Islam—The View from Disney Country

The Diocese of Orlando recently reprimanded a sixth grade teacher at a Catholic school for an “unfortunate exhibit of disrespect.” What did he do? He provided printouts to students of St. John Bosco’s negative assessment of Islam. St. John Bosco called Islam a “monstrous mixture of Judaism, Paganism, and Christianity,” and explained that Muhammad “propagated his religion, not through miracles or persuasive words, but by military force.”

Citing Nostra Aetate, Jacquelyn Flanigan, an associate superintendent with the Diocese of Orlando’s schools, said that “the information provided in the sixth-grade class is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

If that’s so, then a lot of saints and popes expressed views on Islam that are not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, said that Muhammad “seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure,” “did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way,” “forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms,” and “perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testament by making them into fabrications of his own.”

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Numerous popes and saints (see Andrew Bieszad’s “What Did the Saints Say about Islam?”) indulged in similar exhibits of “disrespect,” including Pope Calixtus III, who vowed to “exalt the true Faith and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.”

The Diocese of Orlando didn’t say just where the teacher deviated from Church teachings or in what way he was showing disrespect for Islam. In fact, much of what Don Bosco says is attested to by Islamic sources and Islamic historians. The claim that Muhammad “propagated his religion … by military force” seems consistent with the testimony of Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, most of which is filled with accounts of raids, battles, distribution of booty, and forced conversions. Then, there’s the fact that the Islamic calendar is dated not from 610 AD, the date of Muhammad’s first “revelation,” but from 622, the date when he moved to Medina and commenced his career of jihad. Up until that point, Muhammad never had more than 100 followers. After 622, Islam took off precisely because of “military force.”

The handout of Bosco’s views on Islam also notes that the Qur’an “guaranteed its followers a Paradise filled only of earthly pleasures.” But the Qur’an really is full of depictions of paradise which portray it as a garden of earthly delights. For example:

As for the righteous, they shall surely triumph. Theirs shall be gardens and vineyards and high-bosomed maidens for companionship:  a truly overflowing cup (78:  31-34).

One of the passages in the Bosco handout, that a Huffington Post article cites disapprovingly, says that Muhammad “couldn’t even write.”  But according to numerous Islamic sources, he couldn’t. In fact, Muslim apologists are fond of using Muhammad’s illiteracy as proof of the Koran’s divine origin.  How, they ask, could an illiterate man write such beautiful prose? Who else but God could have produced such a perfect book?

In other words, a case can be made that St. John Bosco and St. Thomas Aquinas accurately reflected Islamic doctrine in their writings. The disturbing thing is the Orlando Diocese’s unwillingness to even entertain that possibility. The associate superintendent says, in effect, “You can’t say that. The Church has spoken.  Case closed.” One assumes that, like most graduates of education schools (including Catholic schools of education), the diocese’s teachers and administrators lean left-of-center. The curious thing is that in most other matters, liberal Catholics spurn the argument from authority. Yet, here they are wielding it like a cudgel. One is reminded of the classic Ring Lardner line, “’Shut up,’ he explained.”

One thing that is striking about the defenders of the new orthodoxy about Islam is their sheer lack of curiosity. Considering that the spread of Islam in recent years has been accompanied by massive violence against Christians, one would think that they would be anxious to know more. Not so. Like the functionaries in the Orlando Diocese, they want the matter closed without further discussion.

Yet there are numerous questions surrounding the Church’s sparse and scattered statements about Islam that beg to be answered. For example, do the Church’s recent statements about Islam outweigh what it has said over the last 1400 years? Has the Church adopted the Islamic doctrine of abrogation whereby more recent statements cancel out earlier contradictory statements? Has the associate superintendent in Orlando ever heard of the doctrine of abrogation? Does she know that prominent Catholics have raised questions about Nostra Aetate, the document she cites? For instance, Pope Benedict XVI wrote about a “weakness” in Nostra Aetate. “It speaks of religion solely in a positive way,” he said, “and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion.”

In speaking of Islam, the Council fathers stressed the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, not the differences. But this one-sidedly positive assessment needs to be understood in the context of the stated mission of Nostra Aetate. The first paragraph of the document states that “She [the Church] considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.” In other words, the Council fathers were not setting out to provide a full picture of the Muslim faith, but only to sketch some of the similarities with Catholicism.

Which raises an oft-asked question (though, apparently, not oft-asked in Orlando): was Nostra Aetate meant to be a teaching document or a pastoral document? Was it meant to deal with matters of faith and morals in a definitive way? Or was it mainly pastoral in intent? Were the Council fathers intending to teach Catholics about the nature of Islam? Or was Nostra Aetate primarily meant as a gesture of outreach to non-Christians?

Several prominent bishops have suggested the latter. Vatican Cardinal Walter Brandmüller has stated that Nostra Aetate does “not have a binding doctrinal content.” And Archbishop Guido Pozzo, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council Ecclesia Dei, told a German newspaper “Nostra Aetate does not have any dogmatic authority, and thus one cannot demand from anyone to recognize this declaration as being dogmatic.”

The Catholic educators in Orlando and elsewhere should take notice. They should also engage in a practice they undoubtedly encourage in their students—namely, critical thinking. When they read in Nostra Aetate that “they [Muslims] value the moral life,” do they ever wonder if it’s the same moral life that Catholics value? Do they ever wonder about the discrepancy between what Pope Francis says about the Koran (“opposed to every form of violence”), and what the Koran itself says about violence?  Do they have enough intellectual curiosity to find out for themselves whether St. John Bosco’s observations about Islam are accurate or not? If they did want to find out, they would have to dig a lot deeper than Nostra Aetate.

The truth is that recent Church statements about Islam have precious little to say about Islam—certainly not enough to get a full picture of what “authentic” Islam teaches. Nostra Aetate, Lumen Gentium, Evangelii Gaudium, The Catechism of the Catholic Church? If you add together everything these documents have to say about Islam, and subtract the repetitions, you end up with about half a page of text. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which devotes six paragraphs to man’s relationship with animals (2415-18, 2456-57), devotes only one paragraph to the Church’s relationship with the Muslims (841). And that paragraph merely repeats the paragraph in Lumen Gentium, which was written at a time (the 1960s) when the Church’s relationship with the Muslims was more or less a back-burner issue.

That paragraph is forty-four words long. That’s about eighty words less than the warning label on a bottle of Tylenol. And unlike the Tylenol label, it contains no warning. In short, there is room for the Church to say a lot more about Islam.

Catholics deserve a fuller picture of Islam than the rosy-hued one that prevailed among Council participants in the mid-1960s. An update is urgently needed. Otherwise, Catholics will have to learn by harsh experience what their fellow Christians are learning about Islam in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and a host of other Muslim-majority countries.

While they are waiting for the update, Catholics would be well-advised to put down Nostra Aetate and pick up a copy of the Koran, or the Sira (the life of Muhammad), or Reliance of the Traveller (a widely-consulted manual of sharia law). Then they can judge for themselves what Islam teaches.

In view of the fact that Orlando was the scene of the Islam-inspired massacre at the Pulse nightclub, you would think that the Church in Orlando might have acquired a more realistic view of Islam. But Orlando is also the home of Disney World—the place which assures us that “when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.” Well, maybe that depends upon which star you wish on. If you’re placing all your bets on the star with the crescent moon nearby, you are truly living in fantasyland.


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