Is there such a thing as bad religion? Or is religion by its very nature a good thing? Throughout most of history, most people wouldn’t have hesitated to label some religions as bad. The Romans condemned the child-sacrificing religion of the Carthaginians, Christians condemned the Aztec religion for its human sacrifice, and Catholics condemned Arians and Albigensians as heretics.
The contemporary take on this question is altogether different. With the exception of some rabid atheists, most people—even those of no particular faith—have a positive view of religion. And Christians, especially, seem well-disposed to people of other faiths. Serious Christians are much more likely to be worried about the dangers inherent in secularism than the dangers posed by another religion. The current attitude seems to be that in the battle against secularism, people of faith—no matter what their faith—ought to stick together.
One might expect that the return of militant Islam to the world stage would put a damper on this benign view of religion, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Many Christians still take the attitude that if you’re a religion, you’re part of the family and we’ll stick up for you. As an example, recent popes have been adamant in their opposition to secularism, but have been reluctant to criticize Islam. For them, the major conflict of our age is not between religion and religion but between religion and unbelief. Of course, there is plenty of justification for that view. The struggle between atheism and belief which was the chief preoccupation of Pope St. John Paul II was indeed the defining struggle of the twentieth century. He may have been concerned about Islam, but there was little indication that he saw anything inherently wrong with it—as he did with Nazism and communism. He once kissed the Koran, but one cannot imagine that he would ever have done the same with Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto.
As suggested by his Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI had a more critical view of Islam than his predecessor, but on the whole he seems to have adopted the position that believers are in one camp and secularists in another. When asked in a lengthy interview with journalist Peter Seewald if the Vatican was following a different policy from earlier popes who “thought it their duty to save Europe from Islamization,” Benedict replied: “Today we are living in a completely different world in which the battle lines are drawn differently. In this world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.” (Light of the World, p. 100) Elsewhere in the interview, Benedict speaks of Christians and Muslims as being on “the same side of a common battle” to defend “faith in God and obedience to God” (p. 99).
Pope Francis appears to have an even more positive attitude toward Islam. In Evangelii Gaudium, he asserted that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” More recently, in a talk to refugees, he encouraged them to look to the sacred writings of their traditions: “those that are Christian, with the Bible, and those that are Muslim, with the Qur’an. The faith that your parents instilled in you will always help you move on.”
The view that our commonalities with Islam are more important than our differences is widely shared by Christians and is especially strong among Catholics. But what if this view is mistaken? Not to put too fine a point on it, what if Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam is closer to the original than that of moderate Muslims? In his interview with Seewald, Pope Benedict refers on two occasions to the “tradition of tolerant and good coexistence between Islam and Christianity” that prevails in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. And he sees this as a hopeful sign that rapprochement is possible between the two faiths. The thing is, the Islam practiced in that region tends to be of the folk religion type, and it typically incorporates elements of other faiths. In other words, it’s a far cry from authentic, made-in-Mecca, by-the-book Islam. While folklore Islam may be more compatible with Christianity, it does not have as strong a claim as does the Islam of the Middle East to be following the authentic tradition of the prophet. Islam is very much a by-the-book religion, and all the books—the Koran, the Hadith, the Sira, and the sharia law manuals—provide more textual support to militant Muslims than to moderate ones. As one observer put it, “Moderate Islam is a cultural habit, radical Islam is authentic Islam.”
Which Islam is the more authentic? Some scholars assert that both interpretations—the more peaceful and the more militant—are equally valid. But unless you believe that Islam is like a Rorschach test that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, one side or the other has to have the better of the argument. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I believe the militants have the better case, but rather than go over those arguments again, I prefer to call attention to some of the consequences for Islam’s Catholic defenders if the militant view of things turns out to be the more accurate one. If bin Laden and company have the better side of the argument and if Church leaders continue to stand by Islam as a brother religion, I see several negative consequences for the Church.
The first negative consequence of this stand-by-my-Islam approach is that it creates confusion for many Catholics. The average Catholic who keeps abreast of the news and who is not committed to upholding any particular narrative about Islam will have noticed by now that there is something wrong with Islam. And as more is revealed about Islam and sharia law, it will become more and more difficult for that average Catholic to give credence to the notion that all the many problems with Islam have nothing to do with the real Islam. Continued expressions of “deep respect” for Islam by Church leaders won’t do much to increase respect for Islam, but they might serve to lessen the respect that Catholics have for their own leaders. As the gap between what the bishops say and what the news reveals increases, the credibility of the Church’s teachings will come into question.
Such an approach also tends to devalue the sacrifices of those Christians in Muslim lands who have had the courage to resist submission to Islam. It must be highly discouraging to be told that the religion in whose name your friends and relatives have been slaughtered is prized and esteemed by the Church. Moreover, this semi-official ‘endorsement” of Islam also does a disservice to the many Muslims who have their doubts about traditional Islam, and to the many Muslims who suffer under the weight of sharia law. When “the faith that your parents instilled in you” involves genital mutilation, forced marriages, honor killings, and amputations, Catholic prelates should be careful about statements or gestures that seem to validate that faith.
Another unintended consequence of the Catholic tendency to put the best possible face on Islam is that it strengthens the atheist/secularist argument that all religions are cut from the same cloth. The Church is frequently accused by its foes of being totalitarian and intolerant. If Church leaders keep making excuses for a religion that actually is totalitarian and intolerant, those charges may begin to stick. The stock of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens received a considerable boost in the wake of 9/11. That’s because they were able to convince a lot of people that violence is the place where religion inevitably leads. And their portrayal of Islam and Christianity as twin brothers—the one only slightly less violent and misogynist than the other—may well have contributed to the recent sharp decline in Christian numbers. Merely from a tactical standpoint, then, Church leaders ought to be cautious about doing or saying things that reinforce this simplistic view of Christianity. If Catholics want to avoid even more defections from the Church, they need to think twice about emphasizing their common ground with Islam. At a time when even liberals are beginning to question Islam, it may be time for the Church to consider the benefits of distancing itself from its fellow “Abrahamic” faith.
Of course, if it’s true that Christianity and Islam are just two branches of the same faith, it’s incumbent on Church authorities to say so, no matter what others may think. But if it’s not true—if Islam is, in fact, inherently violent—then, by keeping to the current course, Church authorities are setting themselves up for a scandal of epic proportions—one that could easily dwarf the sex abuse scandals. What I said on the subject two years ago seems even more pertinent today:
Much of the damage from those scandals was caused by the revelation that some priests and bishops had covered up for them. The Church’s current policy of seeking common ground with Islam is a well-intentioned interreligious gesture. It’s not meant as any sort of cover-up; but, in effect, it minimizes the rather large gap that divides Islam and Christianity…. As the threat from a resurgent Islam becomes more apparent, Catholics may well begin to feel that they have been misled on an issue vital to their security. The complaint against the Church will shift from “Why didn’t Church officials do more to protect children?” to “Why didn’t they tell us the rest of the story about Islam?” (Christianity, Islam, and Atheism, pp. 103-104)
Thus far, the ones being scandalized are fellow Christians who, when they look at Islam, no longer see the smiley face that some Church leaders have pasted on it. But that may be only the beginning. Up until now, the secular world hasn’t called out the Church for “covering up” for Islam because it has been even more deeply involved in the same cover-up. If that should change, the Church will be left in the unenviable position of being almost the sole non-Muslim apologist for Islam. And there are signs that liberal opinion-makers may be re-aligning their position on Islam. Pundits on the left and the right—on CNN as well as Fox News—now feel free to bash sharia law, as they did not in the past. Even the Hollywood crowd is having second thoughts. Recently, a number of prominent Hollywood stars staged a well-publicized boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel as a protest against its owner, the Sultan of Brunei, and his plans to impose sharia law in that country.
It’s too early to tell if any real change of heart is underway, but, if history is any guide, it teaches us that leftists and liberals can turn on a dime. And once they do, they have a knack of convincing everyone that their new opinion—whatever it is—is what they have always believed. If that happens in regard to Islam, the secularists will then turn on the Church with a vengeance. They will claim that they have always stood against sharia and that the Church has always supported it. They will claim that the Church covers up for Islam in order to hide its own very similar sins. They will claim that the Church, like Islam, hates women and freedom, and the proof will lie in the Church’s stated “esteem” for Islam. In other words, the Church’s search for common ground with Islam—an approach which at first seemed so sensible—may turn out to be a foolish and dangerous pursuit.
As I’ve indicated above, if Islam really is the “high and honorable” faith that one Catholic apologist says it is, then it shouldn’t matter what Candy Crowley or Wolf Blitzer might have to say. But Catholics need to remind themselves that medieval Christians were not the only ones to make sharp distinctions between different religions or to think that some religions should be rejected. St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, warns against anyone who “comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached” (2 Cor 11:4). Jesus himself delivered a similar warning: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15).
Of course, Jesus couldn’t possibly have had someone like Muhammad in mind. Or could he? Unless Church leaders are quite certain that the “Prophet” is not included in the warning, they would do well to avoid statements that lend credibility to the Islamic faith. In Nostra Aetate, the council fathers wisely confined their discussion of Christian-Muslim relations to Muslims. No mention is made of Islam, the Koran, or Muhammad. It is one thing to acknowledge that individual Muslims can lead moral lives and that they can have a close relationship with God. It’s another thing to imply, through word or gesture, that Islam is a valid faith and the Koran a reliable guide to salvation.
Editor’s note: The graphic above depicts the five Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo in a prisoner exchange on May 31, 2014. (Photo credit: Fox News)