Catholicism, Islam, and the Perils of Arguing from Authority

Like many Americans, I didn’t know much about Islam before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. And, to tell the truth, even after 9/11 I wasn’t inclined to look too deeply into the matter. The events of 9/11, disturbing as they were, were not quite enough to overcome a certain inertia in me. Neither was the widespread jubilation in parts of the Muslim world that followed the attack, nor the knowledge that Islamic terrorists had carried out similar attacks before—the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the simultaneous truck bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and the suicide attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.

Was there something about Islam that prompted such violence? Or were the terrorists distorting and misinterpreting their religion? The consensus seemed to favor the latter view, and for a long while I was inclined to go along with it. One of the benefits of taking the consensus view was that it absolved me from having to read the Koran and other Islamic source materials—texts which I somehow intuited would not make for enjoyable reading.

There were two other factors, however, which prevented me from looking further. One was the reassurance offered by President Bush and other world leaders that Islam was a religion of peace. I didn’t know much about Islam, but I assumed that they and their expert advisors did, and so, for a while, I accepted their assessment. The other and more important factor was that what the Church had to say about Islam seemed to validate the consensus view. I was aware that the Catechism of the Catholic Church said something to the effect that Muslims, together with Catholics, worship the one God. And, on looking further into the matter, I found that the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) had even more to say on the subject, namely that Muslims “adore the one God,” link their faith to Abraham, revere Jesus as a prophet, “honor Mary” and even “call on her with devotion,” and that “they value the moral life.”

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These statements seemed to confirm the prevailing notion that terror attacks had nothing to do with Islam, but rather were the work of people who had thoroughly misunderstood the peaceful nature of their religion. After all, if Muslims and Christians shared so much common ground, the burden of proof would necessarily fall on the shoulders of those few who maintained that Islam was not a religion of peace.

I eventually rejected the consensus view and came to the conclusion that the similarities between Catholicism and Islam are mainly surface similarities which hide irreconcilable differences. I’ve laid out the arguments for that position in my book Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Rather than go over that territory again, however, I’d like to focus here on the fact that the Church’s “position” on Islam remains a stumbling block for countless Catholics. In other words, a great many Catholics refuse to come to grips with the violent, misogynist side of Islam because they believe that the Church has spoken, and has spoken to the effect that Islam is a spiritual kin. Therefore, they reason, the matter is closed.

Consider an online debate that appeared this summer in Catholic Answers Forum about Cardinal Dolan’s visit to a mosque in New York. The debate centered around the Cardinal’s statement “You love God, we love God, and he is the same God”—a statement, in short, which seemed to echo the Catholic Catechism. The most interesting aspect of the month-long thread was that those who argued that Allah is the same God that Christians worship relied almost exclusively on arguments from authority. Here is a sample:

  • “It is dogma that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God.”
  • “He [Cardinal Dolan] has the grace of Teaching Authority. Unless you are a bishop, you do not.”
  • “You are discrediting Vatican II.”
  • “One either accepts Her teaching authority, or one does not.”
  • “This is not up for grabs.”

After plowing through dozens of similar propositions, along with numerous citations of the relevant passage in the Catechism, it was difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that forum participants were relying on the argument from authority because it was the only argument they had.

The trouble with the argument from authority in regard to Islam is fourfold. First, the Church has very little to say about Islam. In fact, the brief statements from the Second Vatican Council make no reference to Islam, Muhammad, or the Koran but only refer to “Muslims.” The same is true of paragraph 841 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which simply repeats the two sentences from Lumen Gentium. The second problem has to do with interpretation. For example, Lumen Gentium states that Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham” but does not assert that they actually do hold the same faith as Abraham. Likewise, Nostra Aetate states that Muslims “revere Him [Jesus] as a prophet,” but does not grapple with the significant differences between the Jesus of the Koran and the Jesus of the Gospels—differences that extend well beyond the fact that the Koran does not acknowledge Jesus as God.

The third problem with the argument from authority as it touches on Islam is that there appears to be some uncertainty about whether Nostra Aetate was meant to be a dogmatic statement. For example, in a May 2012 Catholic News Service article, Vatican Cardinal Walter Brandmuller is quoted as saying that Nostra Aetate does “not have a binding doctrinal content.” Cardinal Brandmuller’s words ought to carry some weight since he is the coauthor (with Vatican Bishop Agostino Marchetto) of a book titled Pope Benedict XVI’s Keys for Interpreting Vatican II. In an October 2012 essay for L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict himself spoke of a problem with Nostra Aetate, observing that a “weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has emerged. It speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance.” The most likely target of his observation would seem to be Nostra Aetate’s overly positive assessment of the beliefs held by Muslims and the corresponding lack of any caution about some of those beliefs.

Such caution was not absent from earlier papal pronouncements. The fourth problem with the argument from authority is that those who fall back on it often ignore the harsh assessments of Islam offered by earlier Church authorities. For example:

  • Pope Eugene IV, Council of Basil, 1434: “…there is hope that very many from the abominable sect of Mahomet will be converted to the Catholic Faith.”
  • Pope Callixtus III, 1455: “I vow to…exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.”
  • Pope Pius II, papal bull, 1459: “…the false prophet Mahomet”

Or consider what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say: “He [Mohammed] seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure … he perverts almost all the testimony of the Old and New Testaments by making them into a fabrication of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 16, Article 4).

For some more balance on the issue it’s useful to look at the 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. Its multi-page entry on “Mohammed and Mohammedanism” provides a much-needed corrective to the current enthusiasm for finding commonalities between Islam and Catholicism. For example, whereas Nostra Aetate says that “they [Muslims] value the moral life,” the Encyclopedia notes that “the ethics of Islam are far inferior to those of Judaism and even more inferior to those of the New Testament.” The Encyclopedia goes on to say “What is really good in Mohammedan ethics is either commonplace or borrowed from some other religions, whereas what is characteristic is nearly always imperfect or wicked.” The entry concludes with a reminder that Islam is both a religion and a political system: “In matters political Islam is a system of despotism at home and aggression abroad…. The rights of non-Moslem subjects are of the vaguest and most limited kind, and a religious war is a sacred duty whenever there is a chance of success against the ‘Infidel.’”

The harsh language of earlier Church authorities can be excused on the grounds that Islam was often at war with Christianity. The more conciliatory language of Vatican II can be better understood if we realize that Islam’s aggression against Christianity seemed entirely a thing of the past at that time. But it can be argued that the irenic statements of Vatican II have helped to create a climate of opinion among Catholics that has left them unprepared for the present state of affairs vis-à-vis Islam. And the present state of affairs seems to herald a resumption of the centuries old Islamic hostility toward Christians.

Anyone who has read Raymond Ibrahim’s Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians or who keeps up with his monthly “Muslim persecution of Christians” series will realize that Islamic persecution of Christians is far more extensive than is generally reported. We hear about the more spectacular attacks—the mall in Nairobi where Christians were separated out from Muslims, then tortured and killed; the suicide attack the same week on All Saints Church in Peshawar which left more than eighty dead; the burning of over 150 homes in a Christian neighborhood last March in Lahore—but, according to Ibrahim, “these attacks are but the tip of the iceberg of widespread hostility for and violence against” Christians.

The attitude which says “this is not up for grabs” or “The Church has spoken” has the effect of closing off certain avenues of investigation about Islam. Among other things, it erects a barrier against understanding why these attacks are happening and why they will likely increase.

Editor’s note: In the photo above, a car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla, Suleja, just outside Nigeria’s capital Abuja, December 25, 2011. The Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility. (Photo credit: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde.) 


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