Evangelii Gaudium on Islam


Reflecting on the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, I wondered if I might raise a point for discussion?

In my last post, I attempted to address the political and economic criticism levelled at the document from some quarters. It appeared to me, that this criticism came from a perspective of those who considered Capitalism as the answer to all the worlds ills, convinced perhaps by its apparent success in the face of historic rivalry from more Marxist based systems.  I attempted to illustrate the consistent criticism of extreme models of Capitalism, along with Socialism, the Church has always exhorted. I did this by referring to perhaps the first criticism of rampant Capitalism in the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum (1891) which was written in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and addressed evils like child labour, unsafe working conditions, long hours and health and safety. In many ways, Karl Marx' Communist Manifesto, Das Capital, was a response to these Capitalist pressures. Rerum novarum was the first modern encyclical, remarkable because it said that working people had rights—rights to a just wage and to strike in order to obtain a just wage.

I was a little surprised to find that, despite my focus on Catholic social teaching, the comments on that post ended up more concerned with the Pope's reference to Islam. The full text is as follows:
N. 252 “Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”. The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration and it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services. Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need. 
N. 253 “In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
I'm pretty OK with the body of it, and I suppose we have to take his comments in the context of his position as a world leader advocating peace and reconciliation between all people who hold in common that essential thing: our humanity (cf. Nostra Aetate 1), e.g.: 
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. (Nostra Aetate 3).
I have spent considerable time with Islam and consider my understanding to be quite good. I agree with the sentiments expressed in Nostra Aetate insofar as it is definitively true that, day by day we are all being drawn closer together, the world is getting ever smaller, we experience different ideas and cultures more readily, and it is a sign of wisdom to have travelled and to have respect for and knowledge of, different societies and cultures. Further, the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, we have a better sense of our own humanity and thus the Church's task of promoting unity and love among people, indeed among nations, take on a certain prominence. As Nostra Aetate declares, sources of unity include the community of all peoples, and their origin, (i.e. God who made the whole human race) another is our 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.

My understanding of our relationship as Catholics with other faiths is born of my own personal fascination with religion and religions, and has been developed by a fascination with how we can hold to one truth and declare all other attempts to approach the numinous as invalid (of course, that's not actually what we do, but it perhaps expresses the starting point for my own study).

The interaction I have had with people of different faiths always sparked an enthusiasm and admiration for their perspective. My first encounters of this kind were undoubtedly with Jehovah's Witnesses who would call regularly when I was 14 or 15. I really enjoyed discussing faith with them and was incredibly impressed that it meant so much to them, that they were prepared to wander the streets and knock on people's doors. Of course, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints were (at least) ostensibly Christian, and so not that different, especially on first impressions, from my own understanding of God and heaven. But when I became aware of Islam, it offered a different and an interesting challenge; it's own book, which wasn't the Bible. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to read it and find it was, to all intents and purposes, a scrappily divided version of the Bible stories I knew, interspersed with mundane instructions about food, washing, and skirt length, like a simplified Leviticus. And that is still my overall impression of Islam; it is a simplistic version of Christianity, with the difficult bits taken out, and a lot of huge leaps of logic. To me, Islam is born of Christianity, adopted many of its fundamental tenets and rejected elements it could not understand (like Trinity). Al Qur'an reads like a critique of the Bible from the perspective of someone who has not understood what the Bible is.

Similarly, I think Christians often make the mistake of misunderstanding what Al Qur'an is for Muslims. Muslims believe the Qur'an is the literal dictation of Allah. Muslims believe the Qur'an to have been verbally revealed through the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) from God to Muhammad gradually over a period of approximately 23 years, beginning on 22 December 609 AD, when Muhammad was 40, and concluding in 632 AD, the year of his death.

For Muslims, the Qur'an constitutes the main miracle of Muhammad and thus the proof of his prophet-hood and the culmination of a series of divine messages in continuity with the Torah (Tawrat) and the Gospels (Injil). The Qur'an itself assumes familiarity with major narratives recounted in Jewish and Christian scriptures, summarising some, dwelling at length on others and in some cases presenting alternative accounts and interpretations of events. The Qur'an describes itself as a book of guidance, sometimes offering detailed accounts of specific historical events, and often emphasising the moral significance of an event over its narrative sequence. The Qur'an is used along with the hadith to interpret sharia law. To consider that the Qur'an is for Muslims what the Bible is for Christians is not really accurate. It would probably be more accurate to say that the Qur'an is akin to what Jesus is for Christians. This perhaps helps us to understand why Muslims get so upset and irate when people denigrate or damage the Qur'an.

So, I have thoroughly investigated Islam and found it to be a bit like Mormonism. It has it's own book, which is a bit like the Bible, but less interesting, and they claim to be the one true faith. Yet you have to wonder what exactly Muhammed revealed that was so amazing and different to what Jesus revealed. For me, it is meagre food compared with the beauty and depth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, it does have value, it contains precious shards of revelation, which still retain the potency to change people's lives, despite the philosophical corruption born of an absolutism that courts extremism.

Perhaps the only Islamic institution who seem forward thinking and honest enough to recognise these issues and be prepared to formulate solutions are the Quilliam Foundation. Although Quilliam facilitates a means of softening the extremist tendency in Islam, encouraging a contextual and allegorical understanding of the text, as opposed to a dogmatic literalism which, given that there are at least 109 verses that call Muslims to go to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule, can only lead to confrontation and violence.

The work of Quilliam is vital in bringing what is valuable about Islamic culture to a point of integration and in a culture religious freedom. From what I have seen of their work, they understand this theological underpinning, which, when you get right down to it, leaves little room for compromise.

Of course, for many, religion is simply a matter of where you are born, or who you are born of, rather than a sampling of different ideologies to discover the truth. I have long reflected on this, and wondered how anyone could think that an accident of birth could condemn anyone to an eternity of hell? Similarly, how can one faith believe that it holds a truth which must be accepted by everyone, or else they will suffer damnation (extra Ecclesiam nulla sales)? I have considered I would be a good and orthodox Jew, and probably, born a few hundred years ago, a decent Muslim.

Although here framed in a specifically Catholic way, this problem relates especially to Islam I feel, as it it just so Arabic in essence. Of course to find the answer from a Catholic perspective, as with all things required only that I study. However there still remain points where ideology seems to be at a position where a black and white judgement has to be made. Why? Because we are committed to objective truth as Catholics. It is what we have been promised by Christ (Jn 8:32) and what we seek in order to quell the restlessness of our hearts.

We see this issue clearly articulated in the CDF declaration Dominus Iesusmost widely known for its recapitulation of the Catholic dogma that the Catholic Church is the sole true Church of Christ. The document states that inter-religious dialogue certainly does not replace, but rather accompanies the missio ad gentes (i.e. the mission to the nations to share the truth as revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ). Dominus Iesus is replete with confidence that the answers all people seek are most clearly and efficaciously revealed in Christ, and held in perpetuity and integrity on earth by His Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. This is the spirit with which we are called to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths, and to clarify this Dominus Iesus explains:
The Church's constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle). As a consequence, it is held that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth, the unity of the economy of the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability — while recognizing the distinction — of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church. —Dominus Iesus n. 4.
Criticism of  Dominus Iesus centred around the Church's commitment to ecumenism. Pope John Paul II personally endorsed  Dominus Iesus, ratified and confirmed it "with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority" (a formal sentence used at the beginning or at the point of signature of an official document). He responded to criticisms by clarifying that  Dominus Iesus did not say that non-Christians were denied salvation: "This confession does not deny salvation to non-Christians, but points to its ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united." The Pope then issued a statement to emphasise further that the Church continued to proceed in the hermeneutic of Vatican II document Nostra Aetate in holding that salvation was in fact possible for believers of other faiths:
"The Gospel teaches us that those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes - the poor in spirit, the pure of heart, those who bear lovingly the sufferings of life - will enter God's kingdom."General Audience, Dec 6, 2000.
 Concerning building the "kingdom" he further added,
"All who seek God with a sincere heart, including those who do not know Christ and his Church, contribute under the influence of grace to the building of this kingdom."General Audience, Dec 6, 2000.
In the hermeneutic of Vatican II, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus basically means insofar as any of us are saved, we are saved by the grace we receive through Christ and His Church. This I am extremely comfortable with. The Church doesn't condemn people to hell, people condemn themselves to hell by rejecting the truth about who and what we are, as taught, in the clearest way, by God Incarnate. But this truth has been revealed consistently by God throughout history to man, and therefore there are shards and elements of truth in much of the spiritual pursuit of humanity.

Because of the sin of members of the Church, it is clear that many will struggle to reconcile the life-saving message f the Gospel with the actions of some who purport to carry that message. They are victims of temporal happenstance. The messenger does not guarantee the authenticity or otherwise of the message they carry. But surely the fault lies more with the messenger than with the person who misinterprets what is being said? Similarly for those convinced of other Creeds, because as Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium, St. Paul warns us “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

As we are back at the Pope, let's return to that paragraph on Islam and look at what bothers me. Really it is just the last sentence:
"..for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
Is it? Samuel Gregg notes in the National Review that Pope Francis’s fellow Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir (who is no knee-jerk anti-Muslim), writes in his 111 Questions on Islam (2002), Westerners who assert that groups like the Taliban are acting in a manner contrary to the spirit of Islam “usually know little about Islam.” In the Egyptian-born Jesuit’s view, “On the sociohistorical level, from the Qur’an onward, the ordinary meaning of jihad is unequivocal. [It] indicates the Muslim war in the name of God to defend Islam.” Later in the same book, Father Samir underscores that, alongside one tradition in Islam of somewhat limited tolerance towards Jews and Christians (polytheists and atheists aren’t extended the same consideration), there is an equally valid tradition that “prefers the verses” in the Koran and the sunna “that encourage violence.” Both, the Beirut-resident priest adds, are legitimate Muslim readings of Islam’s view of violence. Ergo, we — and Islam — have a problem.

Marie Dean (@supertradmum on Twitter), a great deep thinker and someone who is a real blessing to engage with, posted a comment on my blog asking me 
"When are Catholics going to return to the reality that violence-based religions, which kill those who will not convert, kill young couples who love each other but one is not a Muslim, who inflict pain on women in female circumcision, who dominate women as in the Koran they are less than human males, who think that Western education is evil, and who kill apostates to their religion, that is converts to Christianity are not true religions, but human constructs which need the light of Christ to come and show the real way of love and real peace? Catholics who do not know the truth about this violence-based religion do not want to know the truth. Catholics will lose their own freedoms by pretending such."
It's a pretty good point. So what do you think? How do we read the Pope's comments? I have tried to show here the tension in Church doctrine between ecumenism and an authentic adherence to truth. Is what the Pope is saying in Evangelii Gaudium truth? Is it error? Or is it an authentic attempt to promote peace by lending authority to those voices within Islam who would seek a peaceful co-existence?





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