March 19, 2010


Catholicism and Islam

Ever since the seventh century, there has been a strong rivalry between Christianity and Islam.

It began with Islam’s conquest of northern Africa, where strong Christian cities such as Carthage and Hippo once existed, and then northward into Spain. It didn’t stop until Charles Martel’s Christian Franks defeated the Umayyad caliph between the cities of Tours and Poitiers in France on Oct. 10, 732.

Muslims and Christians fought each other during the Crusades the first part of the second millennium. In 1571, the Muslims again threatened Europe, but were defeated by the Holy League during the naval battle of Lepanto on Oct. 7 of that year. In 1683, the Muslim Turkish forces drove into Europe and besieged the city of Vienna. This time, the Polish king Jan Sobieski led Christian troops who ended the siege.

There have, however, been times when Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace, including in Spain prior to the reconquest there.

Today, as we know too well, some radical Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and those extremists are intent on destroying Western civilization. Nevertheless, most Muslims are not extremists.

Pope Benedict XVI seems convinced that Islam and Catholicism have enough in common that they can not just live in peace, but are also natural allies in the pope’s battle against secularism and relativism.

In his book The Future Church, author and journalist John L. Allen Jr. identifies Islam-Catholic relations as one of his 10 “trends” for the Church’s future. He writes, “Whether Christians and Muslims can meet one another in constructive cooperation, or whether their relationship is destined to be one of conflict and rivalry—and the reality seems likely to be a mixture of both—their interaction will be a major driver of world history in the 21st century.”

In a favorable review of Allen’s book, First Things magazine notes that Allen “is perhaps the only prominent Catholic journalist trusted by Catholics across the spectrum of theological opinion.”

Allen also writes, “Islam has replaced Judaism as the most important interfaith relationship for the Catholic Church, and Catholicism has become a lead actor in the global drama surrounding the so-called ‘clash of civilizations.’ ”

There are 2.3 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims, representing more than half of the human family. Most Muslims are not Arabs, less than 20 percent. Of the 10 largest Muslim nations, only three are Arab, beginning with Egypt in fifth place.

There is a fear that Muslims are taking over Europe because of immigration and high birth rates. Today, they comprise 8.3 percent of the population of France, 4.3 percent of Germany and 2.7 percent of the United Kingdom. Some experts believe, though, that the Muslim total in Europe will level off at around 15 percent by mid-century.

In a comprehensive article in the winter issue of Notre Dame Magazine, R. Scott Appleby writes, “Unquestionably, Catholicism and Islam will play a critical role, separately or together, in determining the fate of the Earth in the decades to come.” He says that we should recognize our similarities and possibilities for collaboration on matters of social ethics.

Catholics and Muslims, he says, embrace “a view of the human person as created by and oriented toward God. Moreover, they share the moral conviction that the family, not the supposedly autonomous modern individual, is the fundamental social unit.”

Pope John Paul II met with Muslims more than 60 times during his pontificate and established five standing dialogues with Muslim groups. Pope Benedict believes, as Allen put it in his book, “that John Paul’s efforts to build bridges with Muslims were essential, but that, those bridges having been built, it’s now time to walk across them.”

The “clash of civilizations,” Pope Benedict believes, is not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief, and Muslims should be natural allies in the struggle against a “dictatorship of relativism.”

He also insists that Muslim countries acknowledge, and act upon, the right of religious freedom—a severe problem in many parts of the world.

There still are, though, those Islamic radicals. Mainstream Muslims, and the rest of the world, have to deal with them.

—John F. Fink

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