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What does the Church teach about dialogue with Islam?

The documents of Vatican II did address Islam in passing, though they seem a little optimistic now

By on Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Benedict XVI visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (CNS photo/Patrick Hertzog, Pool via Reuters)

Benedict XVI visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (CNS photo/Patrick Hertzog, Pool via Reuters)

Rereading what I had to say about the burqa ban in France, and what Dr Oddie has to say on this subject, I find myself in a quandary. It is not that I disagree with anything Dr Oddie writes – it is rather this: just what does the Catholic Church teach with regard to the challenge presented by Islam?

Putting the question like that, I am aware, points to the answer. Islam is a “challenge”, not quite a threat, but certainly something that needs to be faced, and absolutely not something that is going to go away if we only ignore it.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council, which never mentioned Communism by name, even at the height of the Cold War, did address Islam, though really only in passing. It seems to me that Gaudium et Spes is an optimistic document that assumes the march of the Enlightenment is unstoppable. That may seemed to have been the case back in 1965, but it certainly does not look like the case now. Large parts of the world seem to have turned their back on rationality. The Islamic world, which never, please note, experienced the Enlightenment, is not quietly falling into line with the post-Enlightenment world.

Nostra aetate starts with these dignified words:

In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.

Again, this might have sounded true in 1965, but now? Nearly 50 years on, the world is drawing apart. Osama bin Laden would angrily reject the sentiments expressed above, and his would not be a solitary voice.

Yet the answer we always hear when these concerns are brought up is along these lines: we have to stick to dialogue, because the alternative to dialogue, conflict, is unthinkable. But what happens when we have no true partners in dialogue? What do we do then? Besides which, is the emphasis on dialogue really relevant to our present concerns – which are, how do we as Catholics face up to the challenge of Islam? In other words, we need an intra-Catholic dialogue so that we can get our heads around how we should think about Islam. And this dialogue among ourselves needs to be robust.

Here are a few points to think about.

First: there may be few differences in outward behaviour between many Muslims and many Christians, but the fact remains that our way of thinking is profoundly different to theirs. We see reason as mediating God’s will: for us, the right and the good coincide. Laws are ordinances of reason for us, and we have no difficulty in making laws that claim no other force beyond the force of reason.

Second: we believe that Scripture is to be interpreted, and that the Bible is a divinely inspired document authored by human beings. We do not hold that it is the uncreated word of God, or that it was dictated to the sacred authors. Therefore we have no problem with the idea that the books of the Bible reflect the time in which they were written as well as conveying timeless truths.

Third, Christianity is a Trinitarian religion, and this is not an add on, it is rather at the heart of our faith and practice. Human beings reflect the divine nature; at the heart of God is a conversation of love. God does not invite submission, rather he is looking for partners in dialogue.

Fourth, the key to understanding Christianity is the concept of grace, and how human beings become the places where God’s Spirit dwells. Grace presupposes nature and brings it to perfection. There is a suitably concordant fit between human nature and divine revelation, and that is hardly surprising, as God is the author of both.

These are some of the things that we need to emphasis to ourselves and to understand more deeply as Catholics; these things have got to form the core of our proclamation to our Muslim neighbours. But before we can proclaim them to others, we have got to be certain of them ourselves.

Oh, and I might add two others while I am at it, so obvious that no one should ever forget them. We are, by virtue of our baptism, all called to be missionaries, and that means we should aim to bring all people everywhere to faith in Jesus Christ. And second, while Christians should be humble, we should also be immensely proud of our bimillenial Christian heritage and history, packed as it is with self-evidently good things. This is not to be smug or to fall into self-congratulation, it is merely to acknowledge all the gifts we have received through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

  • Memory-of-Forever

    one more difference: bombing Coptic and Iraqi churches is actually against the teaching of our God!

  • ms catholic state

    I think Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan would beg to differ. Islam is a threat…..esecially when it is in the majority.

    Also Jesus Christ never spoke about the ‘enlightenment’. In fact His prophecies were not optimistic and didn’t speak about the supposed ‘progressive’ nature of human beings and society. Our present day society bears this out perfectly.

  • Jeannine

    Of course the Church must keep a dialog going with all peoples of other faiths. Dialog creates opportunity to evangelize. The Church strikes me as the more patient & understanding party, without compromising Church beliefs, when these dialogs take place.

    But, let’s be realistic. The Church is the more patient & understanding party when these exchanges take place with the Muslims is because it has so much more to lose. The Christians in the Middle East are on the precipice of annihilation if the Vatican doesn’t “play nice.”

  • Martin

    The only way we can engage with the challenge of Islam (or anyone for that matter) is by convicting individuals who call themselves Catholic or Christian to start living the Gospel life rather than simply talking about it as if it was simply a point of view or a concept of best practise. The initial problem with dialogue i would suggest resides with us rather than everyone else. We unfortunately engage from a position of compromised Holiness and a Worldly image rather than the holders of the Truth and people who have been bought by the Blood of Christ.

    Real love is the key.

    Once upon at time, the biggest challenge to none believers used to be (other than the Gospel of Christ), the way Christians loved each other and freely spent themselves on behalf of others. It was the hallmark of truth that put the stamp of authority in the message that was being preached. It allowed the Holy Spirit to convict, especially where Christians were being persecuted without a just cause. St Paul being a good example of someone who seems to have started his Christian Journey towards conviction by the Goads that constantly pricked his conscience, whilst assisting in stoning Christians.

    Unfortunately we Christians seem to have lost the corporate ability to love each other and that loss is the only thing that will ever impact Islam (or any other soul in need of salvation). Real love (in my opinion) will be the only oil that softens their hearts enough to hear and be convicted by the Gospel.

    Secondly, the body of Christ has forgotten (as a whole) that to follow our Master involves picking up our crosses daily in pursuit of him and in mirroring his life in order to be conformed like him. That means a willingness to suffer on many different levels. We are too worldly (as a whole) to put up with this.

    We live in a Christianity today that many of the early church hero’s would sob over. We are not willing to go the extra mile to reach out to someone, we are not willing to turn the other cheek to an insult or bare our hearts to be afflicted . We are too busy taking each other to figurative court.

    We seem to be wanting to protect ourselves, to treat everyone as a threat rather than as they are, Children who have gone astray and in some cases violently astray (a challenge). Where is the desire to be Christ’s hands and Feet in searching them out? Where are the peace makers (and i do not mean enforcers)? We don’t really want to further the Gospel of Christ but rather build a physical Kingdom which blends in some kind of alliance with Secular society that have signed up to some form of Catholic ground rules (if you sign up to ms Catholic State ideas on previous blogs). We want an Army that will protect us. We want to talk the talk but never really follow Christ to the Cross. We only want a safe challenge. I see nothing of this within the Gospel accounts.

    If you want to engage with Islam (or others) from a REAL position of strength then we need to live in the reality of Jesus’ Easter Resurrection, the power of Pentecost and have a faith grounded in the Love of God and our neighbour. We need a love that will take US to the Cross.

    Christianity has never truly lived unless it was under threat of dying.
    We will never truly be able to engage with Islam from a position of Strength until we remove worldly strength and replace it with the Strength of the Gospel of Christ in action, Church wide.

    How else will those who claim God has no Son, actually get to see him? Not until we start to mirrior the Son of God ourselves and offer the world his Kingdom rather than ours.

    I pray the Holy Spirit will enable us to do so.

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    Timely article Father – I have many muslim friends on facebook and we have many “dialogues”. I find their thinking rather difficult to comprehend; for example I asked one muslim could I have proof that Abraham built the Kab’aa (in Mecca) his answer was “yes – it’s there”!!! When I asked what proofs Mohommad gave that he was a prophet – I received abuse. Muslims re-write history and have an erronous impression of the Crusades – this needs correction. But with the internet I feel we have a great avenue now to dialogue. I think we have a great responsibility to support our Christians bros. and sisters in muslim lands and to speak out when they are being tortured and killed. We also have a never-before opportunity to tell the muslims that God loves them (very missing in the Qur’an) without fear of threat. thanks so much for this piece – please write more on the subject and perhaps we could get this intra-Catholic dialogue going – I’m all for that – Blessings – Rene

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The example of the Kab’aa is very interesting. It all goes to show that religious claims need to be examined in the light of historical verisimilitude. We allow the Bible to be put under the spotlight of history, don’t we? Much as I disagreed with Dr Francesca Stavrokopoulou, I did not deny the legitimacy of her aims. Likewise the life of Jesus is a legitimate field for historical research… There has been some work done on the historicity of Islamic texts, but not much, as far as I am aware. As for examining the ancient sites connected to the rise of Islam from an archaeological point of view, I gather this is extremely difficult!

  • annmarie

    The difference between Christianity and Mohammedanism lies not so much in the fact that Mohammedanism has not experienced the Enlightenment (we see that “Enlightenment” is misnamed more than ever as human reason with regard to human rights acts against, rather than in support of, Faith) but in the fact that it (like fundamentalist Protestantism) allows no part for reason in tempering the more extreme manifestations of faith. (It is because it is an extreme manifestation of faith that I support a ban on the burkha, to which I object, just as I object to people sending bullets or letter bombs, or going to Mass three times a day when it is a result not of devotion but of being obsessive).

    Mohammedanism cannot be equated with Judaism as a “partner” to Christianity. Our Faith would be much the poorer without Judaism; Mohammedanism, on the other hand, hijacked the Judeo-Christian tradition and, like a cuckoo in the nest, ursurped it, thinking it could better God Incarnate with Mohammed. We would not lose from our Faith if it disappeared (and we could reclaim the founding dioceses of the Church in the East for Christianity – Alexandria, Jerusalem and Ephesus were originally Christian, not Mohammedan. If they think of Christianity as a Western religion it is they who made it so.

    That said, we need to speak to the people who themselves are not responsible for having been brought up Mohammedan rather than Christian; they deserve to know the Truth that will set them free, although it is very difficult for them to set themselves free because if they leave Mohammed their families consider it in order to ostracise them at best and kill them at worst – I understand, although I have no concrete information, that there are many secret converts who do not dare be open about their Faith for fear of the consequences.

    We cannot fight a “boots on the ground” war against Mohammed; that is too likely to bring disproportionate suffering on the innocent and that does not accord with a just war (neither is there a clear enough objective, nor a reasonable prospect of success, both of which are required in a just war – wading in in the hope of limiting the damage done to Christians by Mohammedans is neither a definite enough aim nor likely enough to succeed). However, this does not mean we have nothing at our disposal!

    On three occasions in our history the Ottoman was defeated – in Malta in 1566, at the Battle of Lepanto in 1570, and at the gates of Vienna in 1683 (the Vienna defeat happened on 11th September, so 9/11 was planned to be a revenge for that). In each case the weapon that defeated them was one which is available to all of us – the Rosary. That particular weapon has the advantage of being effective without inflicting injury on the innocent, too! Maybe some prayer and fasting on Friday would be an effective move. We cannot proclaim a Faith we do not understand, so we have to be able to answer for the hope that is in us: we need, above all, to know our Faith – and most of us don’t. Our secular neighbours, too, are looking for a rule of life and a code to live by; because the church (particularly the Anglican) does not speak clearly, they are converting to Mohammedanism, which does state very clearly what is required of its adherents. We also need to demand (politely, but unmistakeably) the same freedom for Christians in Mohammedan lands as we give Mohammedans here and to stop damping down the expression of our Faith for fear of offending them: presumably they came here because it was to their advantage in some way that was more important than their culture was to them; if they want their culture, there are plenty of places where they can go find it. I noticed recently that the verse about welcoming the sojourner which is often quoted in support of migrants also says that the incomer should live according to the law of Israel – in other words we are NOT obliged to change our laws to suit them.

  • Martin

    Ann Marie, which extremes of Fundamental Christianity are you refering to specifically in regards to reason? Interested in your thoughts

    God Bless

  • Paul

    As someone baptised in the RC Church but who now follows the Islamic faith, I can tell you all that you are incapable of any real dialogue with the Muslim world. Dialogue actually has to involve humility, a willingness to listen and a real sense of concern about the perspective of the other community or person. I do not sense this in any of your internal discussions here. I sense mendacity and hearts full of hatred, not love.

  • Hakeem

    It is very unfortunate that the Christian brothers and sisters here have very little or no understanding of Islam or Muslims. I am a Muslim and I would be happy to engage with anyone here if so interested. May God give you guidance and show the path to salvation. Thank you.

  • Bwaj

    You have wrong again – Islam is not only a challenge but a threat. Two-thirds of those in Egypt who said they wanted democracy law now say they want it under the laws of the Qur’an (shar’ah law).

  • Bwaj

    I have read what your Qur’an teaches and am a Catholic so I know exactly what it teaches and so do many Catholics. It is Catholic bishops and priests who do not. We are saved – you are not.

  • Bwaj

    Wrong – you have been brainwashed by pro-Islamic appeasers and liars who tell you Islam is peaceful when it is not. As you have rejected the only Faith of salvation which you were in you are now an apostate on the path to damnation. I ask all readers this blog to pray to God (the true and only God) will forgive your apostasy and lead you back to salvation which comes only through following the Catholic Faith.

  • Bwaj

    We do not have brothers and sisters who are Muslims. This is post-Vatican II apostasy. We have brothers and sisters in all Christian denominations – not other religions. Our Saviour said everyone who obeys God and bears witness to Him and His Gospel are His mother, brother and sister. Followers of other religions do not. It is for the Church to save the souls and bodies of those who wander in the darkness, without any light, to lead them to Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one goes to God the Father but through God the Only Son because of His Passion and Death on the Cross at Calvary and Resurrection on the Third Day.

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    Martin you are spot on, love is the key. And this is what is so missing in Islam – the love of God. God is love. – Blessings – Rene

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    Paul I really, really have done my best to listen, to understand and for sure my concern for muslims is my way of loving them. Dialogue with those whom I believe are missing out on the greatest message of all time is an act of love – I want the whole world to know that God loves each and every person. I want every muslim to know that each one of them is as an only child loved by God – when I asked for proof that Mohommad was a prophet I don’t think that was an unreasonable or hateful question – it was in fact a very important question – here is a video which gives an idea of what I am asking for. Paul, God bless you and fill you with His joy, hope, gentleness, kindness and all the gifts offered to you by the Holy Spirit through your Confrmation. – – Blessings – Rene

  • Bwaj

    Four Myths about the Crusades
    By Paul F. Crawford

  • Bwaj

    Four Myths about the Crusades
    By Paul F. Crawford

  • Junius Junior II

    Why does this writer insist on using the potentially offensive (to its adherents) term “Mohammedanism” and its cognates, when “Moslem” and “Islam” would serve just as well? I thought Our Lord spoke out about giving offence?

  • ms catholic state

    As well as saying the Rosary…….we Catholics need to stop supporting secularism….as it is fiercely anti-Christ. Secularism is a ruse to undermine Christian civilisation……and that’s just what they are doing. We need to work just as hard as the enemies of Christianity to restore Christianity …and a Catholic State. Otherwise we are going to find ourselves in an Islamic majority nation before too many decades.

    And we will only have our own complacency and faithlessness to blame.

  • Allie

    To those who want to read a practical example of such dialogue, check out “The Monks of Tibhirine”. I’m in the midst of reading it, and it’s a great look at Catholicism in the midst of Muslim Algeria.

  • Michael Petek

    Islam used to have a place for reason when the Mu’tazilites dominated Muslim thinking. They were displaced by the Ash’arites who discarded reason as a theological source and affirmed that the Qur’an is the uncreated word of God. The latter point is part of Sunni orthodoxy and evinces idolatry.

  • Anonymous

    To echo Mrs. Rene O’Riordan a very timely article.

    Thank you Fr for reminding us of some important differentiators of Catholic Christianity which help to prevent a descent into confusion of thought, something which I for one am prone to and which I sense is a kind of ‘death spiral’ characteristic of Islamic philosophy, with its tendency to take ownership of ideas from other cultures and to embark on an Islamic mental ‘internalisation’ which I find rather scary, as though my mind is being invited into a vice rather than my heart being liberated.

    It is good to be reminded of the central place of Grace and Her role in enabling conversation with a Trinitarian God. I hope we may also be permitted not to forget the basics, Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, who loves us.

    Although the Islamic peoples profess a merciful God their docile behaviour always seems to me to be rooted in suppressed fear and anger rather than a trusting grace.

    As regards my own dealing with Muslims, I have found that once they sense I am no a threat I can connect with them well enough and some have let me feel their oppression and despair. It would be nice to think they could persuaded to believe in a loving God rather than their taskmaster who is keeping a score sheet of their errors.

    That said, I would be naive if I did not acknowledge that the combination of a lifetime of fear of punishment can combine with fear of exclusion and an Arabic language (which by all accounts trains the brain to maximise the intellect and the will in such a direction as to minimise the development of empathy) to create a personality with which it is impossible to hold dialogue in the way we in the west understand it.

    For a Catholic to convert to Islam requires only a momentary lapse in spiritual strength. For a Muslim to convert to Catholicism is huge leap. Is it too fanciful to hope that our secular society which still retains many of the fruits of 2000 years infusion of Christianity and a requirement to learn English might together start to break the grip that Islam has on the mind of its prisoners? Let’s hope they keep Shakespeare in the school curriculum, Some say he was a Catholic who nourished English puritan hearts. Maybe he can repeat the trick.

  • Poovamfuture

    Martin the Best Christian of all above. Thank you JESUS for Martin.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal

    There is no need of understanding anybody: this person or that person; or the follower of this religion or that religion. It is enough or more than enough to obey the Saviour Jesus Christ who said: ” Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…….” so that you will be worthy sons/daughters of your Father in Heaven. All non-christians come under this category.

    Christians (all) are mostly going about by the dictates of their own heads or by the heads of their own Churches and not by the Spirit of Jesus. This happens because they are not Evangelised but organised, dogmatised, Catechised and ritualised.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal

    The religion of Jesus was not an institution in the worldly sense…but. what we have at present in most of the big Christian Churches….go by the claims that they are of Christ but are they also so by the “fruits” they have produced?

  • Dcruz

    It is a waste of time to dialogue with muslims. They do not come with an open mind and even have been brain washed to believe that Jesus is not devine and deny the trinity, deny crucifixtion,deny the bible is the word of god and has been altered and changed with so many additions and editors.They consider them superior to other religions and are perfect.In short they become obsessed and paranoid about their religion.

  • Rene O’Riordan

    Whether we feel it a waste of time or not, we have our marching orders – “Go teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”  We may leave the rest to God. Plus never in the history of Islam has it been so confronted and challenged in it’s beliefs as today – no muslim can give proof of Mohommad’s authenticity as a prophet!! – Blessings – Rene 

  • Parasum

    “God does not invite submission, rather he is looking for partners in dialogue.”

    Doesn’t the new English translation of the Mass use the language of submission ? Christ is Lord, man is not. There’s a lot of God-Almatey-ness around; bad idea.  Where there is God-Almatey-ness, there is unlikely to be reverence; but reverence and submission go well together.

    “Partners in dialogue” ? Well….not sure about that one.

  • Dominickavishe

     Hakeem it is unbelievable that you still have some courage to defend Islam. Have you read you Qua-ran properly? How can you call Islam  a religion true amidst kills that have gone for centuries!  The entire countries of North Africa were ones thriving christian lands. Why, are   you closing your  eyes and ears to constant murders even among Muslims? Ya? You want some examples? Pakistan, Saudis, Lebanon,Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somali, North Sudan, countless Nigerians citizens  and Churches being bunt alive in the name of Islam? My friend out of Islam nothing heavenly can come out of it. If the so called God of Islam happens to be the true God than I will sooner go to the other side of the fence!,