What’s the biggest news story of our time? What has been the biggest story for the last decade and one-half?
Answer: the resurgence of Islam, and, in particular, the rapid spread of Islamic jihad.
But, with a few exceptions, you would never know it from reading the Catholic press. If you look through the list of titles published by Catholic book publishers, you will find few, if any, books on Islam. There may be a title or two about the Crusades, but if you search the “current events” lists of most Catholic book publishers, you will come up empty. Books dealing with the biggest story of our time are conspicuous by their absence.
How about Catholic magazines and newspapers? Surely, they are telling the story of what’s happening now? Well, yes, they are, but in a strangely truncated way. The Catholic media carry reports on the latest atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Taliban, but if you turn to the commentary or opinion section of your favorite Catholic periodical, the pickings are slim. For the last 15 years (using 9/11 as a base point), Catholic media have been almost completely devoid of analysis on Islamic terrorism.
We are told what is happening, but almost no one ventures to say why it is happening. Catholic periodicals tend to treat Islamic jihad against Christians and others as though it were some kind of natural disaster—not unlike a typhoon or a tsunami. Like a storm or an earthquake, jihad is presented as a random event that unaccountably strikes here rather than there. And, as with a natural disaster, the reporting tends to focus on relief efforts: we may not know how to prevent the storm of jihad, but we feel an obligation to do all we can to bring attention to the plight of its victims.
Moreover, as with a natural disaster, the jihad is only noted when it erupts in some spectacular form. It is not treated as an ongoing problem which has its source in a particular ideology which can be analyzed, criticized, and defended against. Consequently, there is a lacuna of serious and sustained comment on what is, arguably, the most important story of the twenty-first century.
That’s not to say that Catholic writers and bloggers can’t think of anything with which to fill the empty space. On the contrary, they can think of a million other topics to write about. Take for example, one popular Catholic online site which offers to present “the news of the world from a Catholic perspective.” Sure enough, it does present the news, including the news on Islam. But insofar as “perspective” means analyzing the meaning of events, there is very little perspective on Islamic violence. If the “trending stories” on the daily newsletter I receive from this site are any indication, most of the perspective is reserved for stories of the Ladies Home Journal variety. Here’s a sample of titles from a recent issue:
“A quest to build deeper friendships”
“How the Hays Code brought us the sensational screen kiss”
“10 pithy and potent quotes from Benedict XVI”
“The life-changing benefits of a good apology”
“Finding your daughter’s First Communion dress on a budget”
“How architecture affects your brain (reasons to spend more time at church or in a library)”
“A must-try French recipe: Cannelés de Bordeaux”
Some other recent stories include:
“My next tattoo”
“Eating through Mexico with Pope Francis”
“Learning to slow down and say no when anxiety hits”
“Scientists study the language of cats”
“Kobe Bryant formed and saved by his Catholic faith”
All well and good if this were still the 1950s and Islam were still a sleepy-time religion as it was in the days of King Farouk and the Shah of Iran. Such stories are the online equivalent of Cannelés de Bordeaux. They are comfort food for the mind. They reassure us that life will proceed as it always has. Of course, not all of the stories on Catholic media are of this nature. There is plenty of good, solid reporting and solid analysis on issues such as marriage, family, sexuality, religious liberty, same-sex “marriage,” and a host of other contemporary issues. Still, the scant attention paid to Islam leads the reader to conclude that nothing new and supremely dangerous has emerged on the world stage.
In other words, Catholic bloggers and journalists are still fighting yesterday’s battles without seeming to realize that we are in the midst of a new battle. Catholic writers are on top of the latest iterations of issues that have been with us for twenty years or more—secularism, relativism, the Sexual Revolution, abortion, gay rights, classroom indoctrination, religious liberty, Supreme Court decisions, media bias, and bioethical issues. These battles still need to be fought and, since we are losing most of them, they need to be fought even more vigorously. But that doesn’t let us off the hook of fighting the new battle that has been thrust upon us.
This new war is particularly insidious because much of it is being fought as a culture war. While focusing on the hot war of battlefield jihad, we tend to ignore the cold war of cultural jihad. Yet, at least in the West, it is the main front. And, ironically, the stealth jihadists have built on the victories of the secular and leftist culture warriors. For example, they benefit from the rules of political correctness laid down by their counterparts on the left. Thus, any attempt at analyzing or explaining Islam from a non-Islamic perspective is met with cries of “bigotry” and “Islamophobia.”
One of the chief aims of the Islamist culture warriors is to convince us that we must not draw any connection between violent jihad and Islam, and they have been remarkably successful in doing so. It now appears that the Bush administration was the victim of just such an influence operation by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The “tiny minority of extremists,” we were assured, had nothing to do with Islam, because, as President Bush took pains to instruct us on numerous occasions, “Islam” mean “peace.” But if President Bush was taken in, the Obama administration seems to have been all in from the start. Cultural jihadists were appointed to important government positions, and stealth jihad organizations such as CAIR, ISNA, and MAS were given virtual veto power over national security initiatives.
What concerns us here, however, is that the Catholic leadership seems to have been subjected to a similar influence operation. In particular, the USCCB’s ongoing friendly dialogues with ISNA may have compromised the bishops’ ability to look objectively at the Islamic problem. Many bishops here and also in Europe now subscribe to the proposition that violence has nothing to do with Islam—which is exactly what the cultural jihadists want them to believe. Not that the bishops needed much convincing. They were already predisposed by Nostra Aetate’s “opening to Islam” to think positive thoughts about the Muslim faith.
The Catholic media’s reluctance to examine the “why” of Islamic violence is in large part a reluctance to depart from the Church’s semi-official narrative about Islam—namely, that Islam shares much in common with Catholicism and that therefore Islamic violence can have nothing to do with Islam itself. Just as secular commentators tend to work within the narrative framework of the news organizations for which they work, so do Catholic journalists endeavor to operate within the bounds set by Church doctrine.
That makes sense when commenting on issues of faith and morals—issues on which the Church does speak with authority. It makes less sense, however, when it comes to analyzing the beliefs, practices, and values of another faith. This is a subject about which the Church, by necessity, speaks with less authority. It is also a subject on which the views of past saints and popes differ markedly from those of today’s Church leaders. It follows that Catholic writers should have more latitude when discussing Islam than when writing about, say, the nature of Christian marriage. Instead, Catholic journalists tend to limit themselves to repeating whatever the bishops are saying about Islam—which, in turn, is usually just an echo of what secular leaders say. So, when Catholics try their hand at explaining jihad, they tend to explain it in terms of poverty, oppression, ignorance, and even climate change. To the extent that Catholic journalists acknowledge the religious motivation for jihad, they hasten to add the politically correct caveat that jihad is a “perversion” of the Islamic faith.
Perhaps the reason that Catholic journalists, reporters, and bloggers have very little to say about Islam is because the Church also has very little to say on the subject. As it turns out, the foundations of the current Catholic narrative about Islam are built on a narrow base. The three main sources of the narrative are the Catholic Catechism and portions of Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate. If you add up the totality of what these documents say about Islam and Muslims, it amounts to little more than one-thirds of a page (even less when you consider that the Catechism merely repeats the short statement in Lumen Gentium).
The Vatican II statements on Islam seem to have been intended more as a gesture of interreligious outreach than as a precise theological formulation. After listing some commonalities between Christians and Muslims, Nostra Aetate issues a plea that Christians and Muslims “forget the past,” “work sincerely for mutual understanding,” and promote… “social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” The primary intention of the synod fathers was not to inform Catholics about Islam, but to assure Muslims of our friendship and our desire to get to know them better. In short, Nostra Aetate’s discussion of the Church’s relationship with the Muslims is only the beginning of a discussion that is meant to be continued. But there has never really been any continuation—not in the sense of any development of the Church’s understanding of Islam. What we have seen instead are merely variations on the theme of commonality.
Catholic writers have a separate vocation from bishops. They also have some advantages that bishops don’t always enjoy—such as the time and the talent for thoroughly researching a subject. They would serve the Church better if they sought to encourage bishops to expand their understanding of Islam and to think more deeply about it. Some, such as Fr. James Schall, S.J. are already doing that. Too many others, unfortunately, are merely parroting the “official” line, with the result that the knowledge gap about Islam never gets filled.
Make that the “dangerous” knowledge gap. The biggest story never told—the story about the magnitude of Islamic jihad and the motivation behind it—needs to be told. And soon. Islam has endured long periods of quiescence. But when it moves, it can move with surprising speed—as it did in the middle of the seventh century. Given the relative lack of resistance to armed jihad and, especially, to cultural jihad, followers of the prophet have good reason to believe that this may be one of those times.