The Catholic Response to Islam
Between Interreligious Dialogue and Evangelization
André Villeneuve, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Saint John Vianney Seminary, Denver, CO
Islam is the fastest growing religion in both America and in the world. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, it will grow faster than any other major religion over the next few decades, nearly catching up to Christianity by the middle of the 21st century. At the current rate, Muslims will outnumber Christians in the world by 2070.
The objective of this article is to examine the Catholic response to the growth of Islam in the West in recent decades in light of the Church’s vision for interreligious dialogue and evangelization. We will raise the following questions: Does the Catholic Church have a coherent strategy in respect to Islam? Is this strategy working? Is it realistic? Is it biblical?
I will begin by examining the Catholic approach to Islam since Vatican II, comparing it to traditional Catholic responses to Islam. Next, I will look at the current state of interreligious dialogue with Islam and evaluate the results of this approach. I will then examine the other side’s perspective on interreligious dialogue, namely, how Muslims view Christianity and the West. I will also consider Islamic missionary activity, or dawa, and its degree of success in converting westerners to Islam, as well as some critical views of the current Catholic approach to Islam. Finally, along with a brief survey of the growing movement of Muslims who have encountered Jesus Christ, I will propose that the evangelization of Muslims—including both dialogue and proclamation—is the most biblical and most “Catholic” response to the rise of Islam in the West.
The Catholic Approach to Islam since Vatican II
Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has adopted a conciliatory approach towards Islam. Interreligious dialogue has tended to focus on similarities rather than differences, encouraging reconciliation and mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims for the benefit of society and the world. This approach is evident in the 1965 Declaration on Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
The same conciliatory approach has continued up to the most recent magisterial statement on Islam—Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013)—in which he writes that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (EG 253). These words stand in sharp contrast to Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg Lecture seven years earlier, when he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus saying that Mohammed brought into the world only things “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Traditional Catholic Responses to Islam
Paleologus’ polemical critique of Islam was by no means an isolated case in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, which were often marked by hostile confrontation. Early Christians such as St. John Damascene saw Islam as a Christian heresy or a “precursor of the antichrist.” In the Middle Ages, as Christian-Muslim relations reached a low point during the Crusades, Peter the Venerable engaged in a serious study of Islam, writing two works on the topic and concluding that it was the “summation of Christian heresies.”
There is no evidence of any missionary movement to Muslims until the emergence of the Mendicant orders in the high Middle Ages. In addition to the outreaches of Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Ramon Llull, early Dominicans were also involved in dialogue with Muslims, often in the form of philosophical or polemical treatises. Despite these initial attempts, Catholic missionary outreach to Muslims generally remained limited in scope, most often tainted by a polemical approach that bore little positive fruit.
From Polemics to Interreligious Dialogue
Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has distanced herself from the confrontational approach. The more irenic approach to Islam, however, has resulted in the virtual disappearance of Catholic missionary outreach to Muslims. The 1981 Guidelines for Dialogue between Christians and Muslims, published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, provides a good example of the new Catholic approach. While these Guidelines do not downplay the differences between Christianity and Islam, they also reject the notion of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity—or even of questioning their faith. Thus, says the document, “nothing would be more detrimental to true dialogue than a false effort at accommodation whereby Christians, for example, would seek to make their faith acceptable to Muslims.” Despite the Qur’an’s forceful rejection of the foundational doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Christ’s redemptive death, the Guidelines invite Christians to “give Islam a special place as a monotheistic, prophetic religion which is linked with the Judeo-Christian tradition” and “as a place of privilege where access is gained to divine mercy and, thence, to salvation.”
There are obviously serious tensions between this approach to interreligious dialogue and the missionary mandate of the Church. While interreligious dialogue surely has an important role to play in the modern world, it should not be divorced from the Church's evangelizing mission. While the Church acknowledges the possibility that non-Christians may attain salvation, She also affirms the necessity to proclaim the Gospel to all people because “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846; LG 16). As the declaration Dominus Iesus states, “if it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation” (DI 22). Concerning Islam, Pope John Paul II wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1995): “Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation… In Islam all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.”
Nevertheless, it seems that a “lowest common denominator” approach has prevailed in most Catholic statements on Islam since the Council. One is hard pressed to find any words that even hint at a desire to see Muslims encounter Jesus Christ as Divine Redeemer.
Muslim Attitudes towards Christianity and the West
What has been the Islamic response to the “soft” conciliatory Catholic approach to interreligious dialogue? Have Muslims responded in kind? An increasing number of commentators have been sounding the alarm for years concerning the rapid growth of Islam in the West, coupled with the ever-increasing proliferation of Islamic terrorism in the world. Foundational to these concerns is the central question as to whether jihadists have hijacked what is essentially a peaceful religion, or whether violence is inherent in the teachings of Islam.
Although many Muslims are peace-loving and law-abiding people, it cannot be denied that numerous passages in the Quran and Hadiths exhort Muslims to wage jihad (holy war) against the kuffar (unbelievers), in imitation of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Yet holy war is not an end in itself; it exists for the sake of spreading Islam and ultimately subjugating unbelievers in a global Islamic state, in conformity with the traditional Islamic worldview that sees the world divided into the dar al-Islam (the House of Islam, i.e. those nations already under Islamic rule), and the dar al-harb (the house of war, i.e. the nations not (yet) under Islamic rule). This division, however, is only temporary, for Islamic eschatology envisions a world in which all idolatry has ceased and Islam reigns supreme. According to the Qur’an and Hadith, the “house of Islam” is to wage war on the unbelievers until the entire world has been islamized and brought under the rule of Sharia law.
How is this goal to be reached in countries where Muslims are still a minority? Through “stealth jihad,” namely, the gradual advance of Islamic ideology in non-Muslim societies whereby Muslim individuals and organizations are to lead “a full-scale effort to transform pluralistic societies into Islamic states, and to sweep away Western notions of legal equality, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and more.”
A key player in the global cultural jihad is the Muslim Brotherhood, which outlined in a 1982 document a 12-point strategy to “establish an Islamic government on earth,” advising to avoid “confrontation with our enemies” and instead to “use deception to mask the intended goals of islamist actions.” A 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document lays out a plan and strategy to conquer and Islamize the United States. This memorandum explains that the Brotherhood
must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and Allah’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.
The strategy to reach this goal is to “settle” Islam in the U.S. through Da'wa (Muslim proselytism) so that Islam can be “enabled within the souls, minds, and the lives of the people of the country.”
In sum, Islamic sacred texts teach that Christians and other non-Muslims are “infidels” who are to be subjugated so that Islam ultimately reigns supreme in the world. Through “stealth jihad,” Muslims are to infiltrate the West to gradually bring it under Islamic dominion. This Muslim view of Christianity is obviously at odds with the Catholic aim of engaging in respectful dialogue with Muslims for the sake of achieving mutual understanding and promoting social justice, moral welfare, peace and freedom.
Islamic Da’wah in the West
In his 1992 book Islamic Da’wah in the West, author Larry Poston studied “Muslim Missionary Activity and the Dynamics of Conversion to Islam” in North America, including “indirect da’wah” or “lifestyle evangelism” and “direct da’wah” or activistic preaching and proselytism. Poston documented the various methods employed to achieve this aim, from establishing friendly contacts with individuals to distributing Islamic literature to effectively using the media with the aid of mainstream Muslim organizations for the sake of converting unbelievers to Islam and gradually Islamize western nations.
Da’wah ’s Successes: Conversions to Islam
The success of Muslim da’wah is visible in the growing number of conversions to Islam in countries worldwide, including Western nations like the U.S. Why are so many men and women converting to Islam? Many are reacting against the decadence of Western society. Others find Islam attractive because it brings order to their lives, providing “a complete plan for life in contrast to the ruleless and clueless life offered by secular society.” The increasing number of conversions from Christianity to Islam in the West raises some serious questions about the wisdom of the current Catholic approach to dialogue with Muslims and the Islamic world.
Questioning the Catholic Approach to Dialogue with Islam
There appears to be a wide chasm, therefore, between Christianity and Islam and their respective approach to interreligious relations. While the conciliatory Catholic approach of respectful dialogue with Muslims shuns all forms of evangelism, many Muslim individuals and institutions pursue covert agendas behind a façade of friendly dialogue to advance the cause of Islam by means of aggressive, sophisticated and multi-pronged da’wah networks.
A few prominent voices have raised vigorous objections to the current Catholic approach of tolerant dialogue towards Islam. One of these is Egyptian-born Italian journalist, author and politician Magdi Cristiano Allam. Born and raised in a Muslim family in Cairo, Allam eventually became convinced that by nature Islam cannot be “moderate.” As he became more critical of Islam, he was also increasingly drawn to Jesus and Christianity. He was baptized and received into the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI on the Easter Vigil of March 23, 2008. At the time of his conversion, Allam praised Benedict XVI for his “courage and historical gesture,” while forcefully advocating for a more concerted action on the part of the Church to evangelize Muslims. Following his conversion, Allam increasingly objected to the Church’s conciliatory approach to Islam. Only five years after his baptism, he announced that he was abandoning the Catholic Church (though remaining a Christian), largely to protest her “soft stance on Islam,” warning that that “Europe will end up being subjugated to Islam” unless it “finds the courage to denounce Islam as incompatible with our civilization and fundamental human rights.”
A second critic of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue is another Egyptian, Jesuit and Islamologist Fr. Samir Khalil Samir. Commenting on Pope Francis’ guidelines for dialogue with Islam in Evangelii Gaudium, Samir noted some “critical and problematic aspects of the relationship with Islam” that “require clarification.” Among other things, Samir thinks that Pope Francis’ benevolent statement that “true Islam and the proper interpretation of the Koran oppose all violence” expresses “more a wish than a reality” because there is, in fact, violence in the Koran. Nevertheless, Samir sees the growing presence of Muslims in Europe and in the West as an opportunity to lead them to Jesus Christ. But he is troubled that so few Christians seem interested in taking up the challenge.
Evangelizing Muslims: Mission Impossible?
Allam and Samir agree that the authentic Christian response to the spread of Islam in the West is the evangelization of Muslims. Author William Kilpatrick concurs, arguing that Islamic jihadism cannot be resisted merely on the basis of secular Enlightenment values. Together with other scholars and critics of Islam, they believe that the way out of the impasse is to convert Muslims to Christianity. Is this task a mission impossible ? Kilpatrick thinks not. He argues that despite its apparent strength, power and momentum, Islam is intellectually and theologically a “house of cards” and a religion that cannot stand up to a close examination. Islam must be challenged, together with “a positive presentation of the Christian faith.” The problem is that few Christian individuals and churches are willing to do so. The Catholic Church in particular “has barely been heard from on questions of Muslim evangelism.”
There are in fact numerous evangelistic apostolates to Muslims if one looks beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most formidable challenger to Islam today is Fr. Zakariah Botros, a native Egyptian Coptic priest who now lives in the United States. Fr. Zakariah’s ministry has led to mass Muslim conversions to Christianity. What is the key to his success? Unlike his Western counterparts who criticize Islam from a political standpoint, his primary interest is the salvation of souls. Botros makes a clear distinction between the religion and its adherents:
Inasmuch as I may reject Islam, I love Muslims. Thus, to save the latter, I have no choice but to expose the former for the false religion it is. Christ commanded us to spread the Good News. There is no rule that says Christians should proselytize the world—except for Muslims!
Muslims Encounter Jesus Christ
While many Westerners convert to Islam every year, disillusioned by the emptiness of secularism and unattracted by a weak Christianity, it is also true that many Muslims are encountering Jesus Christ and converting to Christianity. Missionaries working in the field believe that we are in the midst of the greatest potential turning of Muslims to Christ in history. In his book, A Wind in the House of Islam, Baptist missionary and scholar David Garrison estimates that between two and seven million former Muslims have converted to Christianity in the past two decades throughout the Muslim world.
Why do Muslims convert to Christianity? Garrison has identified ten “bridges to God” that have been instrumental in leading Muslims to Christ. These include the heroic faith and intercessory prayer of missionaries, a robust use of Scripture, the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit, faithful Christian witness, communion with the Body of Christ, communication and inculturation, allowing Muslims to encounter Christ through personal discovery, the flaws of Islam itself, and indigenization whereby evangelized Muslims become committed disciples.
Garrison also proposes five practical steps that any Christian believer can take to participate in God’s redemptive activity among Muslims: pray for their salvation, support outreach and ministries to Muslims, go to Muslims, minister to them in your community, and share the Gospel with them.
Indeed, perhaps it is time to rethink the Catholic approach to Islam in light of the demands of the Gospel and the Church’s missionary mandate, as expressed by Benedict XVI:
Love urges and “encourages Christian partners in dialogue with the followers of other religions to propose, but not impose, faith in Christ who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’” (John 14:16)