Just Tell the Truth

The post-Vatican II Church’s conciliatory approach to Islam is misleading. Nostra Aetate needs clarification.

The last thing the Catholic Church needs is another blow to its credibility. But a new crisis of credibility may emerge unless the Church takes steps to forestall it. It doesn’t have anything to do with recent revelations about the handling of sex abuse cases. The bulk of the evidence suggests that, in regard to that story, it is the credibility of the Western media that ought to be at issue. No, the credibility that’s likely to become an issue is the Church’s credibility on the subject of Islam.

During Vatican II, when ecumenical hopes were high, the Church produced a document on the relation of the Church to non-Christians—a document that has set the tone for Catholic discussion of Islam ever since. It wasn’t meant as any sort of cover-up but, in effect, it did manage to cover up the rather large gap that divides Islam and Christianity. As that gap becomes more evident to ordinary Christians, the credibility of the Church may once again come into question. Christians may well begin to feel that they have been misled on an issue vital to their own security.

Along with other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church has long followed a policy of seeking common ground with Islam. Common ground is usually the main theme of inter-religious dialogue. It was the theme of the Pope’s talk to Muslims at the Dome of the Rock last year, and it was the theme of the “Loving God and Neighbor Together” statement issued by Yale Divinity School and signed by 300 Christian leaders a few years ago. And, perhaps most importantly, it is the main theme of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which outlines the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, and continues to serve as the primary guide to inter-religious dialogue.

The trouble is, Nostra Aetate—which was written during the height of ecumenical fervor—is an inadequate guide for our own times (the words “nostra aetate” mean “in our time”). The section on Muslims is very brief but, in their quest to find common ground, the authors managed to say a number of questionable things, such as: “they [Muslims] adore the one God”; “they prize the moral life”; and Christians should “make common cause [with Muslims] of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom.”

At first glance it all seems fairly innocuous—a theological version of “let’s go along to get along.” But for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Islam, it’s highly problematic.

Take the first point—“they adore the one God.” Would that be the same God Christians adore? But how can it be when the Muslim God commands Muslims to kill or subjugate Jews and Christians unless they accept Islam? How can it be when Allah curses anyone who says that God has a son? Take another statement—“they prize the moral life.” Yes, they do, but it appears to be a set of moral values quite different from that prized by Christians. Christians don’t prize polygamy, or child marriages, or the murder of apostates. So it’s difficult to see how Christians and Muslims can “make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice.” The question is, “Whose idea of social justice should be fostered?” Muslims consider Sharia law—which sanctions amputations for theft and stoning for adulterers—to be the embodiment of social justice.

Nostra Aetate was meant to be a sign of dovishness, but it appears now to be more like an albatross hung around the Church’s neck. As Lawrence Auster has pointed out, the influence of Nostra Aetate has served mainly to restrain Church officials from saying what ought to be said about Islam. Until it is amended or clarified, it will continue to be a source of confusion for Catholics (as will a similar statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

One result of this shared-spiritualbrotherhood approach is that Christians are much less aware than they should be about the threat from Islam. And once they do become aware, it will tend to undermine their respect for the Church. The complaintagainst the Church will shift from, “Why didn’t Church officials do more to protect innocent children?” to, “Why didn’t they warn us about the danger from Islam?” For Church leaders to continue to talk about our common ground with Islam in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence may, in the long run, do as much harm to the Church’s credibility as its handling of the sex abuse crisis. Thus, even as Muslims unleashed a wave of savage violence against Christians in Africa and Asia, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council of Inter-religious Dialogue, chose instead to focus on the Swiss vote to ban minarets. “We must not fear Islam,” he said at a theology congress in Granada in February—to which the only sensible reply is, “Tell it to the Copts.”

But in addition to confusing Christians about the true nature of Islam, the seeking-common-ground approach has another unintended effect. If you were looking for a way to strengthen the hand of atheists and strident secularists, it would be difficult to top the tactic of trumpeting Christianity’s common ground with Islam. That’s because it was precisely by claiming that Christianity and Islam shared a common ground that atheists were able to make so much hay in the aftermath of 9/11.

The atheist argument was not that Islam was a bad apple among world religions, but that it was just like all religions—irrational, cruel, and unjust. Atheists such as Hedges, Hitchens, and Dawkins made a particular point of portraying Islam and Christianity as evil twin brothers. And there is a good deal of evidence that the tactic worked. The number of self-identified Christians has dropped precipitously in recent years. At the same time the number of those identifying as atheists, agnostics, or of no religion has risen year by year.

Why, in light of this, would any intelligent Christian want to emphasize his common ground with the Islamic faith? As I wrote in a recent online post, “Today’s culturally sensitive Christians haven’t grasped the point that if there really were a lot of common ground between Islam and Christianity, it would not be wise to advertise it. It’s a bit like bragging that you have a lot in common with the neighborhood bully who beats his wife.”

Apart from its being a poor strategy, it is essentially untrue. Islam is built on a rejection of core Christian beliefs—the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, even the Crucifixion. While it’s true that Christians and Muslims share a common humanity, it’s time to counter the illusion that they share similar theologies. For this reason, the Church ought to revisit Nostra Aetate with a view toward clarifying what is, as it now stands, a misleading passage. While it’s true that the section on “the Moslems” is not in error if understood in the specialized language of theologians, that specialized way is not the way in which most people will read it. It seems that a fuller account of the relationship of Christian faith to Muslim faith is now in order. The Catechism of the Catholic Church—to which the average Catholic is much more likely to turn for guidance—needs similar clarification and explanation. When a Catholic reads, “together with us they [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God…” he might reasonably conclude that he ought also to accept the fashionable but false assumption that the true Islam has been hijacked by a handful of radicals.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Some Islamic beliefs put Christians (as well as all non-Muslims) at risk. Christians need to be more fully informed about Islam, and the Church has a duty to more fully inform them. By leaving this matter unclarified the Church not only runs the risk of confusing Catholics, it runs the risk of alienating fellow Christians, some of whom have begun to ask the question that forms the title of a recent book, “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?” At this juncture in history the Church ought to worry less about placating Muslim clerics (who give every indication that they will never be won over by the Church’s conciliatory approach), and worry more about preventing further confusion, disillusion, and disaffection among Christians.

The crisis over abuse and the threat posed by Islam are linked in a curious way. For more than a thousand years the Catholic faith provided the main resistance to Islam’s attempts to conquer Europe. It’s typical of contemporary European short-sightedness that so many seem anxious to pull down the institution that may be the last line of defense against Islamization. The spiritual vacuum which Europe has become will either be filled again with the spirit of a renewed Christianity, or it will be filled by the spirit and laws of Islam— laws that permit the exploitation of children.

Despite its poor record in dealing with abuse, the Church at least recognizes the sinfulness of child abuse and, contrary to the impression created by the media, has already gone far toward cleaning out what then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001 described as “the filth” in the Church. On the other hand, the secular world’s commitment to relativism ensures that it will quickly change its tune about what is and what is not moral if the climate of opinion changes. If Catholic Christianity is swept aside in Europe, the climate of opinion will be increasingly dictated by Islam. In many Muslim countries, what the West considers child abuse is firmly enshrined in Islamic law. Moreover, Muhammad, who married a six-year-old girl, is considered by all Muslim authorities to have provided a “beautiful pattern of conduct” for his followers to emulate.

In their haste to discard their Christian heritage and embrace cultural relativism instead, Europeans may be getting more child abuse than they bargained for. In the British Midlands, girls in their early teens are routinely forced to marry cousins in Pakistan. Attempts to marry off girls as young as 11 are not uncommon. An Association of Chief Police Officers report estimates that 17,000 girls and women in the UK are victims of honor crimes or forced marriages each year. There are now 10,000 cases of female genital mutilation in Switzerland, with hundreds of thousands of cases in other European Union countries.

But where is the outrage? While keeping a sharp eye on Catholic crimes of 40 years ago, the European guardians of virtue have turned a blind eye to present-day Muslim crimes against children. It makes one wonder how much the current attacks on the Catholic hierarchy are fueled by a genuine outrage over child abuse, and how much they are fueled by an almost suicidal rage to be free of Christianity. Those who think the discrediting of the Catholic Church will improve the moral climate in Europe ought to acquaint themselves with the niceties of Sharia law.

By the same token, the details of Sharia law provide plenty of reasons why the Catholic Church should think twice about the strategy of seeking common ground with Islam.


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About William Kilpatrick 79 Articles
William Kilpatrick is the author of several books on religion and culture including Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press) and What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Institute Press). For more on his work and writings, visit his Turning Point Project website.