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What the Popes Don’t Say About Islam

The politician who declares Islam a “religion of peace” almost certainly has no idea what he’s talking about. He makes the claim assuming that some Americans await the excuse to release their inner Islamophobe, which though true doesn’t settle the vexing question of what Islam is and where its beliefs lead. The popes have not been as helpful in answering the question as they might have been.

Genuine Religions

Most westerners assume that all religions are basically alike, not just in being oriented to the divine but in what they think that divine requires. (See here for more on this.) We take Christianity, and to a great extent Judaism, as the template. As Pope Benedict told Muslims in Cameroon in 2009, “genuine religion”

widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.

This describes Christianity, the religion we know, but whether it describes other religions is a question. We believe in this idea of genuine religion because we believe that God has told us certain truths through his Scriptures and his Church. Those who believe he has said other things through other sources—Muhammad would be one—may wind up with very different beliefs. They may reject the idea that reason purifies and structures religion, for example. One legitimate response to Benedict’s definition is that if this is genuine religion, Islam is not a genuine religion.

A religion might assert dogmas that lead to violence, oppression, hatred, or an unjust social order. A religion may be a crazy religion. That Islam is a religion does not mean that it is a faith and life that recognizes human dignity and leads to human flourishing. It may do so imperfectly, partly, or not at all. If it does so, it may do so for some but not everyone, for the insiders but not the outsiders.

The Second Vatican Council gave us in Nostra Aetate an optimistic description of Islam that does not answer concretely the question of what it believes and where those beliefs go. Indeed that section of the declaration begins “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” not Islam. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself,” it says, but someone might adore the one God and mishear most of what he’s said.

Islam and the Christian Template

Here—I don’t say this happily—the prudential judgments of recent popes seem to me over-optimistically to reflect the assumption that Islam is a religion fitting the Christian template. That is, at least, the natural reading. I will take Benedict as my example because he observed more of recent history than St. John Paul II and is less controversial (to some) than Francis, and because he has a mind of astonishing penetration and subtlety.

Here are a few examples, taken (as was the quote above) from the USCCB’s helpful collection of statements on Islam.

“Since the Second Vatican Council,” Benedict told the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2008, “attention has been focused on the spiritual elements which different religious traditions have in common. In many ways, this has helped to build bridges of understanding across religious boundaries.” He said that working together lets the different religions—including Islam—express their “highest ideals,” mentioning “helping the sick, bringing relief to the victims of natural disasters or violence, [and] caring for the aged and the poor.”

Benedict uses “highest” in the Christian sense. What if for Islam these are not its highest ideals or are only among its highest ideals? What if its highest ideals include the spread of Islam throughout the world, if necessary through forcible conversion and the oppression or killing of infidels and apostates? Suppose its highest ideals include the kind of sexually segregated society we see in Saudi Arabia?

Benedict’s Call

In a message to Muslims at the beginning of Ramadan in 2006, the pope called them to defend and promote “the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity. . . . [B]y recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.”

In another address to Muslims, he said that in pluralistic societies, “care must be taken to guarantee that the other is always treated with respect.” This respect

grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person as created by God. Such agreement does not limit the expression of individual religions; on the contrary, it allows each person to bear witness explicitly to what he believes, not avoiding comparison with other

What if Islam doesn’t recognize what as a Catholic Benedict sees as “the central character of the human person” and “the inviolable dignity of every single person”? The way Benedict puts this suggests that he is not sure they do, but the average reader will take the words as a statement that they believe this, just like Christians and Jews.

Benedict’s other remarks are of the same sort with the same apparent meaning. He doesn’t define Islam and much of what he says consists of appeals to Muslims to act like Christians without actually saying so. The effect is to present Islam as a religion understood through the Christian template, and not to consider whether its beliefs direct it to peace or to war, to freedom or to slavery, to equality or to oppression.

What Islam Is

Islam is the religion we need to understand at the moment. Some Muslims kill innocent people and a greater number wish innocent people to be killed. They’re also the religious group most likely to suffer harassment and abuse and to find themselves the targets of louts, fools, and demagogues (and demagogues who are also louts and fools).

Is Islam capable of growth into a modern universalistic religion like Christianity that respects the dignity and freedom of every human person in a pluralistic society? Or isn’t it? Or is substnatially shaped by the society in which it finds itself? Are Islamist terrorists the Muslim equivalent of the Christian inquisitors of the past, something the religion will outgrow, or are they something the religion itself creates? Are they are a perversion or a product of the religion? Are they in its DNA or are they a mutation that can’t long survive? Can it develop? Will it be universalized by modernity or directed by the natural law?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t have even enough knowledge to venture a very amateur opinion, and people I trust disagree on the matter. I’m not even sure how authoritative is what seems to me the papal assumption, since as far as I can find we have no Magisterial statement on the nature of Islam. But it’s a question that must be asked, difficult though the answer may be.

Further Reading:

The Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate

Benedict XVI’s Faith, Reason, and the University (his “Regensburg Lecture”)

The USCCB’s Vatican Council and Papal Statements on Islam

David Mills’ One Religion’s As Bad As Another

Pater Edmund Waldstein’s Fiction, or the Future of France?

John M. Owen IV and J. Judd Owen’s The Truth About an Islamic Enlightenment

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s Christians, Campaigns, and Collateral Damage

Robert P. George’s Muslims, Our Natural Allies


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Glenn Willard

    Thoughtful comments, David, with an emphasis on “almost” with respect to your first sentence. Regarding your penultimate sentence, do you recall this?: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Evangelii Gaudium, 253.

    • David Mills

      Thank you. I’ve read that encyclical several times and completely forgotten that line.

      • tmirus

        It’s nice, but as far as I know the Pope has no authority to decide what is the correct interpretation of the texts of *other religions*.

    • Darryl Harb

      Plenty of Muslims will disagree with the idea that the Pope has authority either to define “authentic Islam” or a “proper reading of the Koran.” What if the problem is not “mere” fundamentalism, but that something is fundamentally wrong? What weight has the Pope’s gassy good intentions within Islam, among the, you know, “true followers”?

      • Glenn Willard

        “The Church’s Pastors, in communion with the Successor of Peter, are close to the faithful in this effort; they guide and accompany them by their authoritative teaching, finding ever new ways of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will. The Second Vatican Council remains an extraordinary witness of this attitude on the part of the Church which, as an ‘expert in humanity’,5 places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.” Veritatis Splendor, 3. This expertise in humanity, by implication, includes her ability to see the authentic quest for God in the world’s religions (though “their efforts need to be enlightened and corrected”, Vatican Council II, Ad Gentes Divinitus, 2).

        • Darryl Harb

          All of which addresses no points I raise.

  • The comments are not thoughtful. They are demagogic and inflammatory. Takes no note of the many good Muslims and shows no knowledge of Islamic history. A totally repugnant article. Irresponsible also. Trump in disguise.

  • Richard Murray

    The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) actually advocate the Genocide of the native inhabitants of Canaan. (See the Book of Joshua, and Judges.) But we don’t hold this against our contemporary Jewish sisters and brothers, because we know that they are not fundamentalists, and that they see the deeper realities in the Biblical text. Today’s Jewish people are not racists, nor do they believe the violent, racist, supremacist parts of the much later Talmud. Right, David?

    And of course, the modern israelis practice no racism against the Palestinians. Right, David?

    However, not the same can be said for American foreign policy, which has been hijacked by the neocon zionists. We have destroyed Iraq, and in the resultant chaos, ISIS was formed.

    We also, through the newly formed CIA, destroyed the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. Yet, the zionist media says that it’s the people of the Middle East who are the savages.

    Last summer, when israel destroyed Gaza for the third time in 7 years, the israeli army dropped so many bombs on Gaza, that the U.S. had to lend them more bombs.

    Shifting gears, I’m doing some writing about mystical connections between the Book of Psalms (Hebrew Tehillim) and the Qur’an. Here’s a short essay, please let me know what you think:

    And downloadable:

  • NDaniels

    What Nostra Aetate does not say is that if you are not worshipping The Ordered, Communion of Perfect Love, The Holy of Holies, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, you are not worshipping The True God.
    Without a final authority, there can be no cohesiveness of belief, without a cohesiveness of belief, one cannot know for certain what a Religious Faith Group, in essence, believes in regards to the tenets of their Faith.

  • Thomas Storck


    I appreciate your thought-out article. It’s nice to read something by a Catholic on this subject which is neither uncritically laudatory nor fear-mongering.

    A few comments of my own, if I may.

    1. If one reads the Regensburg address of Pope Benedict, he will find some very apt remarks not just on Islam but on Protestantism as well. For it’s not the case that we can say either of Islam or of every form of Protestant Christianity that it rests “not only on principles of faith, but
    also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one
    another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and
    reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.” Both Islam and many forms of Protestantism definitely lack that commitment to reason and a rational faith.

    2. However, I regard it as absurd to claim that Muslims do not worship the one true God. Certainly they misunderstand aspects of his nature, but if someone claims to worship the infinite, ineffable, almighty Creator of the universe, as Muslims do – who is that except God? The doctrine of the Trinity is a revealed truth, and one can hardly expect those who do not accept the authority of the Church to acknowledge that truth. After all, does anyone claim that orthodox Jews do not worship God, although of course they do not acknowledge the Trinity?

    3. A few years ago I read the Koran twice – in two different translations – as well as some secondary works on Islam, and it seems to me that although some of the passages commonly cited as sanctioning violence toward non-Muslims are taken out of context, nevertheless there is an element of violence that is sanctioned and even advocated in the Koran that cannot be eliminated by any amount of reinterpretation. For example, Muhammad seems to have taken it for granted that military conquest would be one of the chief means of spreading his religion.

    Again, thank you for actually engaging in thinking about this topic.

    • NDaniels

      Thomas, The Catholic Church has always professed that God, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit Is, In Essence, A Communion of Perfect Love, and that The Eucharist Is The Source and Summit of our Catholic Faith.
      God Is Love. Love Exists in relationship. Love Is Trinitarian.

      • Thomas Storck

        Yes, of course, this is what God is. But aspects of God’s nature – e.g., his being a Trinity of Persons – cannot be known without revelation. If we take seriously the Church’s teaching that the existence of God can be known by human reason (taught both by St. Paul in Romans chap. 1, and by the First Vatican Council), then we have to recognize that there might be many who recognize that God exists, yet who do not realize that God exists as a Trinity of Persons.

        • Darren F.

          Hello Thomas Storck,
          What would be wrong with the following approach to the subject: those who affirm the existence of God and, while they do not know or affirm the Trinity, or, for some reason, have withheld assent from the Trinity – but have not actually rejected the Trinity – yes, such non-Christian persons affirm the true God.

          Very different from those who have actually denied the Trinity. When the Trinity has been openly, definitively rejected, that can no longer be an affirmation of the true God with some erroneous ideas, as one has categorically ruled out his Triune nature and has now started down the road of creating an alternate deity.

          • Thomas Storck

            “When the Trinity has been openly, definitively rejected, that can no
            longer be an affirmation of the true God with some erroneous ideas, as
            one has categorically ruled out his Triune nature and has now started
            down the road of creating an alternate deity.”

            Well, people can reject the Trinity for many reasons, and I don’t think that necessarily means they are rejecting God. In the case of Islam, there’s much misunderstanding, and perhaps a refusal to look carefully into the matter. But if you look at the literature of Islam, including the Koran, I think you’ll see that Muhammad never understood the doctrine of the Trinity. He thought the phrase “Son of God” referred to a son produced by God outside the Godhead. He did not realize that it meant “God the Son,” i.e., the divine Sonship within the Trinity.

          • Darren F.

            Thank you for the interesting input for me to consider. If you don’t mind, given I am a fan of your work, would you be willing to weigh in with your thoughts to my other post above?

        • NDaniels

          The Essence Of God Is Perfect Love.

        • NDaniels

          God cannot in essence Be and not be A Communion Of Perfect Love.

  • Darryl Harb

    Some interesting points, to be sure. But I’m not sure about this: ‘[Muslims are] also the religious group most likely to suffer harassment and abuse and to find themselves the targets of louts, fools, and demagogues (and demagogues who are also louts and fools). Where?

    • EPluribusUnum

      Per government statistics, that distinction (of being the object of hate crimes and abuse) belongs to the Jews, and it is not even close, at least in the US. I suspect that it is far worse in Europe.

  • Darren F.

    An interesting topic, but what jumps out at me is the assumption here about religion and Catholicism.

    The writer says the Catholicism of our time is the true Catholicism we have been working toward for 2,000 years: a modern religion that affirms freedom for everybody in a pluralist society, one where we write off inquisitors as an embarrassment from the past.

    Obviously most of Catholic history consisted of something very different. The Church not only did not call for freedom for all in a pluralist society, it officially condemned such ideas up until relatively recently.

    Are we to hold that Catholicism is the true faith, while abandoning a host of teachings, values and principles that informed it for some 1,500 years, because they are at odds with the novelties of the modern world? Isn’t Catholicism supposed to be shaping the world, not the other way around?

    I would suggest that any vision of Catholicism that holds that a couple of hundred of our popes sorely lacked the proper use of right reason and sufficient respect for human dignity, and were committing abusive persecution is a precarious one.

    • Thomas Storck


      Essentially I think you’re correct here, in that the Church has consistently taught for centuries that a Catholic society, and hence a Catholic political order are, all things considered, the best. As you probably know, at issue here is the correct interpretation of the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae. You may be familiar with my own efforts to interpret this document, as well as those of others. It represents an ongoing controversy. When you say, “Isn’t Catholicism supposed to be shaping the world, not the other way around?” – I entirely agree.

      • Darren F.

        Thank you for the reply. I do not think I have seen your DH material, and must look that up for my edification. I have been greatly disappointed by the DH interpretations I have read and increasingly am thinking this is a highly disturbing and suspect document.

        BTW, thank you for the Christendom to Americanism and Beyond book. Wonderful!

        • Thomas Storck

          Thank you for your kind words about the book.

  • NDaniels

    It is not Loving nor is it Merciful to desire that we remain in our sins.
    Only Christ’s Life, His Passion, His Death On The Cross, Has The Power Before God, The Blessed Trinity, To Take Away our sin, and Lead us to Salvation. The Sacrifice Of The Cross, Is The Sacrifice Of The Most Holy, “For God So Loved us, He Sent His Only Son…”
    To Love one another as Christ Loves us, is to desire Salvation for ourselves as well as others.
    “No one can come to My Father, except through Me.” – Jesus The Christ

  • melanie statom

    The suffering cross of Jesus has been turned on its side and used as a sword by Christians and non Christians alike throughout history. Violence committed in the name of God is not the Way revealed in Jesus Christ…the very nonviolent witness of his life and paschal mystery is the true stumbling block and challenge for all Christian and non-christian believers.

  • Rosemary58

    Recently read (perhaps at Catholic Herald?) that several Shi’ite mullahs are studying the various religions of the world, and that to facilitate this, they needed a translation into Farsi of the CCC – and they got it. It took about five years but after it was approved by the Vatican, they brought it home to study. This is an incredible event but even the mainstream Catholic media was not very interested.

    From the quotes above (and having read lots of Pope Benedict), I infer that he is putting a challenge to the Muslims, rather than imputing to their faith a certain commonality with Christianity. He does lots of that in his writing and speaking on other subjects, too. He’s pure stealth – and his intended audience has to be dense to not “get it”, but they are also hard pressed to be offended.

    • Darren F.

      Rosemary58 [and Ethika Politika], please excuse me if this post is a bit intemperate, I promise it will be the last one I submit for this article/thread.

      He’s pure stealth. Why would we ever think that is a compliment? We’re not supposed to be sly and sneaky and manipulative. We should be open, clear, and direct in our statements and witness to our faith.

      I have little doubt that the Iranian Shi’ite mullahs referenced in your post take their religious tenets and tradition more seriously than Pope Benedict XVI has taken Catholic tenets and tradition. Why do so many seem nonplussed about a pope who at one time seconded the call to raze the ‘old’ bastions of the Church to the ground? Who as pope referred to the official magisterial teaching of one of his predecessors – who had taught wholly in line with centuries of Catholic truth – as bitter and radical, teaching that he earlier as CDF cardinal declared we can never dare return to? Who on more than one occasion has applauded the secularized order of government that has taken over the West? Who has strongly indicated that we should not seek to bring Christ and the Church to Jews?

      Why should we assess Islam based upon Joseph Ratzinger’s understanding of religion, including his non-traditional deviations from Catholic truth and tradition? And if there are any number of Muslims who are not homicidal terrorists who disagree and resist this modernizing agenda, are they completely in the wrong?

      It would have been better had we been able to give the mullahs a Farsi version of the Catechism of Trent along with a compendium of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII.

      Thank you, Ethika Politika, for the opportunity to converse here.

      • Rosemary58

        Thank you, Darren, and I understand what you are saying. My use of the word “stealth” was meant to convey the sense that he got his message across in a way that was clear and resolute but hard to find offensive.

        And “stealth” in the sense that Benedict was likely working with the mullahs and members of the CDF to get the translation accomplished, but, who knew that?

        I was surprised to hear Pope Benedict talk about a pre-Vatican II Church as “ossified” but through further research, I have come to take off the rose-colored glasses and see that our Catholic theology (not dogma, of course) and hierarchy were in serious trouble before the Council. (Not enough space here to go into that.)

        Did Vatican II solve that? Not really but, among other things, it acted (unwittingly, for sure!) as a winnowing fan. We have seen that the chaff separated pretty quickly from the wheat to make for a very small Church in Europe and the Americas. But the battle-scarred remnant is hanging in – the the road is narrow and is not for the faint of heart.

        To see how far we’ve come, do read John W. O’Malley’s “Trent: What Happened At The Council”, to really appreciate what a mess we were in. It is a grace that we are here at all. I know that’s not much comfort to you but you will see how there are issues we are facing to day that were never settled at Trent – issues like the power struggle between the pope and bishops has been on-going, still not settled today! It’s a demanding read, a horror story, really, with bits of relief in between.

        God bless you.