Must Catholics Believe that Islam Is Peaceful?

The Apostles’ Creed (updated version):

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the peaceful nature of Islam. Amen.

Or, anyway, that’s how it ought to read according to Monsignor Stuart Swetland, President of Donnelly College in Kansas City. No, Msgr. Swetland didn’t actually propose a revision to the Apostles’ Creed, but he does seem to be saying that Catholics have a religious obligation to affirm that Islam is a religion of peace.

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In a long statement following up on a radio debate with Robert Spencer on Relevant Radio’s Drew Mariani Show, Swetland, according to Spencer, “contends that the statements of recent Popes to the effect that Islam is a religion of peace fall into the category of teachings to which Catholics must give ‘religious assent.’”

Swetland writes: “My main purpose in having a discussion with Robert Spencer, a Catholic, on a Catholic radio network was to show clearly that his positions on Islam were at odds with Catholic teaching.” He goes on to give a sample of magisterial teachings on Islam, starting with Nostra Aetate and including statements and exhortations from Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. He then observes:

Robert Spencer’s positions seem to be at odds with the magisterial teachings on what authentic Islam is and what Catholics are called to do about it (accept immigrants, avoid hateful generalizations, show esteem and respect, etc.). At least in the area of morals, Robert seems to be a dissenter from the papal magisterium.

And Fr. Swetland is a dissenter from common sense. The pages of history, the daily news, and Islam’s sacred texts all attest to the fact that Islam is not a religion of peace. Or, to quote the Ayatollah Khomeini, “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those are witless.” Khomeini was an Ayatollah Usma, a “Grand Sign of God”—an honor bestowed only on the most learned religious leaders. My guess is that the Ayatollah knew a lot more about Islam than Msgr. Swetland does.

I’m not saying that Swetland is “witless.” In fact, he seems to be an intelligent man. He has an undergraduate degree in physics, was a Rhodes Scholar, and studied philosophy and economics at Oxford. Still, high IQ and common sense don’t always go together. As George Orwell noted, “some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”

In the radio debate and in an article responding to his statement, Robert Spencer does a fine job of dismantling Swetland’s arguments. For one thing, says Spencer, affirmations about the nature of Islam should not be a matter of Catholic faith and morals. In other words, it’s a serious overreach to contend that the “wrong” opinion on the nature of Islam or on the advisability of mass Muslim immigration may constitute dissent from Church teaching. In saying that it does, Swetland has just created a whole new class of Catholic dissenters—one that probably numbers in the tens of millions. Spencer also observes that what previous popes had to say about Islam contradicts what current popes have said. Which Roman Pontiff must Catholics agree with: “Pope Francis, who declared that ‘authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,’ or Pope Callixtus III, who in 1455 vowed to ‘exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East’?”

The linchpin of Swetland’s case is Nostra Aetate’s brief statement about the “Moslems.” But as Spencer, and I, and others have pointed out, there are numerous problems with Nostra Aetate. One question that arises is whether Nostra Aetate was ever intended to be a dogmatic statement. That’s more of a question for Church historians to debate, but let’s just say for now that the question is debatable. What is less debatable is that the section of Nostra Aetate that deals with the “Moslems” is highly problematic, highly selective, and poorly thought out. For instance, the document states (I’m using Swetland’s translation) that Muslims “venerate Jesus,” but to anyone familiar with the Muslim Jesus, it’s not at all clear that it’s the same Jesus. For one thing, the Muslim Jesus makes his appearance in the Koran for no other purpose than to refute everything that Jesus of Nazareth says about himself. Nostra Aetate goes on to say that “they [Muslims] await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead.” What the document fails to say is that on the day of judgment, according to Islamic teaching, all non-Muslims will be cast into hell. As to the “reward of God”? Well, let’s just say that it’s not the same reward that Catholics await. Here’s a typical description from the Koran:

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

There are many other omissions in Nostra Aetate. In fact, it seems to have been designed to present only a positive view of Islam. I’m not the only one to have noticed this skewed presentation. In a 2012 essay for L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict writes of 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.” Sick and distorted? Benedict doesn’t speak explicitly of Islam, but exactly what other religion so readily lends itself to sick and distorted interpretations? The trouble with Nostra Aetate is that it leaves us with a very incomplete picture of Islam. The picture has enough holes to drive a fleet of suicide truck bombs through it.

The main problem with Msgr. Swetland’s statement, however, is its recklessness. Last week in Crisis I wrote that the Church’s handling of the Islamic challenge may prove to be far more scandalous than its handling of the sex abuse crisis. Church authorities are engaged in what amounts to a cover-up of Islam’s aggressive nature, and Msgr. Swetland is a prime example of this ecclesiastical determination to put a positive spin on everything Islamic. But the stakes involved in doing so are extremely high. As I wrote last week, “as the gap widens between what Church officials say about Islam and what ordinary Catholics can see with their own eyes, the credibility of the Church may once again come into question as it did during the sex abuse scandals.”

Spencer makes the same point, albeit a bit more boldly: “if Monsignor Swetland is correct, then Catholics must affirm that Islam is a religion of peace…and the Catholic Church will be requiring that its faithful affirm the truth of what is an obvious and egregious falsehood.” By binding themselves to this falsehood, says Spencer, Catholic leaders will undermine their authority to speak in the name of Christ.

Msgr. Swetland worries that Spencer’s interpretation will drive moderate Muslims into the arms of the radicals. What he should be worried about is that his own (and Pope Francis’) interpretation will drive common-sense Catholics out of the Church. Does he really want to stake the Church’s authority on such a slender reed as a single section of Nostra Aetate and a few scattered papal statements? At a moment in recent history when it’s becoming clear to all but the most obtuse that Islam is not a religion of peace, is this the time for doubling down on a claim that flies in the face of all the evidence? Do Msgr. Swetland and other like-minded clerics want the Church to stand or fall on this fantasy view of Islam?

It can be reasonably argued that Church leaders should maintain a prudent silence about Islam’s aggressive nature lest Christians be killed in retaliation. But that is not the same thing as loudly and deceptively proclaiming that Islam is something that it is not—namely, a peaceful religion not unlike Christianity. Monsignor Swetland says Catholics should “show esteem and respect” for Muslims. But where is the respect for Catholics? In asking Catholics to be submissively content with dangerously misleading views on Islam, Swetland betrays a low level of respect for the intelligence of ordinary Catholics.

When the Apostles’ Creed was first set down in writing, Christians didn’t know anything about Islam. It had yet to be invented. But one thing that early Christians did know is that they were supposed to be on the lookout for false prophets. Nowadays, however, for a certain kind of Christian with a certain kind of mindset, there are no false prophets or false religions. Since they don’t admit of false prophets or wolves in sheep’s clothing, those are the kind of Christians who are most likely to welcome the wolves into the sheepfold.


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