Last Wednesday, I had a lively discussion with Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, on Relevant Radio’s Drew Mariani Show, on whether or not Islam was a religion of violence. Msgr. Swetland argued not only that Islam was a religion of peace, but that to believe otherwise was to place oneself in opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Swetland has now helpfully supplied me with the remarks below, clarifying his position and supporting it with statements of various Popes and the Second Vatican Council. Msgr. Swetland contends that statements of recent Popes to the effect that Islam is a religion of peace fall into the category of teachings to which Catholics must give “religious assent,” as per the quotation below from the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium.
If Msgr. Swetland is correct, then I am, as he puts it, “a dissenter from the papal magisterium.” So also, then, would be millions of other Catholics, including Catholics from the Middle East who have borne the brunt of Muslim persecution of Christians and know what Islam teaches, such as the gentleman from Lebanon who phoned in to the Mariani Show during my discussion with Msgr. Swetland. If Msgr. Swetland is correct, then Catholics must affirm that Islam is a religion of peace as part and parcel of being Catholic, and the Catholic Church will be requiring that its faithful affirm the truth of what is an obvious and egregious falsehood, as I demonstrated and in many other places.
If Msgr. Swetland is correct, and it is Church teaching that all Catholics must accept that Islam is a religion of peace, then the Catholic hierarchy will have demonstrated that it does not have the authority or reliability in discerning and transmitting the truth that it claims to have; Papal claims to speak in the name of Christ will be eviscerated; and the Catholic Church as a whole exposed as a fraud.
Thus the stakes are extremely high in this question. Msgr. Swetland ably makes his case below. This is why I do not think he is correct, and do not believe that Catholics are bound to affirm that Islam is a religion of peace:
- Msgr. Swetland says below: “At least in the area of morals, Robert seems to be a dissenter from the papal magisterium.” The cornerstone of his entire case is this statement from Lumen Gentium: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” Msgr. Swetland seems to think that affirming that Islam is a religion of peace is a matter of morals, as that is what the bulk of his quotations below are about. (He also claims I’m a dissenter because I don’t accept Pope Francis’ position on Muslim migrants, and that is arguably a question of morals, but I have bishops on my side on that issue, and most of Msgr. Swetland’s quotations below don’t deal with it, so that is a discussion for another time.) But is the affirmation that Islam is a religion of peace really a matter of Catholic faith or morals? I don’t see how: it’s a statement about the teachings of a different religion altogether. Is the content of the Buddhist or Hindu faith also a matter of Catholic morals? My contention is that the statements about Islam by the Second Vatican Council and recent Popes are not matters of faith or morals, and so do not fall within the realm of those matters upon which Catholics must assent to the statements of Popes and bishops.
- If “this religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra,” and “must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will,” the question then becomes, which Roman Pontiff? Pope Francis, who declared that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” or Pope Callixtus III, who in 1455 vowed to “exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East”? Are Catholics to believe that Islam is a “diabolical sect” because Pope Callixtus III said it was, and simultaneously believe that it is “opposed to every form of violence” because Pope Francis said so? Or must Catholics go with Francis and reject Callixtus as a “dissenter from the papal magisterium” because he believed Islam to be diabolical? What authority does Francis have that Callixtus did not have? Or does Francis trump Callixtus solely by virtue of being of the present day and not forgotten? The Church fought Crusades against Muslims for several hundred years. Are all the Popes who called for and approved of those expeditions to be accorded “submission of mind and will,” or do only John Paul II, Benedict XVI (who may not really have held the point of view that Msgr. Swetland ascribes to him) and Francis get that?
- Msgr. Swetland’s claim that Catholics must as a matter of obedience affirm that Islam is a religion of peace would require the Church to repudiate much of its history. Will Santiago Matamoros be repudiated and no longer regarded as a saint? Will the Dantescan fresco of Muhammad in hell in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna be whitewashed? Will the Church call on Catholics not to celebrate the victories at Tours in 732, Lepanto in 1571 and Vienna in 1683, and others over Islamic jihadis, and express regret for them? Will Hilaire Belloc’s writings on Islam as “the most formidable and persistent enemy” of the Church be officially repudiated by the hierarchy? From the beginning of Islam, Muslims have warred against Christians and the Church, as numerous saints and martyrs attest. Were all of them out of step with the Church’s teaching? No, the Church’s teaching on Islam was vastly different then from what it is now. Will all of these saints and martyrs be repudiated as well?
There are other problems with Msgr. Swetland’s statement. He quotes a statement of the U.S. bishops and the American Muslim Council to show that “mainstream Muslims reject terrorism and violence.” The fact that numerous Muslim groups condemn jihad terror attacks is not really at issue, and just raises the further question of why there are no programs in any U.S. mosque to teach young Muslims why they should reject the understanding of Islam taught by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihad groups. But aside from that, I wonder if Msgr. Swetland is aware that Abdurrahman Alamoudi, the founder of the American Muslim Council, is now in prison for financing al-Qaeda. How could it be that the founder of a group that shows how “mainstream Muslims reject terrorism and violence” ended up financing al-Qaeda? Might the sanction that the Qur’an gives to religious deception shed any light on that question? This is not to say that there are no Muslims who are sincere in rejecting jihad terror, but Msgr. Swetland’s choice of an example to illustrate that was unfortunate in the extreme.
Msgr. Swetland adds to his statement an article in which Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo says: “It would be naive to pretend that there are not certain episodes in the Koran and the Hadith that may lend themselves to a violent interpretation…how the Muslim community worldwide can give a peaceful hermeneutic to these passages is a task which I imagine will be made more difficult with too much pressure ‘from outside’…I wouldn’t dream of telling Muslims how to interpret their faith. But those who want to work towards that end from within will find a strong ally and friend in the Catholic Church, ready to accompany on the way.” Great. But Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo has thus tacitly admitted that “a peaceful hermeneutic” of the Qur’an’s violent passages does not now exist, and that the task of formulating it will be “difficult.” Islam is 1,400 years old. Why doesn’t this “peaceful hermeneutic” already exist? Why is it yet to be developed? Isn’t its non-existence telling?
Msgr. Swetland also has some highly insulting and defamatory things to say about me personally. One is that I’m an ISIS recruiter: he claims that “Spencer’s interpretation also allows these radical groups to say to potential recruits, mostly disaffected young persons who are susceptible to radicalization, ‘See, even our most vocal opponents agree with us that our interpretation of Islam is the correct one.’” The idea that jihadis invoke non-Muslims in recruiting is absurd, albeit held not just by Msgr. Swetland but by Barack Obama, John Kerry and a host of others. In reality, Muslims do not look to non-Muslims for validation of what is Islam and what isn’t, any more than Christians look to non-Christians to tell them what Christianity is and isn’t. If Msgr. Swetland knew anything about Islam, he would know that “the best of people,” which is what the Qur’an calls Muslims (3:110), do not look to “the most vile of created beings” (98:6) to explain Islam to them.
Msgr. Swetland also says below that I have failed to “avoid hateful generalizations.” This is a false charge, and I challenge him to produce even one example of a “hateful generalization” in any of my fifteen books, hundreds of articles, and 40,000+ website posts about Islam. He can also consult hundreds of YouTube videos of me speaking in all sorts of contexts. There is so much material, he shouldn’t have any difficulty finding one. When he fails to find one, however, as he will certainly do, I respectfully request that he retract that charge.
The Church hierarchy, and perhaps Pope Francis himself, needs to clarify whether there is still any place in the Catholic Church for those who do not believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Since it is a readily demonstrable fact that it isn’t, if affirming Islam as peaceful is now required of Catholics, then I will follow in the footsteps of another notorious Catholic detested by the hierarchy, the monk who said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
But those in the Catholic Church who agree with Msgr. Swetland may find my departure from the fold, however devoutly they may desire it, to be a pyrrhic victory, for they will in that event have bound themselves to a falsehood so great as to destroy utterly all their claims to speak with moral authority in the name of Christ.
“Catholic Popes on Islam,” by Msgr. Stuart Swetland, August 13, 2016:
Catholics believe that our bishops, the successors of the Apostles, especially the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, teach with a greater than human authority in matters of faith and morals. Thus we owe to their teaching a “religious submission of mind and will.” Here is how the Second Vatican Council taught it:
Lumen Gentium 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”
In Latin, “religious submission” is obsequium religiosum and Canon 752 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law for Latin rite Catholics states: “Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.” In the 1990 Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, Canon 599 demands a similar response: “A religious obsequium of intellect and will, even if not the assent of faith, is to be paid to the teaching on faith or morals which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act; therefore the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching.”
My main purpose in having a discussion with Robert Spencer, a Catholic, on a Catholic radio network was to show clearly that his positions on Islam were at odds with Catholic teaching. For just a small sampling of magisterial teachings on Islam since VII:
Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 3: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (cf. 2Co 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life. The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture. The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”
Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam 107, August 6, 1964: “Then [we refer] to the adorers of God according to the conception of monotheism, the Muslim religion especially, deserving of our admiration for all that is true and good in their worship of God.”
John Paul II, Address on Culture, Art and Science, Astana, Kazakhstan, September 24, 2001: “In this context, and precisely here in the land of encounter and dialogue, and before this distinguished audience, I wish to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s respect for Islam, for authentic Islam: the Islam that prays, that is concerned for those in need. Recalling the errors of the past, including the most recent past, all believers ought to unite their efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions. Hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the true image of man.”
Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, September 14, 2012 (excerpt): “19. The Church’s universal nature and vocation require that she engage in dialogue with the members of other religions. In the Middle East this dialogue is based on the spiritual and historical bonds uniting Christians to Jews and Muslims. It is a dialogue which is not primarily dictated by pragmatic political or social considerations, but by underlying theological concerns which have to do with faith. They are grounded in the sacred Scriptures and are clearly defined in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. . . and in the Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate. . . . . . Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe in one God, the Creator of all men and women. May Jews, Christians and Muslims rediscover one of God’s desires, that of the unity and harmony of the human family. May Jews, Christians and Muslims find in other believers brothers and sisters to be respected and loved, and in this way, beginning in their own lands, give the beautiful witness of serenity and concord between the children of Abraham. Rather than being exploited in endless conflicts which are unjustifiable for authentic believers, the acknowledgment of one God – if lived with a pure heart – can make a powerful contribution to peace in the region and to respectful coexistence on the part of its peoples….23. The Catholic Church, in fidelity to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. . . , looks with esteem to Muslims, who worship God above all by prayer, almsgiving and fasting, revere Jesus as a prophet while not acknowledging his divinity, and honor Mary, his Virgin Mother. We know that the encounter of Islam and Christianity has often taken the form of doctrinal controversy. Sadly, both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution…. 24. Despite this fact, Christians live daily alongside Muslims in the Middle East, where their presence is neither recent nor accidental, but has a long history. As an integral part of the Middle East, Christians have developed over the centuries a type of relationship with their surroundings which can prove instructive. They have let themselves be challenged by Muslim devotion and piety, and have continued, in accordance with their means and to the extent possible, to live by and to promote the values of the Gospel in the surrounding culture. The result has been a particular form of symbiosis. It is proper, then, to acknowledge the contribution made by Jews, Christians and Muslims in the formation of a rich culture proper to the Middle East…”
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel: “253. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. 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! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
Robert Spencer’s positions seem to be at odds with the magisterial teachings on what authentic Islam is and what Catholic are called to do about it (accept immigrants, avoid hateful generalizations, show esteem and respect, etc.) At least in the area of morals, Robert seems to be a dissenter from the papal magisterium.
After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, there was a Joint Statement by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Keeler, then President of the US National Conference of Bishops and Dr. Mahmoud Abu-Saud, then President of the American Muslim Council:
“As the Presidents of two organizations that have been codirecting a national dialogue between Catholics and Muslims for two years, we declare our agreement on general principles to guide discussions of such incidents as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Together we urge all not to impugn whole peoples or their religions because of the despicable acts of some. Aggression and terrorism wherever they occur are to be condemned since they constitute an illegitimate use of force and therefore violate the law of God. This we affirm without qualification. With equally strong resolve we reject any effort to claim a religious inspiration or sanction for such contemptible acts. This misguided contention disfigures religion itself. It is important at this time for us to reaffirm our commitment to one another. A major goal of Christian Muslim dialogue is to eradicate misrepresentations of Islam, and the history of Christian Muslim relations. Another goal is to cooperate in pursuit of common values, in particular, justice, peace, and respect for creation. We are encouraged by the fact that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims is already taking place in several American cities. As the Presidents of the American Muslim Council and of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops we call upon our faithful to come together to dialogue, to pray, and to act in behalf of our common values.”
I use this as just one example of thousands that show that mainstream Muslims reject terrorism and violence. Authentic Christians and Muslims reject terrorism and violence and to teach differently is harmful to the common good. It especially hurts our efforts in counter-intelligence and cooperation from many Islamic people and nations who work with us to counter the false, nihilistic ideology and terroristic actions of ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda, etc. in fact, Spencer’s interpretation also allows these radical groups to say to potential recruits, mostly disaffected young persons who are susceptible to radicalization, “See, even our most vocal opponents agree with us that our interpretation of Islam is the correct one.”
On August 12th, after our discussion, a news report of a speech given by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences written by Hannah Brockhaus entitled “Muslims Who Interpret Quran Peacefully ‘Find a Strong Ally’ in the Church” was published by the Catholic News Agency. Bishop Sanchez’s reflections on Islam are very similar to what I was trying to communicate in my discussions with Robert Spencer. Here is the news report:
A Vatican bishop spoke out last week stressing that while few Muslims are terrorists, there are passages in the Quran advocating violence that can’t be ignored, and must be clarified from within the Muslim community.
“It would be naive to pretend that there are not certain episodes in the Koran and the Hadith that may lend themselves to a violent interpretation,” Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said Aug. 5.
He added that “how the Muslim community worldwide can give a peaceful hermeneutic to these passages is a task which I imagine will be made more difficult with too much pressure ‘from outside,’” and that thus “I wouldn’t dream of telling Muslims how to interpret their faith.”
“But those who want to work towards that end from within will find a strong ally and friend in the Catholic Church, ready to accompany on the way.”
Bishop Sánchez delivered this reflection during a “Meditation for Peace” hosted by The Art of Living, an India-based Hindu organization.
His speech came just days after Pope Francis on his July 31 return flight from Krakow voiced his belief that it is not right to identify Islam with violence. “This is not right and it is not true,” he said.
In his speech Bishop Sánchez agreed with the Pope, but noted how the “religious-inspired terrorism” of the last few decades has been “propagated by a few individuals who insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of Islam.”
These individuals persist “in the face of the billion other adherents of Islam who testify to a tolerant religion which does not recognize the legitimacy of the actions of these few wicked individuals,” he said.
Bishop Sánchez acknowledged that most Muslims are not guilty of the violence perpetrated “in the name of their religion,” and that Muslims themselves were killed in the July 15 act of terrorism in Nice, when a truck plowed through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people and wounding roughly 50 others.
He also noted how an “overwhelming majority” of the victims of terrorist groups in the Middle East such as the Islamic State are Muslim.
“It therefore falls upon all leaders of moral authority in these times to do all they can to calm an increasingly tense situation – made all the more tense by the actions of the few,” he said.
The bishop quoted a prayer Pope Francis offered July 30 at World Youth Day in Krakow for the conversion of terrorists to the “way of peace and goodness, of respect for the life and dignity of every human being.”
“I think this is also the sincere hope of everybody – of whichever faith tradition,” he said.
In light of continued terrorism around the world, “every single person, irrespective of personal faith, has the responsibility to speak – and to act – with the utmost prudence … Only ever appealing to our neighbor’s most noble sentiments and never to his worst instincts,” Bishop Sánchez said.
He concluded his speech by emphasizing that “what I want to say – and this is my central message for the Meditation for Peace today – is that perhaps it is the case that this generation has been entrusted with the last opportunity of preserving peace throughout our societies…across the European Union and the wider world.”
It is very important for all believers that the authentic teaching of the Church be clear so that we may know the truth and attempt to live it to the full. I submit that there is a serious difference between the repeated magisterial teachings of the Church and the teaching of Robert Spencer in this area. For the sake of all, this situation needs to be clarified.