What’s the Church’s relationship with Islam?

| February 4, 2020 | 0 Comments

Sadia Tarannum, right, of the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth, talks with parishioners at St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove, including Ann O’Connor, left, wife of Deacon Kevin O’Connor, who gave a presentation at the start of a Jan. 26, 2017, event, Muslim-Christian Conversation.

Scholar: Church urges Catholics to engage in dialogue, cooperation with Muslims on peace and social justice issues

Lonsdale priest Father Nick VanDenBroeke apologized Jan. 29 after remarks he had made in a homily about Muslim immigration and Islam being “the greatest threat in the world” sparked national controversy. “My homily on immigration contained words that were hurtful to Muslims. I’m sorry for this,” said VanDenBroeke, pastor of Immaculate Conception, in a statement. “I realize now that my comments were not fully reflective of the Catholic Church’s teaching on Islam.” In a separate statement, Archbishop Bernard Hebda noted he had spoken with Father VanDenBroeke Jan. 29 and reiterated that the Catholic Church holds Muslims in esteem, quoting Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.

To further explore the relationship between the Catholic Church and Islam, The Catholic Spirit interviewed Rita George-Tvrtkovic´, an associate professor of theology at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. She specializes in medieval and contemporary Christian-Muslim relations. Her books include “A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq: Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam” (Brepols, 2012); “Christians, Muslims and Mary: A History” (Paulist Press, 2018); and a co-edited volume, “Nicholas of Cusa and Islam: Polemic and Dialogue in the Late Middle Ages” (Brill, 2014). She earned her PhD at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and is the former associate director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

George-Tvrtkovic´ will be speaking at the University of St. Thomas Feb. 18 on “What Muslims Can Teach Catholics about Christianity.” The Catholic Spirit received her responses via email. They are edited for length and clarity.

Q. What does the Church teach in general about Islam?

Rita George-Tvrtkovic´

A. The basis for all Catholic relationships with Muslims today is the Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate” (“On the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions,” 1965). The document’s introduction says that “the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in (other) religions” and encourages interreligious dialogue in general, but it also has two sections devoted to Judaism and Islam in particular.

Section 3 on Islam says that the Church regards Muslims “with esteem” and outlines areas of theological agreement (that God is creator, merciful, powerful, revealer; that Christians and Muslims believe in judgment and resurrection of the body; that they have similar practices such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and that they revere some of the same figures, such as Mary).

Areas of disagreement are also mentioned, the most prominent being how Christians and Muslims understand Jesus (Christians believe he is the Son of God, while Muslims consider him a prophet). Section 3 ends with a plea to engage in dialogue and cooperation with Muslims on peace and social justice issues. Since Christians and Muslims are the largest and second largest religions in the world, respectively, it seems especially urgent for our planet that Christians answer this call to collaborate for the common good.

Q. Did Vatican II change the Church’s relationship with Islam? Why?

A. “Nostra Aetate” is the first positive Catholic “theology of Islam” at the highest level of Church authority — an ecumenical council (Vatican II). The document explicitly “exhorts” all Catholics, not just experts, to engage in dialogue and cooperation with Muslims. (The Vatican later outlined four areas of interreligious dialogue: the dialogue of theology, of religious experience, of social action and of life. Every Catholic can engage in the dialogue of life.) 

But it’s also worth noting that there are many examples of Christians in history who engaged positively with Islam, including Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who incorporated philosophical dialogues with Muslim scholars such as Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina into his “Summa Theologiae” and other writings); Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464), whose critique of the Qur’an includes a serious engagement with its statements about Mary and Jesus, which he assesses positively); and Riccoldo da Montecroce (d. 1320), a Dominican who lived in Baghdad for a decade, learned Arabic and studied Islam with Muslims. Even though Riccoldo was critical of aspects of Islam, he also praised Muslims for their studiousness, devotion to prayer, generosity in almsgiving and hospitality to strangers.

Louis Massignon (d. 1962) is another important Catholic figure who influenced the development of the Church’s approach to Islam. Massignon was a French Catholic and scholar of Islam who coined the term “Abrahamic faiths” and who taught many of the framers of “Nostra Aetate.”  He also founded, along with an Egyptian Christian colleague Mary Kahil, a Christian-Muslim dialogue group called Badaliya, long before Vatican II. The Church’s engagement with Islam in history has thus been complicated, and it varies greatly depending on time and place. One cannot generalize.

Q. What does the Church’s relationship with Islam look like today on more concrete levels? Are there areas of good interfaith dialogue or collaboration?

iSTOCK | SEDMAK A painting in Cordoba, Spain, of St. Francis preaches before Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil near Damietta, Egypt. Last year marked the 800th anniversary of the encounter. At a November 2019 conference on the subject at The Catholic University of America, scholars said the future saint witnessed peacefully and his subsequent writings reveal the meeting had a profound impact on his life, according to Catholic News Service.

A. There are many examples of positive Christian-Muslim relations between ordinary Catholics and Muslims all over our country and the world; unfortunately, they don’t often make the news. Just one example is  a Catholic-Muslim women’s dialogue group that has been meeting weekly for the past 20 years in Bridgeview, Illinois; the women are parishioners at St. Fabian’s Catholic Church and members of the nearby Mosque Foundation. These women know  each other well, as they are not only sisters in faith but neighbors and friends.  There are also countless Christian-Muslim student dialogues on college campuses, which include not only friendly conversations but also joint social justice projects. There are scholarly dialogues, such as one between Catholic and Muslim professors that have been meeting twice a year for several years and is sponsored by The Catholic University of America and John Carroll University in Cleveland. There are also official dialogues sponsored by the Catholic Church, such as the National Catholic-Muslim  Dialogue, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and various national Islamic organizations.

Q. What is your response to Catholics who think that Islam should not be esteemed, since it does not share the Catholic belief that Christ is God?

A. Christianity is the only religion that believes Jesus Christ is the son of God. My point is that Islam is not unique in this; Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others also do not believe Christ to be divine. Yet Muslims and Christians can and should have fruitful conversations about their different beliefs about Jesus; we should not shy away from differences, for often the best theological learning occurs when we examine our disagreements. Aside from Jesus, the Muslim view of God is similar to Christian views in many ways. As I noted above, “Nostra Aetate” lists some of these attributes. (We agree that God is one, living, merciful, all-powerful, speaks to humans, will judge us, etc.)

Interreligious dialogue should include a discussion of both differences and similarities; for this often will lead you to learn more about your own faith. Indeed, a Christian who is asked by a Muslim to explain the Trinity will certainly need to study and reflect on his or her own understanding of this important doctrine. Furthermore, when Catholics get to know individual Muslims (since there is no such thing as dialogue between “Christianity and Islam” but only between individual Christian and Muslim believers), they might be surprised to see how devoted Muslims are in praying five times a day, in fasting during Ramadan and in giving alms. They might be inspired to live out their own Catholic faith more fervently, to pray more, to be more charitable. Concrete encounters with Muslims will dispel fear and  ignorance, and can lead to respect of them and a deepening  of one’s own faith. The biblical scholar Krister Stendahl called this “holy envy.”

Q. What about people’s fears that Islam is a religion of violence and promotes the killing of Christians?

A. This is an important question, and to answer it I will begin with Rule No. 4 of Dr. Leonard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue,” the ground rules for interreligious dialogue. Rule No. 4 states, “We must not compare our ideals with our partner’s practice but, rather, our ideals with our partner’s ideals, our practice with our partner’s practice.”

What that means is that Christians in 21st century America should compare Islamic terrorists who incorrectly cite religion to justify what they do (but who are a minority and who are condemned by the vast majority of Muslims as un-Islamic) to white supremacists who also cite religion to justify what they do (who are also a minority and are condemned by the vast majority of Christians as un-Christian). These are all examples of “practice” in the sense that religion has often been distorted and harnessed by supposed believers to justify immoral purposes. No religion is immune from this. Catholics who are at all self-critical about their own religion will note that Catholics who spoke out against slavery and Jim Crow were in the minority, not majority. The history of all religions shows a disparity between ideals and practice.

Likewise, if we want to compare ideals, then we should compare Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions to be merciful, loving and generous. Countless examples of such ideals can be found in both scriptures; for example there is a verse in the Qur’an which says “killing a single soul is like killing all of humanity.” Because we are human, there have always been Christians and Muslims who fail to live up to these ideals. But there are also many who have lived up to them. Just as Catholics have saints (both canonized and everyday saints) to admire, so too do Muslims have many examples of “friends of God” they revere for their holiness and good works.

Q. So, what can Muslims teach Catholics about Christianity?

A. Benedictine University’s student body is exceedingly diverse: We are around 50% Catholic, 25% Muslim, plus many others (Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Hindus, Sikhs, “nones,” etc.). So every theology class I teach is an opportunity for interreligious dialogue. And what is interesting is that not only do non-Christians learn about Christianity, but quite often, Catholics — both nominal and catechized — learn something about Christianity too, and not only from me, but also from their non-Christian classmates. For example, nominal (“in name only”) Catholics may have heard about fasting but haven’t tried it. So when we discuss Christian fasting in class and they hear a Muslim peer talk about Islamic fasting, nominals might be encouraged to examine it in their own tradition. Or when we read the Rule of St. Benedict on obedience and humility, my Muslim students often seem to understand the “theological rationale” behind these virtues, and are able to translate them for their Catholic peers. Even knowledgeable Catholics have gained insights into Christian concepts (for example, the suffering of Christ in the writings of Julian of Norwich) via their Muslim classmates. In short, when Muslims and Christians study Christian texts together, Muslim students are often able to get Catholics to look at Christianity with fresh eyes.


Learn more

“What Muslims Can Teach Catholics about Christianity” 
Second Annual Terence Nichols Memorial Symposium featuring Rita George-Tvrtkovic´

7 p.m. Feb. 18
McNeely Hall, room 100
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul Campus
2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul

Free and open to the public

Sponsored by St. Thomas’ theology department’s “Theological Encounters Program: Encountering Islam” in collaboration with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning

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