'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."

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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