What does the Church teach about dialogue with Islam?

Benedict XVI visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (CNS photo/Patrick Hertzog, Pool via Reuters)

Rereading what I had to say about the burqa ban in France, and what Dr Oddie has to say on this subject, I find myself in a quandary. It is not that I disagree with anything Dr Oddie writes – it is rather this: just what does the Catholic Church teach with regard to the challenge presented by Islam?

Putting the question like that, I am aware, points to the answer. Islam is a “challenge”, not quite a threat, but certainly something that needs to be faced, and absolutely not something that is going to go away if we only ignore it.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council, which never mentioned Communism by name, even at the height of the Cold War, did address Islam, though really only in passing. It seems to me that Gaudium et Spes is an optimistic document that assumes the march of the Enlightenment is unstoppable. That may seemed to have been the case back in 1965, but it certainly does not look like the case now. Large parts of the world seem to have turned their back on rationality. The Islamic world, which never, please note, experienced the Enlightenment, is not quietly falling into line with the post-Enlightenment world.

Nostra aetate starts with these dignified words:

In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.

Again, this might have sounded true in 1965, but now? Nearly 50 years on, the world is drawing apart. Osama bin Laden would angrily reject the sentiments expressed above, and his would not be a solitary voice.

Yet the answer we always hear when these concerns are brought up is along these lines: we have to stick to dialogue, because the alternative to dialogue, conflict, is unthinkable. But what happens when we have no true partners in dialogue? What do we do then? Besides which, is the emphasis on dialogue really relevant to our present concerns – which are, how do we as Catholics face up to the challenge of Islam? In other words, we need an intra-Catholic dialogue so that we can get our heads around how we should think about Islam. And this dialogue among ourselves needs to be robust.

Here are a few points to think about.

First: there may be few differences in outward behaviour between many Muslims and many Christians, but the fact remains that our way of thinking is profoundly different to theirs. We see reason as mediating God’s will: for us, the right and the good coincide. Laws are ordinances of reason for us, and we have no difficulty in making laws that claim no other force beyond the force of reason.

Second: we believe that Scripture is to be interpreted, and that the Bible is a divinely inspired document authored by human beings. We do not hold that it is the uncreated word of God, or that it was dictated to the sacred authors. Therefore we have no problem with the idea that the books of the Bible reflect the time in which they were written as well as conveying timeless truths.

Third, Christianity is a Trinitarian religion, and this is not an add on, it is rather at the heart of our faith and practice. Human beings reflect the divine nature; at the heart of God is a conversation of love. God does not invite submission, rather he is looking for partners in dialogue.

Fourth, the key to understanding Christianity is the concept of grace, and how human beings become the places where God’s Spirit dwells. Grace presupposes nature and brings it to perfection. There is a suitably concordant fit between human nature and divine revelation, and that is hardly surprising, as God is the author of both.

These are some of the things that we need to emphasis to ourselves and to understand more deeply as Catholics; these things have got to form the core of our proclamation to our Muslim neighbours. But before we can proclaim them to others, we have got to be certain of them ourselves.

Oh, and I might add two others while I am at it, so obvious that no one should ever forget them. We are, by virtue of our baptism, all called to be missionaries, and that means we should aim to bring all people everywhere to faith in Jesus Christ. And second, while Christians should be humble, we should also be immensely proud of our bimillenial Christian heritage and history, packed as it is with self-evidently good things. This is not to be smug or to fall into self-congratulation, it is merely to acknowledge all the gifts we have received through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.