Islam, Religion of Peace and the Vatican’s Sacred Monkeys
Is it a near occasion of mortal sin to read the news?
By making hundreds of statements such as “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” the famous Yankees baseball player and manager Yogi Berra gave his name to one kind of quotable malapropism that tortures logic and makes us smile. It’s called a “Yogi Berraism.”
There really should be an English word for a demonstrably false statement that casts discredit on important truths and institutions, and goads good people toward despair in the service of a short-sighted and self-defeating agenda.
In fact, the appropriate word to describe such a really extraordinary assertion has already presented itself. We should call such a statement a “Swetland.”
That’s in honor of Monsignor Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City. This distinguished Catholic educator really earned such an accolade this week, when he scolded author Robert Spencer on the radio and in print for denying that Islam is “a religion of peace.” Indeed, Spencer has spent more than a decade documenting just the opposite in news reports and books such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and Religion of Peace.
It’s not that Swetland simply disagreed with Spencer, and the millions of other Catholics who find such a claim bizarre. No, Swetland went on to say that every Catholic must believe that Islam is a religion of peace, regardless of contrary evidence, on pain of rejecting the Catholic Church’s divine authority. That’s right, Swetlund claimed that the assertion “Islam is a religion of peace” is part of the body of Christian doctrine that the Catholic Church has passed on from the apostles, which it’s a mortal sin to publicly contradict. Hence you are putting yourself outside the Church by saying otherwise, and you might even go to Hell for sinful disobedience.
This isn’t the first time that a major Church figure has invoked the threat of hellfire for disagreeing with Pope Francis’ curious personal views. The head of the Vatican’s science office, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, in 2015 made the same claim about the pope’s take on global warming, telling a Vatican conference that Francis’ statements on climate change are just as binding on Catholics as the Church’s ban on abortion.
The Difference Between the Church of Christ and … Antichrist
Now for you non-Catholics out there this can get a little confusing. You might start to think that the Catholic Church is a pagan cult, which treats the pope like a divinely inspired oracle, who just has to open his mouth to spill out prophetic predictions and mystical insights that we all must cringe at and obey. Or else you could get the idea that the Church is a totalitarian political party like Stalin’s, which claims that its statements are the infallible “voice of history,” and reserves the right to change its party line on a dime, demanding that every Party member do likewise, on pain of expulsion.
If Monsignor Swetland and Archbishop Sorondo were telling the truth about how the Church teaches, you’d be right to have such suspicions. Such a church as they suggest would indeed be both totalitarian and pagan, an outrage against the First Commandment, since it made of its own authority a graven image for us to worship. “Antichrist” would not be too strong a word. Thanks be to God that such a church does not exist and never has.
Swetland was a little more creative than Sorondo, grounding his assertion about Islam not just in Pope Francis’ latest news conference or climate report, but in a document of the Second Vatican Council. As Catholic commentator William Kilpatrick notes, the non-dogmatic Vatican II statement Nostra Aetate contained a passage or two of tactful, misleading happy talk about the Islamic faith, accentuating the positive. It’s on that thin reed that Swetland tries to build the case that every Catholic must believe Islam is a religion of peace, or else be tarred as a rebel whose soul is in mortal danger.
How Christians Know Any Religious Truth Not Contained in the Bible
Again, forgive me, non-Catholic reader, for this dip into inside baseball. But since the current pope and some of his Yogi Berra minions seem determined to use the papal throne as a bully pulpit for bull droppings, it’s important to make this clear. Just as Protestants do not expect to learn every truth of, say, chemistry or botany from the Bible, Catholics do not treat the Church’s apostolic traditions as a magic 8-Ball to answer every question of politics or meteorology.
There are only a few, narrowly circumscribed areas where the Catholic Church claims divine protection from error.
- Truths of faith that the apostles received from Jesus, and passed on to their successors. One example is the fact that Jesus is divine, co-equal with his Father. Early on, not everyone read the Bible as implying this, and the Church held multiple councils to clarify and reaffirm this crucial teaching. Some putative “gospels” suggested otherwise, which let the Church’s bishops know they were inauthentic.
- Facts of history that are essential to the story of salvation. For instance, that Jesus really existed, and that the Apostles actually knew him personally, followed him, and spoke with him in the flesh after his resurrection.
- Instances of divine revelation that were granted to the Apostles during their lifetimes, such as the Revelation to St. John. All public revelation, essential to eternal salvation and hence binding on Christians, ended with the death of the last apostle.
- Truths of morality that accord with the natural law that God wrote in the human heart, and which the Church has consistently and universally taught since the age of the Apostles. Hence abortion, adultery, sodomy, and murder are all things we know with absolute certainty to be wrong.
There are various ways in which the Church has historically formulated and asserted truths from each of these four categories: statements by Church councils, official proclamations by popes, or the unanimous testimony of Church fathers and early Christian tradition. (There is no direct condemnation of abortion in the Bible; that didn’t stop Martin Luther from knowing that it was wrong, from the ancient Christian consensus.) There has never been an infallible statement by a Church council or pope condemning incest or murder, for instance; the historic Christian consensus on such issues is so powerful that it never seemed to be necessary.
When a pope or a council of the Church makes a statement about some issue that does not fall into category 1, 2, 3, or 4, it might or might not be true. That depends on how well-informed and intelligent were the men who drafted the document. But it rests on men, on human wisdom and knowledge, and Catholics grant it no special credence, since we know it has no unique divine protection from ignorance, rank stupidity, or error.
Now what about Islam? It didn’t exist in His lifetime, so Jesus didn’t tell his Apostles about it. (So scratch out Category 1.)
The events of Islamic history play no part in the events that led to our salvation. (There goes Category 2.)
Muhammad’s life was 500 years in the future when St. John died, so nothing was revealed about it during the age of the apostles. (That nixes Category 3.)
There is not an unbroken consensus of Christian public witness going back to the apostles that Islam is a religion of peace; nor is that assertion an article of morality knowable by reason or revelation. (And we’re done with Category 4.)
Indeed, those accounts we have of Islam when it did explode in the world are almost uniformly negative: reports by bishops and saints of violent persecution, and attacks upon its anti-Christian teachings, including the Muslim belief that all Christians are idolaters — since Jesus was merely human — who will all be damned to hell along with every Jew.
So where does that leave statements by bishops, popes, and councils about the “true nature” of Islam? In the same category as the pope’s favorite salsa band and most popular salad dressing ordered by bishops at Vatican II: outside the Church’s divine authority.
The assertion that Catholics must believe that Islam is a religion of peace, despite the evident facts of history and Islamic theology, is so outrageously false that it sounds like something a mischievous child might have made up — like the Vatican’s “sacred monkeys,” which Cordelia Flyte invented in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to tease her sister’s Protestant fiancé. It’s sad that a Catholic college president insists on preaching about such monkeys, and publicly trying to feed them bags of peanuts.