The cancellation of Robert Spencer's talk and Catholic naivete about Islam.
Catholic bishops in America and Europe may be setting themselves up for a new scandal—one of far greater proportions than the sex abuse scandals and one with potentially far more serious consequences. Like the sex scandals, this scandal also involves a cover-up, although a cover-up of a different kind. The new scandal also contains some ironies. In trying to avoid the kind of negative media attention that came with the last scandal, the bishops are inadvertently entangling themselves further in the building scandal. Another irony is that they needn’t worry about an adversary press attacking them for their handling of the new scandal because the mainstream media is thoroughly implicated in the same cover-up. Indeed, the media’s cover-up of the crisis is far more widespread and is often deliberate, whereas the “cover-up” by Catholic leaders is largely unintentional.
The scandal in regard to the bishops lies in their failure to accurately inform their flocks of the nature of Islam and, hence, of the dangers from Islam. The “cover-up” lies in minimizing the large gap that divides Islam from Christianity. Despite the massive persecution of Christians by Muslims acting in the name of Islam, the majority of the bishops seem intent on preserving the notion that Islam is our friend, a fellow religion with which we share much in common. The bishops have managed to convey the impression that our quarrels with Islam lie mostly in the past and that our minor differences can be worked out through dialogue so that we can work together for the common good.
Much of this Islam-friendly attitude can be traced back to two statements on the Church’s relationship with Muslims that were promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium states that the “plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst who are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” The statement in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, is slightly longer and adds a few more similarities between Catholics and Muslims, namely that both “revere” Jesus, “honor Mary,” and “value the moral life.” The statement ends by urging all to forget the quarrels of the past and to work “for mutual understanding.”
If these documents were understood as they were intended and within the context in which they were written, there might be less of a problem today. In the 1960s when the documents were composed, the Muslim world was far more moderate than it has been before or since and more open to Western ideas, and so a gesture of friendship seemed appropriate. Moreover, the Council Fathers were not attempting to lay out a definitive explication of Islam. For example, the task that the writers of Nostra Aetate set themselves was “to consider what men have in common and what draws them to friendship.” Accordingly, the declaration lists a handful of commonalities between Muslim beliefs and Christian beliefs. To list the differences would have been contrary to the spirit of the document.
Unfortunately, many Catholics have taken this tentative gesture of engagement toward Muslims to be the Church’s final word on the subject of Islam. But when one looks deeper into the matter, it becomes apparent that the Muslim understanding of God, Abraham, Jesus, Mary, and the moral life is quite different from the Catholic understanding. For example, the Koran curses Christians both for saying that Allah is one of three in a trinity, and also for claiming that Jesus is the Son of God. It also mistakenly assumes that, in Christian belief, Mary is one of the Trinity. On inspection, it is only in the broadest sense that one can speak of commonalities. Beneath the surface similarities runs a deep fault line—or, as Robert Spencer puts it in a forthcoming book, a “great chasm.”
Spencer’s treatment at the hands of the Diocese of Worcester provides some insights into the problems that the bishops are creating for themselves by not acknowledging the substantial differences between Islam and Christianity. Spencer, a Catholic and a leading authority on Islam, was invited to speak to a Catholic men’s conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, on March 16; however, when Muslim groups protested that Spencer was a “hatemonger,” Bishop Robert McManus withdrew the invitation. Moreover, he failed to respond to Spencer’s request for a meeting to answer the charges against him.
Spencer also says he has received several reports that part of the pressure applied to the diocese came from a Boston Globe reporter, Lisa Wangsness, who, says Spencer, was working behind the scenes to engineer a cancellation. Although the bishop denies having bowed to pressure, the Boston Globe’s interest in the lecture may have weighed as heavily on his mind as the complaints from Muslim organizations. It was the Boston Globe, after all, that broke the sex abuse story in 2002. With the long shadow of that earlier scandal still looming, Catholic leaders in Massachusetts might understandably want to avoid the kind of media publicity that would ensue should they invite a “hatemonger” and “Islamophobe” to speak about Islam.
In a letter to the diocese defending his action, the bishop quotes the brief statement in Lumen Gentium which, he writes, “speaks about the special relationship that Christianity has for Islam.” He continues:
As a result of such a theologically salient statement, the Catholic Church has engaged herself in inter-religious dialogue with Muslims. This dialogue has produced a harvest of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation throughout the world and here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Bishop then goes on to say that his decision to disinvite Spencer was based “solely on the concern that Mr. Spencer’s talk would impact negatively on the Church’s increasingly constructive dialogue with Muslims.” So, in sum, Lumen Gentium made possible a fruitful dialogue which Spencer’s appearance might undermine. But in light of the fact that persecution of Christians by Muslims has increased dramatically in the last decade—a decade in which dialogue with Muslims has multiplied—it is difficult to imagine just what this “harvest of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation” might consist of. The bishop doesn’t say.
In deciding not to scandalize Muslims, however, the bishop may only end up scandalizing his own flock—or, at least, some of them. While not a member of the Worcester Diocese, Doctor Archietto Ashraf Ramelah is a member of the worldwide community of Christians and president of the Coptic human rights organization Voice of the Copts. He is familiar with Spencer’s work and he is scandalized at the cancellation. On hearing of the Worcester incident, he sent a letter to the pope voicing his concern. In his letter, he expresses his bewilderment at how often Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches seemed “uninterested in offering us opportunities to speak out on the dangers of what lies behind the persecution of Christians and Jews.” He attributes the indifference to an unwillingness to hear any facts about Islam that conflict with the received narrative or that might jeopardize dialogue. And he pleads with the pope to take action to lift the curtain of silence that shelters Islam from honest examination.
According to a Newsweek story, about 200,000 Christian Copts were forced to flee their homes during the year of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt. For someone like Dr. Ramelah, the discrepancy between what Church leaders say about Islam and the reality in North Africa is painfully apparent. But even ordinary Catholics in ordinary places like Worcester are sooner or later going to come to the conclusion—if only from watching the streaming headlines at the bottom of their TV screens—that Islam is not a peaceful religion and that it is not at all like the Catholic faith. When the chasm that divides Islam and Christianity becomes more evident to these ordinary Catholics, the credibility of the Church may once again come into question. As I wrote in my recent book on the subject:
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?”
Scandal in the strict sense is an attitude or behavior which leads another into a grave offense. We usually think of it in terms of licentious behavior, but according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, scandal can also be provoked by “fashion or opinion.” The Catechism notes that “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.” In the wake of the abuse scandals in Massachusetts, many Catholics lost their faith, or, at least, stopped attending Mass. This occurred not only because of the scandalous behavior of some priests but also and primarily because these Catholics came to the conclusion that the Church was untrustworthy. The Church in Ireland experienced a similar fall-off. Eighty-two percent of Irish Catholics attended Mass weekly in 1981; by 2012 the figure was 35 percent. A good chunk of this decline had to do with the rapid secularization of Ireland in the last few decades, but the revelations of abuse cover-ups seem to have accelerated the trend.
As more Catholics become aware of the realities of Islamic teachings and practices, it will surely test their faith to hear the bishops persist in speaking of our “special relationship” with Islam. For many, this will be not merely a matter of anger but also of despair at the thought that Church leaders are enabling the spread of a system that has always subjugated Christians whenever it had the power to do so.
Indeed, the very dialogue which Bishop McManus sees as so promising may turn out to be simply one of many stepping stones that Muslim activists use to secure dominance in the West. Consider a recent series of Catholic-Muslim dialogues sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops’ dialogue partners were all prominent figures in Muslim activists groups with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and with other questionable associations. One of the bishops’ counterparts was Sayyid Syeed, the National Director for the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)—a group that was designated in 2008 as an unindicted co-conspirator in a massive terrorist funding case. One of the two keynote speakers was Jamal Badawi, also a member of ISNA, and a defender of suicide bombers, whom he has described as “martyrs.” The co-chair with Bishop Carlos Sevilla was Muzammil Siddiqi, a member of the Fiqh Council on North America, an organization which numbers among its original trustees one Abdurahman Alamoudi, who is now serving a twenty three-year sentence for financing an assassination attempt on the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Another of the bishops’ dialogue partners was Talat Sultan of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). In October, Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal announced that it would bring war crimes charges against Ashrafuzzam Khan, a formed president and secretary general of the ICNA.
So, on the one hand, the Bishop of Worcester deems Robert Spencer to be unfit to speak to Catholic men, but on the other hand, at the USCCB plenary session in Chicago, the bishops were “sharing stories, praying, and enjoying meals together” with representatives of organizations whose ties to radical groups have been established by U.S. courts. It may be that the representatives of these political activist groups are pursuing dialogue with Catholics because they sincerely desire that “harvest of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation” that Bishop McManus speaks of. But another possibility should be considered, namely that the Muslims are using the dialogues primarily for legitimizing themselves and Islam. In other words, the dialogues provide a sort of cover for the Islamists. Muslim activists can plausibly point to their warm relations with the bishops as proof that they cannot be the agents of subversion that others say they are. Moreover, cultivating dialogue with Catholic leaders is a handy way of keeping the majority of Catholics off their guard. As long as prominent Catholic leaders are enthusiastic about their dialogues with Muslims, the average Catholic is likely to conclude that the Church is okay with Islam and that, therefore, there really isn’t any cause for worry.
Here we come back to the issue of scandal. If, because of the bishops’ stance on Islam, many Catholics are led to adopt an attitude of dangerous complacency in the face of a rising threat to their Church and their society, that would seem to qualify as a form of scandal. Other Catholics who are better informed about Islam will suffer a more immediate impact. The discrepancy between what Islam actually teaches and what some bishops seem to think it teaches will shake their confidence in the bishops and may even shake their faith. This will be particularly the case for Mid-Eastern and African Christians living in the West who are acutely aware of the persecution visited on Christians in the name of Allah. The Church’s Islamic outreach will also likely have an adverse effect on a group with which Catholics really do share much in common. Some evangelical leaders share the bishops’ penchant for endless dialogue, but on the whole, evangelical Christians are more savvy about Islam than the average Catholic. And the knowledge that some Catholic leaders are lending legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to sit well with them. The tendency to dismiss Catholicism as a throwback to the Middle Ages will grow rather than lessen. In other words, the bishop’s dalliance with Islam may have the unintended effect of disaffecting the very people with whom we have the best chance of forming an alliance against secularism—and, for that matter, against the spread of Islamic totalitarianism.
But what about Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate? Bishop McManus cites Lumen Gentium as justification for canceling Spencer’s talk, and the USCCB website repeatedly cites Nostra Aetate as justification for its dialogues with Muslims. As it happens, Spencer’s forthcoming book discusses both documents in detail and explains the many problems that result from an unconsidered interpretation of what they say. Take, for example, the problematic statement in Lumen Gentium affirming that “together with us they [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God.” Although there are some respects in which it can be said that we (Muslims and Catholics) worship the same God, in many other respects, as Spencer points out, the Koran’s depiction of God is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian understanding of God. Indeed, the capricious and despotic nature of God as portrayed in Islamic theology “casts the very goodness of God in doubt.” Similar problems arise when one tries to read too much into Nostra Aetate. For example, while it’s true that Muslims “revere” Jesus, it’s not at all clear that he is the same Jesus Christians revere. The Koran not only recasts Jesus as a Muslim prophet, it takes every opportunity to use him to deny the central claims of Christianity—the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Nostra Aetate goes on to say that “they [Muslims] value the moral life.” But anyone familiar with the tenets of sharia law knows that many of the values espoused by Islam are completely at odds with Christian values. Among other things, sharia (which is based in large part on the example of Muhammad) allows for polygamy, child brides, easy divorce, honor killings, amputation for thieves, and the murder of apostates.
The Vatican II documents that deal with the beliefs of Muslims can be looked upon primarily as gestures of interreligious outreach or they can be looked upon as the Church’s definitive statement on the nature of Islam. But those who opt for the second reading are setting themselves up for a fall. Robert Spencer is not the only one who thinks that it may be time for a reappraisal of our relationship with Islam. In October on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, L’Osservatore Romano published an essay by Pope Benedict XVI reflecting on the council. In his essay, he praises Nostra Aetate for its openness to non-Christian religions but he also observes that a “weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged. It speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms or religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance; for this reason the Christian faith, from the outset, adopted a critical stance towards religion, both internally and externally.” Benedict doesn’t identify these “sick and distorted” forms of religion, but in the context of other remarks in the essay, it seems likely he is referring to Islam or, at least, to some manifestations of Islam. He also suggests that it’s not wise to regard religion as always a positive thing. The Church must sometimes adopt “a critical stance toward religion.”
Could the pope be calling for a more balanced and critical approach to Islam now that we have a better perspective on Islam in action? And is it now time for the “weakness” in Nostra Aetate to be rectified? Christ instructed his apostles to be as “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Judging by their benign view of Islam, many Catholics have mastered the “innocent as doves” part. It may be time for them to pay more attention to the “wise as serpents” side of the equation. As the cardinals consider their choice for a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, they should take care that he is not innocent about Islam.
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