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'In our time': Francis moves beyond Nostra Aetate

Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.

In our time

Fifty years ago, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council published Nostra Aetate (“In our time”), which spoke in new ways about the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, including Islam. This document was prompted by the important events of that era, when the world was coming to grips with the reality of the Holocaust and the increased interaction between people of different faiths. In his exhortation, Francis responds to the signs of our own time—the issues and events that are salient for Catholics and Muslims today.

Francis begins his three hundred-word discussion of Islam by highlighting the phenomenon of increased Muslim immigration to Europe. No doubt aware of the challenges and prejudices faced by Muslims in Europe, Francis writes that “we Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” His visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island where many African immigrants make landfall, indicated his own personal concern about the plight of refugees—including non-Christians. Yet, Francis describes the situation in Europe in overly idealistic terms—saying, “they can freely worship and become fully a part of society”(252) —seeming to understate the impact of often-racist policies that keep Muslim immigrants confined to ghettos and low-paying jobs.

Francis also addresses the recent spike in persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries: “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”(253) This statement is only one of many he’s made on the plight of Christians—and all those suffering—in the Middle East. 

Francis also discusses the “forms of fundamentalism on both sides” (251), which have led not only to indiscriminate Islamic terrorism against Christians and Muslims, but also the slandering and scapegoating of Muslims in the West. He asks that Christians should “avoid hateful generalisations” about Muslims, explaining that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (253). Francis is telling Catholics how they should understand and interpret Islam, discrediting some Catholics who argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and also appears to be a subtle way of undoing the damage caused by remarks about Islam made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2006. When Benedict quoted a fourteenth-century emperor who said, “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” he offended many Muslims, who perceived his quote as an attack on their faith.  If Benedict was, in fact, proposing that Islam justifies violence, Francis’ strongly worded statement is a corrective to that.

Re-affirming Vatican II

Pope Francis’ exhortation echoes Vatican II’s comments on Islam, and specifically quotes Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s principal document: “[Muslims] profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day” (16).

Vatican II asserted that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God, though we believe different things about the divine. Nostra Aetate speaks of Muslims’ reverence for Jesus and Mary (who they also believe to be a virgin); their commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and their belief in the day of judgment. Francis’ exhortation reaffirms the teaching of Vatican II, mentioning many of the same points.

Like the Vatican II documents, Francis’s piece leaves out any mention of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. It may initially seem curious that the Church would refrain from referencing Islam’s most important figure. The Church, conscious of its past tone of condemnation, is intentional about highlighting what unifies, not what divides. The authors of the Vatican II documents chose not to write about doctrinal issues like the divinity of Jesus or Muhammad’s prophethood. But this choice to highlight the commonalities is not just a question of political correctness; it is also a question of theology. There are aspects of Islam which are, in fact, “rays of Truth,” pieces that contribute to God’s plan of salvation for all people. In an article called “Nostra Aetate and the Questions It Chose to Leave Open,” Father Daniel Madigan, a Jesuit and scholar of Islam, explains further why particular questions about Islam were not addressed in the Vatican II document.

Going beyond previous teaching

Madigan’s article also talks about two other questions that Nostra Aetate left out: Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, and the religion itself (it talks about Muslims as people, but not about Islam). Francis’ exhortation specifically references both issues, demonstrating how the Church’s understanding of Islam has progressed in the fifty years since Nostra Aetate.

Referencing the Qur’an by name, Francis writes that “the sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings” (252), something that many Catholics may be unaware of. Not only are Abraham, Jesus, and Mary important in Islam, but so are many other figures including Moses, Noah, Adam, Isaac and Ishmael. The Qur’an, which is a compilation of the revelations God made known to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, assumes its readers are familiar with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Christianity’s message of mercy is at the core of Islam, as are the ideals of equality, justice, and peace. Francis specifically mentions the core value of mercy: “They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.” (252) By talking about the how the Qur’an “retain[s] some Christian teachings” and then highlighting those similarities, Francis is pointing out more “rays of Truth” than Nostra Aetate did.

Francis also talks specifically about Islam as a religion, as opposed to simply its people. He says that we must “sustain dialogue with Islam,” (253) and, as I described before, he makes a huge step by saying that “authentic Islam” is non-violent.

Francis is not the first pope to discuss both the Qur’an and Islam. His predecessors (Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI) also spoke about the Qur’an and Islam and the latter two wrote on doctrinal questions. These popes’ statements on Islam do not have the authority of a council document like Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, but they do indicate that Catholic reflection and scholarship on Islam has developed considerably and could likely be updated in a future document of greater authority. (You can read previous papal and Vatican statements on Islam here.)

Finding 'rays of Truth'

In his now-unsurprising style, Francis approaches Islam with charity and openness, a posture that his order, the Jesuits, are also known for. He expresses his admiration for Muslims’ devotion and practices—“it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services” (252)—seeming to signal to his Catholic readers that they should look to Muslims as an example of how to increase their prayer. Francis is impressed by the frequency and fervor of Islamic prayer just as his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was when he encountered Muslims and subsequently added more frequent prayer into the rules for his religious order.

Francis’ most moving line is one that at once explains Islam’s core meaning to Catholic readers and also reveals the deep similarity Muslims and Christians share. He writes, “Many [Muslims] also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God” (252). This is a beautiful rephrasing or reinterpretation of what “Islam” means. The word comes from the Arabic root for “peace,” and means “submission” of one’s whole being to God. Francis is noting that just like Christians, Muslims understand their life to be a gift from God that is used for his service.

Francis’ writing on Islam reminds us that spreading the joy of the Gospel isn’t about simply about proselytizing or conversion. Rather, telling the Good News is about encountering the Love of God and pointing it out, even when it appears in unexpected places. Francis challenges us to see that Love, those “rays of Truth,” in Islam, too.


Update: The author would like to make two additional notes.

In 2006, then-Cardinal Bergoglio expressed disapproval of Pope Benedict's comment on the Prophet Muhammad. He said, "Pope Benedict's statement don't reflect my own opinions.These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years". The Vatican responded forcefully to Bergoglio's criticism, threatening to remove him from his post. 

Benedict also apologized to Muslim leaders and added a footnote to the text of his speech, stating, "In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation.  I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion."

About the Author

Jordan Denari is a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a project to educate the public about Islamophobia. From 2013 to 2014, she researched the impact of Christian satellite television on Muslim-Christian relations in Jordan on a Fulbright research grant. 



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Islam played an important role in Charles de Foucauld's conversion back to Catholicism. In 1901 he wrote: "Islam caused an upheaval deep in myself. The sight of such faith, of those souls living in the continual presence of God, gave me a glimps of something that had more greatness and more truth than mundane preoccupations."

 « L'Islam a produit en moi un profond bouleversement. La vue de cette foi, de ces âmes vivant dans la continuelle présence de Dieu, m'a fait entrevoir quelque chose de plus grand et de plus vrai que les occupations mondaines »

Coincidentally, this morning at the end of Mass there was an announcement by the pastor: "Please invite the Moslem people you might know to come here next Saturday. We'll give them a tour of the church, invite them to join us at  evening Mass, and afterwards we'll share some food and drinks. To those of you who will take care of those: please make sure to prepare hallal food, and to have no alcohol."

What an excellent post. Thanks!

Perhaps the Pope will be able to coax British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald out of retirement. Fluent in Arabic and former head of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop Fitzgerald is one of the Church’s leading authorities on Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. He’s 76 now, but still quite knowledgeable about the Middle East, as this news article about an Arab Spring speech he gave demonstrates:  

Very insightful. The section preceding the one under discussion here (i.e.,247-249) seemed like pure boilerplate to me, but maybe somebody else detects something more subtle (not complaining,because boilerplate is probably for the best). I'm wondering about section 254, which seems to be dealing with non-Christian religions apart from Judaims and Islam. Is there anything new in that?

Agreed that it is a good article but Francis does side step some theological issues raised by Benedict namely:

1. God acting according to reason hence Christianity's emphasis of the world being created according to the logos (cf John).

2. Benedict actually criticized what he saw as a voluntarist drift in some of Dons Scotus, a Franciscan, later writings.

Maybe it is bad form to discuss differences but there really are differences. Although, I agree that Islam is not any more violent than Christianity and certainly all of the three great monotheistic religions have has their fair share of difficulty where politics and government was intertwined with the faith. Although, I think we have to admit that the church and state division or distinction is more challenging with Islam than it is either Christianity or Judaism given its unique history.

Claire, thank you for posting that wonderful quote from Foucauld. I've been wanting to read more about him, but a lot of his own writing is in French (which I don't know.)

George, I actually agree with you that differences should be discussed. They don't have to be a source of strife if all come to the discussion from a place of humility and willingness to hear what the other has to say (and not assume we know their own beliefs better than they do.) I also acknowledge that Francis didn't address some of the issues raised by Benedict, but we will see if he does down the line. Maybe I'm a little skeptical of true separation of religion and state, but I'm not sure that its any harder for Islam than it is for Christianity. But that's a good question to discuss and debate.

The sections on non-Christian religions is fascinating. I don't think it's new if you compare it to Nostra Aetate, but I do wish that the church could better explain it to the faithful. It's not a new doctrine (?) but just an unknown one. Unlike some other Christian denominations, we Catholics believe that because salvation occurs through a person (Christ) and not an institution or system (like the Church or a set of consciously-held beliefs) we can say that non-Christians can also be justified and are part of the plan of salvation.

Lastly, I would love to see Fitzgerald back in play!

Interesting that neither the author nor the commenters make any reference to the concept of Jihad or the persecution and stated purpose of Islam to cleanse the earth of the Jewish population.The current violence associated with groups associated with Islamic leaders in many areas of the planet and the expressed goal of establishing a "world caliphate" is a serious area of concern. When Muslim immigrants attempt to establish Sharia Law in place of U.S. Constitutional law which not only allows but encourages violent punishments of family members; these practices generate strong opposition from affected groups.Immigration efforts throughout the world by Muslim groups that preach a search for peace and protection from persecution appear to be a 'mirror' of the 1st and 2nd Jihads. Comments please........

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