By Anthony Hinkelman
The culture of fear Muslims live with in post-9/11 America is an experience Catholics shared not so long ago. Dr. Tamara Sonn, author, professor and member of the board of directors of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, pointed this out during her lecture on Muslim and Catholic Interfaith Solidarity on Monday, Oct. 4 at Le Moyne College.
“Beware the world’s most threatening religion,” she began, “a dogmatic, anti-democratic spiritual regime governed by clerical tyrants bent on worldwide domination! Migrants and refugees escaping political repression in their homelands, they cross the ocean determined to exploit the very freedoms they will eventually strive to overturn. Garbed in religious costume to set them apart, the swarthy foreigners huddle in enclaves in our cities and towns.”
“This was not written about Muslims,” she said, “it was written about Irish Catholics in the 19th century.”
The quote, a faux rant caricatured by Scott Appleby of the Notre Dame Magazine, was a close interpretation of the “nativists’” who saw the influx of immigrant Catholic Irish as a threat to the U.S. Like Muslims today, the “unwashed” Irish Catholics of the 19th century were the victims of widespread fear and hate.
In the midst of public outcry over Park 51, the Muslim Community Center planned for New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that Catholics, at one time, were also prevented from practicing their religion in lower Manhattan.
“Catholics are subjected to a great deal of prejudice even still…and maybe that’s part of the reason that we’re so sensitive to prejudice against other religions,” said Sonn.
According to Sonn, the Catholic Church has led interreligious understanding since the second Vatican Council. Vatican II, opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965, brought the Church an interreligious council and a radical declaration, Nostra Aetate. Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, in 1965, Nostra Aetate offered a formal stance on the age-old dilemma of religious superiority.
Nostra Aetate reads, “In this age of ours when people are drawing more closely together and the bonds of friendship between different peoples are being strengthened, the church examines with greater care the relations she has to non-Christian religions.”
“This is a critical shift,” explained Sonn. “Always before the Church would look at institutions and belief systems. Now we’re looking at people.”
According to Sonn this was the first time the Church began referring to other religions positively. Nostra Aetate refocused the Church’s efforts to include people of diverse faiths to achieve goals of social justice.
Vatican II, under Pope Paul VI, also instituted the secretariat for non-Christians, now known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), which was designed to foster understanding between Catholicism and other religions. The Church built an understanding with Islamic teachings specifically by creating a special commission within the PCID for interreligious dialogue with the Muslim faith.
The PCID designed four forms of dialogue to guide interreligious relations, as envisioned by Nostra Aetate. The first dialogue, the Dialogue of Discourse, concerns religious beliefs applied mainly as an inter-Christian dialogue. The other three forms include the Dialogue of Religious Experience, which focuses on spiritual and religious fulfillment; the Dialogue of Life in which life experiences, both good and bad, are shared; and the Dialogue of Action, which focuses on building peace and justice.
According to its Quran, Islam, like Catholicism, embraces religious diversity. For Muslims, Islam is the combination of monotheistic traditions, said Sonn. The Prophet Muhammad did not create a new religion; he confirmed the messages of the past prophets.
What defines the two tolerant faiths, however, is the interpretations of the teachings.
“Islam teaches that what the earlier prophets taught was true, even if some of their community members misinterpreted them,” explained Sonn.
According to the Muslim faith, for example, the Holy Trinity is a misinterpretation of Christianity as it compromises monotheism. Yet for Catholics, it is the Church that holds the full truth.
“Nostra Aetate is quick to point out that the Church contains the fullest expression of God’s Truth and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, ‘Christ who is the way, the truth and the life,’” explained Dr. Kathleen Nash, Chair of the Religious Department at Le Moyne College. “Behind that statement is the Church’s claim to uniqueness, that it contains the fullness of truth.”
Regardless of interpretations, however, there is still a shared love of God and of humanity practiced in both faiths.
“We can all condemn terrorism together, violence against the innocent, social injustice, [and] end wars fought in our names that cause unspeakable suffering. We can work in solidarity for safe and sustainable resources and publicly respect each others’ religions,” said Sonn.