Islam: When the Church can speak authoritatively, and when she cannot

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 16, 2016

This would be hilarious if it weren’t evidence of confusion in the Church. It seems that Relevant Radio carried a debate between Robert Spencer and Msgr. Stuart Swetland on this question: “Is Islam violent?” Spencer runs the website jihadwatch.org and Msgr. Swetland, who holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology, is the President of Donnelly College.

Shortly after the debate, Msgr. Swetland wrote Spencer a long letter which argued that Spencer’s characterization of Islam as violent was a contradiction of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, citing a number of statements in recent years which indicate the Church’s esteem for Islam and express the desire for greater mutual understanding and collaboration. Much of the material in question, along with Spencer’s response, is available online under this title: Is there room in the Catholic Church for those who don’t believe Islam is a religion of peace?.

As I said, this would be uproariously funny under less serious (and less public) circumstances. As a Catholic priest with a doctorate in theology, Msgr. Swetland should never have expressed the opinion that Robert Spencer, in considering Islam a religion of violence, was a dissenter from the Magisterium. Fortunately, I happened to tune in to Msgr. Swetland’s own radio program, Go Ask Your Father, earlier today and found that, in answering a question from a caller, he stressed that while we must always take the Magisterium into account, the state of this question required caution and an acknowledgement of the possibility of disagreement.

Islam and the Limits of the Magisterium

I was glad to hear this, though I’m not sure why anyone would find this particular issue difficult. The Church’s Magisterium applies exclusively to matters which God has revealed. God has revealed things to us explicitly (in what we call Divine Revelation as preserved in Scripture and Tradition) and implicitly (through creation, in which we perceive what we call the Natural Law). The Church can speak surely only on faith and morals, which in turn are revealed only in these two ways. Moreover, the Church speaks infallibly and requires religious submission of mind and will only when the pope alone or the bishops in union with the pope clearly intend (1) to teach, (2) on a matter of faith or morals, (3) to the whole Church, (4) by virtue of the supreme Petrine authority.

I should pause here to mention that the Church also has other kinds of authority, especially the jurisdiction that enables popes and bishops to order the life of the Church in matters of what we call “discipline”. But the exercise of the Church’s disciplinary power is prudential. Church discipline must be obeyed, but no disciplinary solution is in the least guaranteed to be the only possibility or the best possibility. Disciplinary provisions can also change according to culture, current needs, and the priority of the various possible goals which will be affected by the discipline in question.

The issue of whether Islam is a religion of peace or a religion of violence cannot be considered a fit subject for Magisterial teaching unless we fall into the grave error of believing that Islam is Divinely revealed. In that case, of course, the Church would obviously have the authority to distinguish true and false statements about the nature of Islam. As Spencer pointed out, if we pretend that the Church does have this authority, we would be hard-pressed to choose between those popes and bishops who have said encouraging things about Islam and those, like Pope Calixtus III, who thought it a “diabolical sect”.

In fact, the content of the Qu’ran was not revealed by God, and there is absolutely no evidence in miraculous signs of any kind that it was. Its historical claim to fame is its monotheistic improvement over the polytheism it replaced coupled with the significant military success of Muhammed and subsequent Islamic leaders. When the Church confronts the essence (or the meaning) of Islam, she is faced with the same task the rest of us have. She must determine the answer through two sorts of evidence: (1) The writings which are received by Muslims as the basis for Islam; and (2) The ways in which human behavior has manifested itself under the influence of Islam. On the one hand we have literary criticism; on the other we have sociology.

The Problem of Description

Moreover, there is no authority principle in Islam as there is in Catholicism. There is no source of correction acknowledged as having the authority to distinguish true and false conceptions of the will of Allah. Islam has within it divergent schools of thought and competing sects, much like Protestantism, and these can differ on the question of the religious requirement for violence, whether against infidels or against women.

This means that, in the last analysis, we are left with a complex problem of description. People will disagree about how best to describe what they have been able to grasp of the nature of Islam. But questions of morality in such efforts do not inhere in the descriptions themselves—such that one description intrinsically violates Catholic morals while another does not. The only moral principle involved in the descriptive process is the moral obligation to study carefully and describe truthfully—that is, without deliberate distortion or deception. The “right” description cannot be pre-defined by Church authority, or by any other authority.

The tendency of modern Catholic leaders to focus on positive elements in Islam in the hope of improving relations is not intrinsically more truthful than the tendency of earlier Catholic leaders to focus on negative elements in the hope of protecting the faithful from Islam’s errors and encouraging its collapse. Clearly there can be elements in Islam which good Catholics find both positive and negative, relatively speaking, according to their points of comparison and their overall goals.

I understand that non-Catholics (as well as intellectually inexperienced Catholics) may be confused about the differences in the definitive truth-value of ecclesiastical strategies, ecumenical discussions, religious exhortations, theological opinions, social commentary, traditional interpretations, Church discipline, liturgical forms, doctrinal explanations, the teachings of the Magisterium, and Catholic dogma. But theologians must keep these things straight. If we accord Magisterial weight to the wrong things, we will look back in history and find innumerable cases of the Magisterium contradicting itself.

Whew! For a moment there, it looked as if even the elect (were it possible) might be led astray (Mt 24:24).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 18, 2016 10:32 AM ET USA

    Confusion about the nature of Islam runs rampant across Western society. I, for example, was not even aware of my confusion about the nature of marriage in Islam until one of my Saudi Arabian students gave a seminar talk about it. According to her presentation and subsequent Q&A, marriage in Islam is a purely legal contract, able to be terminated at will. The contract is not affirmed in a formal religious ceremony, but by the bride and groom sitting down with an imam to certify the contract.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Aug. 16, 2016 9:22 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this reminder. And it seems to me that just as Islam "cannot be considered a fit subject for Magisterial teaching," immigration policy can't be either, as it too has not been revealed by God.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 16, 2016 3:53 PM ET USA

    III cheers for Calixtus III.