National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

Church must affirm Islam as well as Judaism

Closer relations between Abrahamic faiths could promote peace


Pope John Paul II and various Vatican congregations spoke out against an invasion of Iraq before the United States and Britain acted. Their fear? Not only would countless lives be lost, not only would it violate international law, but this action would cause irreparable harm to the interfaith relations that have been nurtured for years.

The attempt to change Catholic attitudes toward Jews began with the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate (1965). Then followed “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Document” (1974), “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis” (1985) and “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (1998). Acknowledging the need to correct past attitudes and hurtful actions bodes well for good Jewish-Christian relations now and into future generations.

But Judaism is not the only monotheistic religion that Christianity has suspected and persecuted. Logic and charity seem to demand that such openness be extended to another Abrahamic faith: Islam.

Islam has been the subject of some statements issued by the pope and the congregations, but there is no major text that asserts the essential ties among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In 1986 Pope John Paul II said of the Jewish faith, “We have therefore a relationship with it which we do not have with any other religion.” The 2001 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible,” quotes this statement as the current ecclesiastical position:

“God promised to Abraham innumerable descendants through the single son, the privileged inheritor, born of Sarah.” Abraham appears 50 times in the document; the second son, Isaac, is named six times. But Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, is never mentioned. Focusing on the fulfillment of the promise in the second son is part of the biblical tradition, but to leave the first son unnamed seems incomplete and possibly offensive to those who find their identity in him.

Even the current Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to rank Islam lower than Judaism as an Abrahamic faith. Of the Jews, it says, “The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant.” For Islam, on the other hand, the Catechism simply quotes Vatican II, Lumen Gentium: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst 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.”

One wonders if this is the divine view. Does God see Christians and Jews having a close relationship, while Muslims -- who worship the same God -- are off to the side? Do we recognize that Islam, too, is a response to God’s revelation?

Islam clearly sees further revelation beyond ancient Israel by means of its prophet. Judaism (with its bat qol, “daughter of voice,” among other things, an expression used for later divine communication) and Christianity (with its Christ, the temporal incarnation of God) have similarly experienced further revelation after ancient Israel.

Judaism has its Talmud, which interprets the Hebrew scriptures; Christianity has its New Testament, which interprets the Old Testament; and Islam has its Quran, which interprets the previous scriptural tradition. At their heart, all three religions know that their own tradition is essentially unchanged from the start, and yet all recognize additional, explanatory revelation.

The Roman Catholic church has the opportunity to clarify the relationship among the three Abrahamic faiths by making a minor change within its administrative structure. Currently, Catholic-Jewish relations are handled by the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, while Catholic-Muslim relations are dealt with through the Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The Council for Interreligious Dialogue certainly has manifested the great concern that the Roman Catholic church has for Muslims. Its activity has included warm greetings on Muslim holy days, statements on political-social concerns and gatherings for dialogue toward deeper understanding. All who are concerned about interfaith relations appreciate this advance of the Catholic church. However, having Catholic-Muslim relations handled by this more general department does not help Catholic Christians to see a close relationship among the three religions that trace the beginning of their covenant with God to the figure of Abraham.

The continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, have both demonstrated the need for greater interreligious discussion. In the former case, careful assessment of the data indicates the crisis is not the result of religious differences; it is not warfare between Judaism and Islam. Participants and commentators are invoking religious arguments and analyses to discuss what is actually a political struggle. Perhaps a statement of close relationship during this crisis could help toward a peaceful resolution.

Similarly, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 violence called upon their Muslim faith as justification for their act, but Muslim leaders around the world denounced the deed as non-Muslim to the core. Sulayman Nyang, before the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, placed the evil action in the context of the story of the earliest human killing. He said that all three Abrahamic faiths see in Cain’s slaying of Abel the symbol of the fratricide that marks human frailty.

In the Bible, the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, conquering their differences, bury their father Abraham together. At long last, these brothers seem to have been joined together by God. The faithful await strong religious statements that join Jews, Christians and Muslims under the one merciful God whom they all adore.

John J. Schmitt is associate professor of theology and teaches Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Marquette University, Milwaukee.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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