I’ve almost finished writing my twelfth book, Not Peace But A Sword, about the differences in theology, law, ethics, morality, philosophy and more between Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, and Islam. It should be out in the summer or fall. (A note for the dull literalists and predators among the Leftists and Islamic supremacists who read the site hunting for ammo: the title is figurative.) When I speak to Catholic audiences, the primary objection to the truths I enunciate is a misconception of what the Second Vatican Council says about Muslims. So I examine those statements today in Crisis Magazine:
…That is all that Vatican II is really saying about Muslims: they”re monotheists, they say they belong to the religion of Abraham, and they revere Jesus, but not as the Son of God, and His Blessed Mother.
The tone is very different, but not much in terms of substance is added in earlier Church statements on Muslims and Islam. And as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, Vatican II is not a super-council that supersedes all previous Church teaching; rather, its teachings must be understood in light of tradition. When it comes to Islam, the consistent focus in earlier statements about Islam is generally not on what Muslims believe, but on Islam as a heresy, and on the hostility of Muslims to Christians and Christianity. In that vein, Pope Benedict XIV in 1754 reaffirmed an earlier prohibition on Albanian Catholics giving their children “Turkish or Mohammedan names” in baptism by pointing out that not even Protestants or Orthodox were stooping so low: “none of the schismatics and heretics has been rash enough to take a Mohammedan name, and unless your justice abounds more than theirs, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”
Pope Callixtus III, in a somewhat similar spirit, in 1455 vowed to “exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.” Neither this statement nor that of Lumen Gentium rise to the level of a dogmatic definition, but is it possible for Islam to be a “diabolical sect” that at the same time adores the “one and merciful God”? Certainly, for it is always possible that their adoration of the one and merciful God may be wrongly directed, marred by wrong emphases and outright falsehoods.
Nonetheless, many Catholics would argue that the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III (and others like them from other popes) reflect a very different age from our own, and that Vatican II”s statements reflect a more mature spirit, as well as the charity toward others that Christians should properly exhibit. And that may well be so, although it must be noted that even though they are only fifty years old, the statements of Vatican II on Islam reflect the outlook of a vanished age no less than do those of the earlier popes. For in the 1960s, secularism and Westernization were very much the order of the day in many areas of the Islamic world. It was, for example, unusual in Cairo in the 1960s to see a woman wearing a hijab, an Islamic headscarf mandated by Muhammad’s command that a woman when appearing in public should cover everything except her face and hands. Now, on the other hand, one may walk down the streets of the same city and be surprised to see a woman who is not so attired.
This change has not been solely external. The hijabs in Cairo are but one visible sign of a revolution that has swept the Islamic world, or more properly, a revival. Islamic values have been revived, including not only rigor in dress codes but also a hostility toward Western ideas and principles. The “Arab Spring” uprisings have led to a reassertion of the political aspects of Islam, as opposed to Western political models, all across the Middle East. Western ideas of democracy and pluralism that were fashionable in elite circles all over the Islamic world in the first half of the twentieth century have fallen into disrepute.
One consequence of all this is that the Islamic world that the Fathers of Vatican II had in mind is rapidly disappearing. The words of Vatican II on Muslims must be accorded the respect that all Church teaching merits, and obeyed to the degree that obedience is owed to all magisterial statements. These statements must be evaluated, however, within the context of their times. The documents of Vatican II are no less a product of their age than the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III are a product of theirs. Just as the age of crusading knights has vanished, so also the age of a dominant secular West striding confidently into what it terms the “modern” age is rapidly vanishing. This is not to devalue or denigrate the Council in any way, but simply to see it as what it is, no more, no less: an enunciation of certain eternal truths, to be sure, but within the context of a number of unexamined and yet decisively influential core beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the world and of mankind.
Ultimately, while it may always be the Christian’s responsibility to reach out with respect and esteem to Muslims, the hostility that the Islamic world had always displayed toward Christendom was never less in evidence than it was in the 1960s, and so a statement of friendship was never more appropriate, either before or since. That situation does not prevail today, a fact that has a great many implications for the prospects for dialogue as well: Western-minded Muslims who have a favorable attitude toward the Catholic Church no longer have nearly the influence among their coreligionists that they once had, at least in the Islamic world.
That is not to say, however, that we have returned to the world of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III, when Catholics understood that Mohammedanism, as it was then popularly styled (to the indignation of Muslims themselves) was a heresy, steeped in falsehood and perhaps even diabolical, and dedicated to the destruction of the Church and the conversion or subjugation of Christians. We are centuries away, and separated by chasms of cultural assumptions, from the world in which it was even possible to think of one’s faith as having enemies and needing to be defended. Catholics of the modern age have long assumed that that world was gone forever, and there is some reason to believe that it is indeed.
But with Muslim persecution of Christians escalating worldwide, there is also considerable evidence that that rough old world is returning, and may never have been as far away as it seemed to be.