January 2004

From heresy to religion

Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald M Afr

How has the Catholic Church’s attitude to Islam changed recently? Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who is President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, traces these changes and then places the teaching of Vatican II on this subject within a larger theological context. This teaching ‘remains not only a constant point of reference but also a source of inspiration which has not yet exhausted all its potentialities’.

While examining what the Second Vatican Council has to say about Muslims and Islam, it will be good to present briefly some of the opinions that were held before the Council and also to assess the impact this teaching has had in the life of the Church.

A ‘monk of France’, probably to be identified with Hugh of Cluny (1049-1119), wrote to the Muslim king of Saragossa, Muqtadir Billªh, a letter inviting the ruler to embrace Christianity. In it he spoke about the deception of Islam, attributing it to the work of Satan. Islam was seen as something diabolical since it prevented God’s saving work from being accomplished. This was an opinion quite common in missionary circles up to the Second Vatican Council.

An earlier writer, George Hamartolos, in the Byzantine Empire, compiled a history of humankind from its origins to the middle of the ninth century. He dedicates one chapter to Islam. He compares Islam unfavourably to Christianity, stating that it is a religion which springs from a false prophet. This attitude is unfortunately still found in polemical booklets from both sides.

Turning to someone who had direct experience of Muslims and Islam, John of Damascus (675-753) treated Islam as a breakaway from Christianity. Muhammad is said to have been influenced by Christians. John gives evidence of knowledge of the Qur’an. Yet each element of the religion is taken separately and not evaluated within the context of the religion as a whole.

The categorisation of Muslims as unbelievers is to be found in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. He was naturally inclined to reserve the term ‘believer’ to one who shared the Christian faith. Thomas is not treating Islam as a corrupt version of Christianity but, implicitly at least, as a separate religion. In fact his writings could be considered the foundation for the position which classifies Islam as a natural religion. What theologians probably mean by that is that this religion remains, in its approach to God, at the level of what can be known by reason alone. Muslims do indeed say that Islam is a natural religion, the religion of fitra, that is, the religion given by God to man at his very creation. The prophets have been sent simply to remind people of this religion. This prophetic mission culminates in Muhammad establishing Islam as the definitive universal religion.

Some positive appreciations of Islam
The position adopted by the Catholicos Timothy I (728-823) is well known. Asked explicitly by the Caliph al-Mahdi to give his opinion about Muhammad, Timothy’s reply was:

Muhammad is worthy of praise by all reason- able people, O my Sovereign. He walked in the path of the prophets, and trod in the tracks of the lovers of God.1 Timothy’s reasons for this affirmation are that Muhammad taught his followers the doctrine of the unity of God, detaching them from idolatry and polytheism: he drove people away from bad works and brought them to good works: he also taught about God, his Word and his Spirit.

Louis Massignon (1883-1962) devoted his life to presenting the true faith of Islam to the West. He died shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, having certainly helped to bring about a new vision of Islam in Catholic circles though his own position, as will soon be shown, was not adopted by the conciliar texts.

Vatican II and Islam: theological framework
The texts of Vatican II concerning Islam consist of a single sentence in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and a full paragraph in the Declaration on the Relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate. Two fundamental theological principles are said to be underlying the Church’s approach to other religions: the universality of God’s salvific will and the sacramental nature of the Church. One could add a third principle, lying between these two and connecting them, namely the necessary mediation of Jesus Christ. The framework as outlined has five parts to it.

1. Grace widely given
To say that God wills to save implies that he is ready to give his grace to bring about that friendship with him and that sharing of his life which constitutes salvation. To say that God’s saving will is universal means that his grace must be offered to all. The Council in fact speaks about the possibility of salvation for those who seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, strive to do his will, following the dictates of their conscience (Lumen Gentium 16). Following one’s conscience would allow for adherence to the principles and practices of a particular religion. The text goes on to speak about those who, without any fault of their own, do not have any explicit knowledge of God, and yet strive to lead a good life. This they do ‘not without grace’ (Lumen Gentium 16). One cannot be saved without faith, at least an implicit faith, but such faith cannot exist without grace. So it is that the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (22), states that since Christ died for all, it is necessary to hold that the Holy Spirit, in a way known to God, offers to all the possibility of entering into the saving mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

2. Values of truth and holiness
The Council teaches that there are values of truth and goodness which are to be recognised not only in the hearts of individuals, but also in certain collective realities. These can be considered ‘elements of grace’, helping on the way to salvation. So Lumen Gentium 17 mentions the good that is sown in minds and hearts, but also in the rites and customs of people. This is equivalent to a mention of religions. Those who are training for the ministry are urged to learn about religions in order to recognise how much goodness and truth they possess (cf. Optatam Totius 18). The missionary declaration Ad Gentes (18) mentions explicitly traditions of asceticism and contemplation which are to be found in different religions. These are considered to be ‘seeds of the Word’, and so are connected to Christ. What can be deduced from this is that religions are human expressions of the longing for God taking on a social dimension. Though the grace of God is present, nowhere are they said to be divinely appointed ways of salvation. Rather are they seen as a preparation needing fulfilment.

3. Redemption and elevation
The Council teaches that the good to be found in individuals or in their rites and customs is to be not only preserved, but also purified, raised up and perfected (Lumen Gentium 17). This is to be done through a process of enlightenment and correction (Ad Gentes 3), connecting them with Christ as their true source (Ad Gentes 9). The task of the Church, in conformity with its nature as sacrament of salvation, is to help to eliminate the evil that can infect human beings, cultures and religions, and also to strengthen values.

4. Relation to the People of God
The Council insists further that God wills to save human beings ‘not merely as individuals without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness’ (Lumen Gentium 9).

This refers of course to the Church as the People of God, and yet it could be suggested that the religions are the first embodiment of this social dimension of God’s saving will. Perhaps the people of different religions are related to the Church because the Church, at least potentially, is related to them, in a somewhat similar way, though in a lesser degree, to how Christ, the head of the Church, is related to every human being by virtue of being the Word of God made man.

5. The call to fullness Underlying the conciliar teaching is an anthropology according to which the human person is intrinsically religious. Created in God’s image, called to share God’s life, the concrete human being never exists in a purely ‘natural’ state. It is part of the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God, to be free. God calls for a free response. This implies a responsibility, the duty of seeking the truth. It implies too that blame will be incurred if the human person tries to shut God out, avoiding all questions about religion. This teaching on the inherent dignity of the human person, the duty to search for the truth, and the respect due to the conscience of each and every person has been enshrined in the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.

The teaching of Vatican II on Islam
It has often been said that the Second Vatican Council spoke about Muslims but not about Islam. The statement in Lumen Gentium (16) is very succinct and thus can be quoted in its entirety:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.

In some ways paragraph 3 of Nostra Aetate could be considered an extended commentary on these lines, going on to draw out some practical consequences for relations between Christians and Muslims. It should be noted, nevertheless, that Nostra Aetate does speak about religions, and these general affirmations should be held to refer also to Islam. The religions, as has been said, provide answers for the fundamental questions of human existence (cf. Nostra Aetate 1). Nothing that is true and holy in religions is rejected by the Church. Consequently the Church gives encouragement to its members to enter into a dialogue of exchange and collaboration with the members of other religions (cf. Nostra Aetate 2). On this basis then an examination can be made as to what the Council says, at least by way of implication, about Islam as a religion.

Islam as a monotheistic religion
It is not surprising that recognition should be given to Muslims’ belief in the one God. After all, this belief is a fundamental characteristic of Islam, forming the first part of the profession of faith and constituting the main burden of Islamic theology as its name bears witness, tawhîd (establishing or defending the oneness of God). What is noteworthy is the additional note in the text of Lumen Gentium according to which Muslims together with us adore the one, merciful God. Such a statement could be attacked by both Christians and Muslims.

Some Christians do not wish to admit that Christians and Muslims adore the same God. Our God, they say, is essentially different since we believe in a Trinity of Persons which Muslims reject. The Council, although its documents are replete with Trinitarian references, does not go into this question here. It is content, in both its texts on Islam, to refer to some of the Beautiful Names of God according to the Islamic tradition, thereby showing that the way Muslims understand God is not unidimensional. The affirmation ‘together with us’ remains; though Christians and Muslims understand God differently, we do not worship different divinities, since God is one. Our religions are monotheistic.

Now some Muslims too may object to the statement of Lumen Gentium. There are Muslims who attack the Christian claim to monotheism.

Whatever may be the case, one often sees references to ‘the three monotheistic religions’, indicating Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That these are monotheistic religions is true, and the texts of Vatican II can be seen to bear witness to this fact. Yet to talk about the three monotheistic religions would seem to be an exaggeration. There are in fact other monotheistic religions. One has only to think of the Sikhs. If the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are to be brought together in a special way, another category has to be found.

A further reflection would appear to be appropriate. The conciliar texts on Islam speak about belief in God as Creator and Judge. This is also something that Christians and Muslims have in common. It is not to be overlooked since it has practical consequences, providing an opening for dialogue on the common origin and common destiny of humankind. It can also lead to a joint evaluation of the role of human beings as vice-regents or stewards of God’s creation, with implications for a more equitable distribution and respectful use of the earth’s resources. Such a reflection is not going beyond the conciliar basis, since Nostra Aetate exhorts Christians and Muslims to work together to ‘preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ (Nostra Aetate 3).

Islam as a revealed religion?
Besides talking about the three monotheistic religions, Muslims often use the term ‘celestial’ as applied to these same religions. They have a celestial origin because they claim to be based on revelation. Do the texts of the Council encourage Catholics to accept this terminology ?

In Nostra Aetate, after the reference to Muslims’ belief in God who is one and the Creator, there is added ‘who has also spoken to men’.

The Church’s constant teaching is that after Jesus Christ there is no further need of revelation:

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (Dei Verbum 4).

Accordingly Islam is not considered by the Church to be a revealed religion Nevertheless the words used in Nostra Aetate are significant since they underline the importance of faith for Muslims. It is a faith which flows into life for, as the declaration says, ‘[Muslims] strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God.’ This is the basic attitude of Islam, which is by no means a fatalistic submission to a despotic divinity but the response of an adoring servant to a transcendent God who remains wrapped in mystery.

Islam as a scriptural religion?
Paragraph 3 of Nostra Aetate thus mentions the fact of Muslims’ belief in, and response to, a God who reveals, but it says nothing about the manner of this revelation. Just as Muhammad is not mentioned, neither is there any reference to the Qur’an. Yet Islam would claim to be ‘a religion of the Book’, and the Qur’an plays a central role in Islamic worship and life. Moreover Islam readily classifies Jews and Christians together with Muslims as ‘People of the Book’. Christians may well object to this classification since they consider themselves to be followers of a person, Jesus Christ, and not of a book. The notions of revelation and the role of the Scriptures are not the same in the two religions.

It should be noted furthermore that there is not the same relationship between Islam and Christianity as there is between Christianity and Judaism. Paragraph 4 of Nostra Aetate states:

The Church of Christ acknowledges that in God’s plan of salvation the beginning of her faith and election is to be found in the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets… On this account the Church cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament by way of that people with whom God, in his inexpressible mercy, established the ancient covenant.

Between Jews and Christians there exists therefore, as the same document expresses it, ‘a common spiritual heritage’. The link between the Qur’an and the Christian Scriptures, including the Old Testament, is much more tenuous. There are some references in the Qur’an to biblical elements, but the texts of the previous Scriptures are not retained as such – in fact the criticism is levelled that they have been falsified – and they are certainly not used in Islamic worship.2

So Islam, although giving an important place to the Qur’an as Scripture, is not recognised by Christians as a biblical religion. That there should be a difference of appreciation on this point is not surprising. Just as Christians cannot expect Jews to accept the New Testament as the authentic interpretation and fulfilment of their Scriptures, so Muslims should not expect Christians to accept the Qur’an as the authentic interpretation and definitive version of previous Scriptures.

Islam as an Abrahamic religion
Both texts of Vatican II link Islamic faith with Abraham. Lumen Gentium says that Muslims ‘profess to hold the faith of Abraham’. Nostra Aetate states that Muslims submit to God ‘just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own’. It must be admitted that these references en passant to Abraham remain somewhat vague. Abraham’s faith is recognised, but it is not said how he exemplified this faith. Muslims see Abraham as a champion of monotheism and attribute to him the rebuilding of the Kaaba, the shrine in Mecca that has become the direction of Muslims’ prayer. Christians insist on Abraham’s response to God’s call to leave his country for a promised land. By both religions Abraham is given as a model of submission to God’s mysterious decrees.

There is silence above all on the question of descent from Abraham. Quite apart from the historical question of the descent of the Arabs from Abraham through Ishmael, a question which remains disputed, the silence on this point is quite consistent with the Christian position with regard to Abraham. Physical descent is unimportant; it is faith that counts.

As long as there is a readiness to respect the different interpretations, the figure of Abraham provides common ground for the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which can be called with some justification ‘Abrahamic religions’, though this term does not describe them very adequately or completely.3

Consequences of respect for Islam as a religion
Islam is treated by Vatican II as a religion worthy of respect. This has certain practical consequences, some of which appear in the conciliar texts. There is an explicit recognition of the religious spirit of Muslims. There is mention of certain typical expressions of Islamic religiosity, prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. These are the three central ‘pillars’ of Islam. The first and fifth pillars, the profession of faith and pilgrimage to Mecca, are passed over, presumably because they are too strongly bound up with what is specifically Islamic.

As has been already mentioned, the Council issued a special declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, on religious liberty. Nostra Aetate, which exhorts Christians and Muslims to work together to preserve and promote liberty, should be read in conjunction with this document. Its principles apply also to Islam.

One consequence of treating Islam as a separate religion, and not as a Christian heresy, is to be seen in the question of mixed marriages, codified in the new Canon Law, promulgated in 1983. For such marriages a dispensation is required. A distinction is made between the dispensation of ‘mixed religion’ for baptised persons belonging to different Churches, and that of ‘disparity of cult’ for people of different religions. In the latter case certain conditions have to be fulfilled before the dispensation will be granted: there must be sufficient safeguards for the faith of the Christian partner who must also promise to do all in his or her power to have all the children baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church; the other partner must be informed about these promises. In Christian-Muslim marriages this last condition needs to be verified carefully, since the Islamic approach to marriage allows polygamy (though in some countries this permission is restricted by statutory legislation) and also repudiation and divorce.

The recognition of Islam as a separate religion leads finally to an encouragement to dialogue and co-operation between Christians and Muslims. This is in fact the whole purpose of the declaration Nostra Aetate.

Pope John Paul II has called for a ‘purification of memories’, a re-examination of the past which includes an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and repentance before God. When faced with questions from the past such as the Crusades and the Islamic conquests, colonialism, the slave trade in which both Christians and Muslims participated, there could be room for a common endeavour to ensure that the burden of history does not poison present relations between Christians and Muslims.

Since the Council
In evaluating progress since Vatican II attention should be paid not only to the words of the popes but also to their actions. Much more could be said about the practical development of relations between Christians and Muslims. A complete survey would take into account the diplomatic relations established between countries with Muslim majorities and the Holy See. It would have to record the work done by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue both in the field of reflection and in actual encounters with Muslims. It would take note of the academic agreements which have brought about co-operation between Catholic and Islamic universities. It would list the various publications on this theme coming from Catholic authorities in different parts of the world and the actions they have undertaken to put relations with Muslims on a sound footing. In all of this it would be seen that the texts on Islam officially proclaimed by Vatican II remain not only a constant point of reference but also a source of inspiration which has not yet exhausted all its potentialities.

1.Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Encounters and Clashes (Rome: Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e Islamici, 1984) Vol. II, p.78; cf.Vol. I. pp.106-112.
2. On this whole question see GRIC (Muslim-Christian Research Group), The Challenge of the Scriptures: the Bible and the Qur’an (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989; original French edition 1987).
3. On Abraham, see PISAI Forum, 26 January 1996: ‘Abraham-Ibrahîm in the Monotheistic Traditions’, in Encounter: documents for Christian-Muslim understanding, 1996, no. 222-223.

More by Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald M Afr
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet