Catholics and Muslims

By Pamela Smith



Image by Alex Microbe on Wikimedia Commons.


It was November 30, 2016, when St. Andrew Clemson celebrated 80 years of campus ministry at the distinguished Upstate university. Tiger footprints, tiger tails and orange and purple school colors as well as crosses were on display at the site of the event. It was a noteworthy one, not only for the anniversary but also for the selected speaker.


Eboo Patel had been on campus for several days. His address to the almost-all-Catholic audience that evening focused on service, outreach and interreligious fellowship. Eboo is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core based in Chicago. He served on former president Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel had just turned 41 earlier that month, but he already had written a memoir — one published nine years earlier: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.


In a congenial, very festive setting, Catholic-Islamic relations were in evidence that evening. Not everyone there, however, seemed to grasp the significance or the context of Patel’s presence.


Pope Francis, as we now know, has made many overtures to and has visited with Muslim leaders. A few months ago in Iraq — which is also the seat of Chaldean Catholicism — the pope met with the Shiite grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani. Earlier, Pope Francis journeyed to the United Arab Emirates, met with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to highlight 2019 as a “Year of Tolerance.” Later that same year, he met in the Vatican with Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of a distinguished Egyptian mosque and university. All of this was well preceded by the ecumenical and interfaith gestures of Pope St. John Paul and his unforgettable conciliatory meeting with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.


These activities are a far cry from the exertions of the Crusades, which persisted from the late 11th century through the 13th and, in more limited scope, into the 15th. And it is a far cry from the enmity Catholics felt and often cultivated toward the “other” in terms of religious faiths. It is well known that Catholicism had a long history of anathematizing and sometimes martyring those who professed beliefs counter to their own. It was in the 20th century, in the Second Vatican Council, that great strides were made in relating to those of other faith traditions. Other Christians were now referred to as our “separated brothers and sisters,” and the Council acknowledged that among the many cultures that have explored deep religious questions, “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is holy and true in these religions.”


The Vatican declaration “Nostra Aetate” (1965) particularly highlighted Christianity’s roots in Judaism. It also pointed to Islam and asserted that “the Church regards with esteem the Moslems.” It spoke of Islam’s faith in one God, its Abrahamic roots, its regard for Jesus as a prophet (though not consubstantial with the Father), its esteem for Mary as mother of Jesus, its hope in the resurrection of the dead and its disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.


Although this declaration has been in effect more than half a century, we have to admit that it has been internalized by a relatively small group of Catholics. We encounter much misunderstanding. The common prejudice of associating Islam with terrorism afflicts many, and I have met with vitriol when I’ve encouraged people to recognize that many Muslims interpret “holy war” to be a spiritual quest — and that the people venting ought to go read the Koran. As Catholic Christians, we’re called to hold fast to our beliefs in the God who is one but also three Persons, in Jesus Christ as Son and Savior, in God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments and in our rich deposit of faith. But we are also called to be respectful of the faith and traditions of others — and to learn what their faith and traditions are really all about. What we resoundingly condemn is the satanic.


Pope Francis, in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, champions fraternal love, human solidarity, attentive listening and a willingness to read the hearts of our fellow human beings, Christian or otherwise. The ancients known as Fathers of the Church studied Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle and found wisdom in them. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, knew these ancients, as well as a trove of Biblical and traditional Christian sources as he wrote his massive expositions of Catholic doctrine and moral teaching. But he also studied the works of the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides and the Islamic philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). The presumption of Aquinas, and many other saints and luminaries, has been that we can learn from the insights of others — from their experiences, their discoveries, their doubts and their convictions.


St. Francis of Assisi made an arduous trip to meet Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade. It was Francis’s attempt to live his famous prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace … Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon.” St. Francis did not stop bloodshed, but he did model another way to approach conflict and mistrust. Pope Francis has followed the same path in his resolve to meet with Islamic leaders and to foster harmonious relations. Eboo Patel, our Clemson speaker, has also followed this path. His vibrant, humanitarian troops of young adults bring together those who might not naturally trust one another to work for common goals. Toward the end of his memoir he tells of Jen and Sayyeda, Jewish and Muslim young adults, who discovered by propinquity their commonalities, He quotes them: “Understanding the other person’s point of view, we determined, was a core value of both Islam and Judaism.”


Followers of Christ can note that such understanding was a key trait of our Redeemer. It is no accident that he sent a much-married Samaritan woman to announce the arrival of the Messiah to her neighbors. And it is clearly by design that he chose to respond to the question “And who is my neighbor?” by offering the parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans, along with the occupying Romans, were the ones anathematized in his day.


About that call to understand the viewpoint of the other? Pope Francis has learned from Christ, from Catholicism and from his Jesuit training. He speaks of that call in the conversations that became the recent book Let Us Dream. He urges us to a “union of hearts and minds … a unity that allows people to serve as a body despite differences of viewpoint … as a community of brothers and sisters concerned for each other.”


Patel and the Pope are passionate about the work that must be done to save our planet, its peace and its people. Both promote our learning to work side by side for the common good. May peace be upon them.


Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, PhD, serves as director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. An adjunct professor of theology with St. Leo University, she is the author of 15 books, most recently The History of the Diocese of Charleston: State of Grace (History Press).



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