation.
Even Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, who is no slouch when it comes to reasoning, falls back on the argument from authority when it comes to Islam. In his 2010 debate with Robert Spencer on Islam, he opened by quoting the two sentences in the Catechism pertaining to Muslims, and observed, “I think this quotation is just about the most important one we can use about Islam.” But he doesn’t say why, other than that this is “the ‘opinion’ of the Catholic Church.”
In other words, “The Church has spoken. What better argument can there be?” The argument from authority is, of course, a valid argument, but it’s not what one expects from a philosopher who has written extensively and intelligently about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. Most of the rest of Professor Kreeft’s debating points were simply anecdotes about a devout and intelligent Muslim who had been a graduate student in one of his classes at Boston College years ago. Much of Kreeft’s case could be boiled down to the proposition, “I once
knew a Muslim and he was a good person.”
The tradition of careful intellectual inquiry, of which Catholics are so justly proud, comes to an almost full stop when it approaches the precincts of Islam. Too many Catholics are content to simply invoke the Catholic Catechism. Others are satisfied to know that Jesus and Mary are mentioned in the Koran, as though that fact somehow resolves all problems. Still others – those of a more pragmatic bent – realize that there are certain hazards involved in probing too deeply into Muslim theology. When Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his Regensburg address that Islamic beliefs should be subject to reason, the result was global rioting.
And so, instead of a reasoned analysis of Islam’s claims, what we get are repeated assurances that Muslim believers and Christian believers are brethren under the skin. How do we know? Well, you’ll just have to take it on faith.
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong and, most recently, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, the Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications. He is on the Board of Experts at Aleteia.org.