“#NotMyPope.” In the wake of Pope Francis’ equivocal response to the murder of a French priest by two Islamic jihadists, that’s the top trending hashtag in France and in Belgium.
Which raises a question: Is the Pope doing more harm than good by continuing to deny—in the face of a mountain of evidence—that Islam has anything to do with violence?
As I’ve noted several times in the past, the Church’s handling of the Islamic crisis may prove to be far more scandalous than its handling of the sex abuse crisis. The main scandal surrounding the revelation of priestly sex abuse was that it was covered up for a very long time by priests, pastors, and even bishops. By their silence, many Church officials were, in effect, denying that there was a serious problem. The effect on Catholic morale was profound. In those places which were most seriously affected by the scandals, such as Massachusetts and Ireland, church attendance dropped off dramatically. Disaffected Catholics didn’t necessarily lose their faith in God but they did lose faith in the Catholic Church.
The Church’s handling of the numerous cases of “Islamic abuse” has the potential for causing a greater scandal. The similarities are striking. Once again we have Church leaders who deny that there is any serious problem. This can be seen, for example, in Pope Francis’ repeated assurances that Islamic violence is the work of “a small group of fundamentalists” who, according to him, don’t have anything to do with Islam. And once again, we have a cover-up—this time of the aggressive nature of Islam. After every terrorist incident, the Pope or some Vatican spokesman leaps to the defense of Islam lest anyone get the idea that there is a link between Islam and violence.
This is sometimes done by denying that terrorist groups or individual jihadists are motivated by religious beliefs (despite voluminous evidence that they are). Sometimes it is done by drawing a moral equivalence between Islam and other religions. Recently, when asked why he did not speak of Islamic violence, the Pope replied that “If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence.” Of course, it’s a false comparison. When Catholics commit violence they do not do so in the name of their religion, but in violation of it. Most people realize that there is an enormous difference between the Catholic “who has murdered his girlfriend,” and the jihadist who slits a priest’s throat while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
And that’s the problem. More and more people can see that what the Pope and others in the hierarchy are saying about Islam and Islamic violence doesn’t comport with reality. If things continue in this direction, it will generate an enormous crisis of confidence in the Church. It is potentially a crisis of much great proportion than the sex abuse scandals. This time the victims of the cover-up will be counted not in the thousands, but in the tens of millions. And this time we will be talking not about damaged lives, but about dead bodies.
Millions of Christians in the Middle East and Africa are already dead as a result of jihad violence, and millions more have been forced to flee their homes (see here and here). It’s estimated that some two million were killed by Muslims in Sudan alone between 1983 and 1995. Many of the victims were completely unprepared because they had been assured by Church leaders that Islam is a peaceful religion just like Christianity or Judaism. In Europe, millions more are threatened by an influx of Muslim migrants—a migration that many Church authorities have encouraged. As Robert Spencer put it in a recent column, “The Pope is betraying the Christians of the Middle East and the world, and all the victims of jihad violence, by repeating palpable falsehoods about the motivating ideology of attacks upon them.” Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, said something similar last year when he criticized his brother bishops in France for ignoring the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. He castigated them for being uninformed and in thrall to political correctness.
The Pope and others in the Church are not telling the truth about Islam. Some think they are doing so deliberately as part of a strategy to prevent further radicalization. Some (myself included) think they are doing so out of sheer naïveté. In either case, if they continue to defend Islam as a peaceful religion, it is bound to result in a crisis of trust and a crisis of faith.
If they are deliberately lying, it would be a serious sin, and people would be justified in their mistrust. It’s much more likely, however, that the Pope along with other Church authorities are simply naïve. For example, Pope Francis recently justified his view of Islam as a pacific faith by citing Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar:
I had a long conversation with the imam, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, and I know how they think. They [Muslims] seek peace, encounter.
For those who know what the Grand Imam says to Arabic-speaking audiences about killing apostates and the perfidy of the Jews, this is somewhat reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain’s words after the Munich agreement: “Herr Hitler … told me privately … that after this Sudeten German question is settled, that is the end of Germany’s territorial claims in Europe.”
Whether what Church leaders say about Islam is part of a deliberately misleading strategy or whether it is the result of naïveté, the result will be the same. Many people will lose trust in the Church, and many will leave it. A few high-profile Catholics already have left the Church because of the Church’s lack of resistance to Islam. Magdi Allam, the Italian journalist who converted from Islam and was baptized by Pope Benedict, has left the Church. And Ann Corcoran, the director of Refugee Resettlement Watch, has left in dismay over the USCCB’s permissive stance on Muslim resettlement in the U.S. Whether or not such a decision is justified from the perspective of faith, it remains a danger nonetheless.
No one trusts a habitual liar, but, for different reasons, no one trusts a person whose head is habitually in the clouds. People who are out of touch with reality—Chamberlain comes to mind—can be just as dangerous as outright deceivers.
In this regard it’s likely that the old charge about Catholic rigidity will be revived—only this time in a different context and with considerably more warrant. Instead of criticizing the Church for its “rigid” views on sex and marriage, the disaffected will begin to complain about the Church’s rigid belief that the Islamic faith is nothing more than a friendly fellow religion. One sign that an individual is afflicted with a rigid mentality is that he won’t change his mind in response to new information. That seems to be the case with Pope Francis. For someone who has been lauded for his flexibility, Francis seems to be unmovingly optimistic on the issue of Islam. Several years ago it was still possible to give him the benefit of the doubt. When he stated in Evangelii Gaudium that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” it could be chalked up to poor advice or careless phrasing. But when the Pope continues in this vein despite the accumulating evidence that he is wrong, one can suspect that—at least in regard to Islam—his mind is closed. Just as it’s possible for some Christians to get trapped in a rigid pharisaical mentality, it’s possible for others to get trapped in dogmatic liberal assumptions.
There are many settled matters of faith for Catholics, but faith in the innocence of Islam is not one of them. It is strange that the Pope would take such a doctrinaire stance on a subject about which the Church has had relatively little to say—and especially when Pope Francis’ views on Islam are in direct contradiction to what some past pontiffs and at least one Doctor of the Church (Thomas Aquinas) had to say.
The Church’s current policy of minimizing the violent side of Islam while extolling the positive side amounts to a cover-up of vital information that Catholics deserve to know. 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. The complaint then was that Church authorities didn’t do enough to protect children. The complaint that is building now is that all of us are at risk because the Church leadership has chosen to defend a partial and misleading narrative about Islam rather than tell the full truth.
In the wake of the sex abuse scandals, the Church instituted sweeping reforms to address the problem, with the result that the incidence of abuse within the Church is now much lower than in other comparable professions such as teaching and medicine. What is needed now is a thorough reappraisal of Church policy on Islam. Unless Church leaders develop a more realistic understanding of Islam, it is likely that “#NotMyPope” will soon be replaced with “#NotMyChurch.”