Why I Wrote ‘Charity vs. Dhimmitude’

Much bustle here at Inside Catholic last week, as well as on my blog. Lots of people wanted to know why I was so adamant about defending the UK bishops’ suggestion that Muslim students be given a prayer room and other accommodations.

To reiterate: I’m not particularly adamant about defending the bishops’ dubious idea. I can think of several reasons it is an imprudent move. The problem is that most people are not really focusing on those reasons. Instead, they are making impassioned — and bad — arguments that are rooted in theological and moral rationales that have already led to disaster in the Church’s past. The point of my article was not so much to defend the bishops’ suggestion as to keep reaction against that suggestion from devolving into nonsense. Because, like clockwork, devolve it has.

Here’s an especially devolved quote from the comments on the article that summarizes the craziness of the thinking I oppose. It is one of several attempts by various readers to declare that the Church is in error when she teaches of Muslims (and Jews) that “together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day”:
The fact that Jews worship One God, and Muslims worship One God, and Christians worship One God does not automatically and necessarily mean that they all worship the same One God, even if there is only one God.

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I leave the reader with the task of decoding that. Meanwhile, other readers have written me on my blog, here, and elsewhere to sneer that Nostra Aetate ignores the Bible, or to declare that if we listen to Nostra Aetate, we are shallow simpletons who are ignoring all Church teaching before Vatican II. The bottom line of this argument: Non-Trinitarian monotheism is not worship of the God of Abraham at all, whatever the fools who write Nostra Aetate may say.

But the logical response here is really fairly simple. It does not in the slightest involve us in saying that “Christians, Jews, and Muslims are really all saying the same thing.” It merely involves the acknowledgement that they are saying one thing in common. One thing. There is one God, the God of Abraham. That’s it.
One can, if one wants, mention a few other points of commonality as well. Morally, the traditions have various other things partially in common: a recognition at some level of the natural law. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Stuff like that. Acknowledging that is common sense — and not the same as denying that there are also enormous differences, beginning with Trinitarianism and going to the extremes of things like “love vs. kill and hate your enemy” (though we Christians often tend to regard that “love your enemies” thing more along the lines of an “ideal” than as something we, you know, do.) 

Ah! But Islam also has a lot of very distorted moral teaching. Yep! Sure does! And there is a huge and growing threat of radical Islamic violence that I in no way deny. I think it’s ridiculous when the media re-brands rioting Muslim thugs as “youths.” I think it contemptible when the New York Times sanitizes the radical Islamist butchers of Mumbai as generic “extremists.” I’m acutely aware of the fact that Islamic holy texts themselves provide the basis for the thousands and thousands of acts of violence we have seen from the Islamosphere. I regard Islam as a manmade aggregation of some ideas ripped off from Judaism and Christianity and then reworked by a seventh century literary and military genius who may or may not have been influenced by demons, but who did a spectacular job of perverting real revelation.

So please: All you folk who have been writing to inform me that Islam is a menace can desist. I’m really aware of that. I haven’t been living in a cave since September 10, 2001.

All that said, just as we do not fight evil with more evil, so we do not fight false religions with nonsense. And it is nonsense to say that religious truth ripped off from Judaism and Christianity ceases to be true in the mouth of non-Jews and non-Christians. When Socrates or Mohammed acknowledge that there is one God and He is just, they are talking about the only God there is, and they are right. It is mad to reply with incoherent nonsense like, “The fact that Jews worship One God, and Muslims worship One God, and Christians worship One God does not automatically and necessarily mean that they all worship the same One God, even if there is only one God.”

Now, it would merely be a theological curiosity if Christians just vented stuff like this and went to bed. However, my concern is that, historically, the whole “there’s the one merciful God we worship, and then there’s the other one merciful God they worship” thing has quickly meant (in the case of the Jews) things like, “Jews don’t worship God at all! They are an alien and subversive element in our culture! They murder Christian children and make matzoh out of their blood!”
Now we are living in a time where the same cluster of ideas and feelings that was once directed against Jews is now directed against all Muslims by some Catholics.
All Muslims? Well, yeah. Recall that the proposal was, after all, about a bunch of British schoolkids. But the reaction in the comboxes was of this tenor:
Give a Muslim an inch and he will take a mile — after he takes your head. These people understand only two things: war, and more war. Ask the dead, tortured Jews in Mumbai if Muslims should be allowed to have prayer rooms in synagogues. Our answer should be their answer: not just no, but f**k no.

It’s an understandable emotion, given Mumbai, Bali, the Twin Towers, and other achievements of the Religion of Peace. But it’s nothing other than that: an emotional reaction. As a basis for policy, it means that we are to assume that every British Muslim schoolkid — in reality, every single Muslim who has ever lived — is the Enemy Within, and he wants nothing less than to kill us all.

Which brings us to the biggest and most dangerous part of the hysterical reaction to the UK bishops’ dubious idea. In the course of my discussion with readers, what kept coming up was the attempt to say that the theological rationales being put forward for regarding all Muslims as the Enemy Within would not, surely, logically justify treating Jews exactly the same way.
But the reality is, they logically do.

If non-Trinitarian monotheists called Muslims don’t worship God, then neither do non-Trinitarians called Jews. If we try to claim that we should never allow Muslims to pray on Church property because they are not Christian, then Pope Pius XII should never have allowed Jews to celebrate their rites when he was hiding them in the Vatican and in other church properties. No hijab for Muslim kids, but strict adherence to Catholic dress codes? Very well then, no yarmulkes for Jewish kids at Catholic schools. No five minutes set aside for Muslims to say their prayers? Great! Then no time off allowed for High Holy Days for Jewish kids.

My reader, good man that he is, is no anti-Semite. So he responded with a note that covers most of the themes that prompted my interest in the matter and reflects a lot of the disagreement with my piece last week. Since I cannot answer all my readers, I give his note and my reply as a way of responding to all the readers who objected to what I wrote:
Mark, these two situations are not the least bit comparable. For one thing, the Jews are our forebears in the Faith, our elder brothers. Our Mass is the fulfillment of the promise of their Passover meal. Their Scriptures and many of their prayers — we use them too.

I know that and you know that, thanks to Vatican II and 40 years of catechesis. But for close to 2,000 years, Jews were largely regarded by the ordinary Catholic as the sinister internal enemies of Christian civilization — just like Muslims are now seen. Instead of automatically linking all Muslims to the crime of Mumbai, the medieval Catholic mind tended to link all Jews to the crime of the Crucifixion and to numerous episodes of persecution of Christians. And so, Christians periodically forbade their rites as subversive of the Christian civil order, or decided that if they did not convert, it could only be because they basically agreed with the murderers of Jesus that He got what He deserved.
The horrors of the 20th century did much to chasten Christians about this attitude, and the teaching of Vatican II and the popes of the past 40 years have done much more. Now Catholic anti-Semitism is relegated to a tiny minority of kooks who long for the old days when Archie Bunker could gripe about “Christ-killers” to his buddy over a beer at the bowling alley. But Archie Bunker didn’t live in the eleventh century. He has only been gone for a heartbeat in the life of the Church. So the question is: Why didn’t Christians, until very recently, make the obvious connections between Judaism and Christianity that you are making here? We will return to that question in a moment. You write:
Muslims are not refugees seeking asylum from a brutal oppressor.

Really? None of them? We know this for a fact? All Muslims in Britain and the West come from happy lands, and they just felt like moving? I’m highly skeptical. Especially since we read about Muslims fleeing to the West precisely to escape radical Islamic barbarism. Indeed, if one is faced with a choice between a foaming Bronze Age Radical Islamist and a westernized Muslim who would like to be a bottle blonde, wear jeans and makeup, have a boyfriend, and fit in with mainstream Western culture, which one do you suppose is more likely to be the kid at the British Catholic school? And would it be wiser to tell that student, “You people understand only two things: war, and more war,” or to extend charity to her and suppose that she’s, well, a kid with an awful lot on her plate and not somebody bent on global conquest? Indeed, might it not be the case that young Muslims who are highly conflicted about their identity might respond like this guy if they are treated with respect?
But all this discussion about whether they are oppressed or not is irrelevant. The simple fact is this: If the Pope can let one set of foreign rites be observed on Catholic property out of respect for the human dignity of Jews, there is no iron law forbidding the UK bishops’ to do the same for peaceful Muslims in the UK.
More often than not, they are the brutal oppressors — and to be fair they treat their own people nearly as bad as they treat non-Muslims.

Wait. You just said Muslims were not being brutally oppressed.
I do not blame Muslim schoolchildren for how Muslim adults run Muslim countries or what imams say in mosques, but Muslim schoolchildren in Catholic schools are not refugees either.

1. You know this how?
2. This matters why?

You seem to be suggesting that Catholics only need respect the dignity of humans if they are refugees. That makes no sense.
And Muslims are not our elder brothers in the Faith. Islam is a Christian heresy, and a particularly sick and perverse one at that.

And now we come to the heart of it. For (returning to my point) this was precisely the argument used in the Middle Ages against Jews.
Remember: for most of the Church’s history, though Muslims were seen as heretics, Jews were seen as even greater heretics. They were regarded as the first and most impenitent rebels against the revelation of Christ, who were far more gravely guilty of their rebellion than any Muslim could ever be. After all, said the medieval Christian, Christ came to them, they rejected him, and they have gone on rejecting him down to this very day. Indeed, (the logic continues) they aren’t our elder brothers all (something Vatican II-resistant Catholics continue to maintain). No, said medievals, they are the original heretics. They are “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). The Church is the real “Israel of God,” as St. Paul calls it. So the Fathers considered the Church, grafted onto Old Testament Israel, as the main trunk of revelation and the real continuation of the revelation.
Medievals typically saw contemporary Jews as the branch that was broken off, rebels who were far more culpable than Muslims because, as Christians thought, Jews actually had the revelation of God and threw it away rather than submit to Christ. Medieval Christians saw their Jewish contemporaries as simply continuing the rebellion of their fathers. That’s why Christians until not very long ago commonly spoke as though Jews are accursed, and that’s why they would periodically lock them in towers in York and demand that they repent and be baptized or burn. It’s why Shakespeare sees the forced baptism of Shylock at the end of The Merchant of Venice not as a tragedy but as a happy ending to a comedy. Any Elizabethan would have said, “Ha! The lovers are married, Antonio is saved and even the cunning old accursed Jew gets mercy he never deserved. Everybody wins!”
We rightly recoil in horror from this. But for long centuries, Christians took this picture of our relationship with Jews as axiomatic. In comparison, they regarded the poor benighted Mohammedan as a second-class heretic: Since he began as a pagan Arab who had never had the advantages of the Jew, his fall was not seen as anything like so terrible as theirs.

This is but one reason I am so grateful for Vatican II. And it is why I am so alarmed by the reckless language being trotted out to condemn acts of charity to Muslims. The acts of charity may or may not be prudent. But when we start to argue against them using the same premises and logic that once supported Christian persecution of Jews, it opens the door to all sorts of evils. So, for example, I can think of several good reasons not to give Muslim kids a room for prayer and facilities for ritual ablutions in a Catholic school without ever having to say:
Christian charity is Christian charity, and I will always stand up for a person’s basic rights and dignity, regardless of his religion, as best as I’m able. But allowing Muslim prayer rooms in Catholic schools is not charity. It’s craven cowardice.

Because “craven cowardice” implies that the kids are enemies we must defeat in battle, as does the suggestion that they are somehow implicated in the outrage at Mumbai and all they understand only war and more war. In short, it presupposes all Muslims are, by nature, the enemy who seek our destruction in precisely the way that Christians spent centuries presupposing that all Jews are, by nature, the enemy seeking our destruction.
Are there lots of Muslims who hate Christians? Sure! There have also been Jews who hate Christians. A medieval was well-stocked not only with evil legends like the blood libel but with plenty of true stories of Jewish persecution of Christians. A reading of Eusebius gives us lots of tales of Jews cooperating in the sufferings of the early Church. And even in the Middle Ages, Jews were not all quietly suffering degradation without protest. Many made their contempt for Christians and their faith quite clear to their Christian neighbors. And their Christian neighbors responded in exactly the way that many Christians respond today. Only instead of saying, “If you’ve seen one Mohammedan you seen ’em all,” medievals tended to say “If you’ve seen one Christ-killer, you’ve seen ’em all.”

Now, as I say, there are several reasons I can think of why the bishops’ suggestions are imprudent and inadvisable. But a general hubbub of shouts like “Ignore Nostra Aetate!” or reckless charges of “craven cowardice” or “surrender to the Enemy” or leaping to the hysteria of saying that accommodating British schoolkids is like accommodating Adolf Hitler is nowhere within a thousand miles of a serious argument.

Which is why I wrote the piece. My issue is not with defending the bishops’ prudentially dubious suggestion. It’s with rebutting the many bad and dangerous arguments being presented against their suggestion, because they compromise the integrity of the Faith and because they endanger our relationship with all non-Catholic religions, not just with Islam. Similarly, my point is not to argue that Islam is not a huge danger, not a manmade religion, and not arguably humanity’s greatest mistake. Nor is it to say that there is no difference between Trinitarian monotheism and the monotheism of Jews and Muslims.

It is to say that it’s not smart to fight Islam by laying the intellectual groundwork for contempt for all non-Catholics, and most especially for Jews. I recognize no commonality of spirit between the hysteria and frequent contempt for Nostra Aetate, Vatican II, Muslims and Jews that I’m seeing in a lot of the combox commentariat and the generous, thoughtful, and fruitful work being done by Pope Benedict XVI in his dialogue with Muslim leaders. It would well behoove Catholics who are serious about the Church’s engagement with Muslims of good will to imitate him, rather than to simply issue sweeping denials that there is any such thing as a Muslim of good will or to heap scorn on Nostra Aetate. The pope is there to teach us. Let’s learn from him.

Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic. Visit his blog at www.markshea.blogspot.com.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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