Month: September 2004

EWTN’s Father Echert and a Catholic view of Judaism

Bill Cork has been blogging on several responses by a Fr. John Echert of EWTN, regarding the meaning and value of contemporary Judaism and its relationship to Christianity, which have provoked quite a bit of controversy. Fr. Echert responds to questions posed on the ‘Scripture & Divine Revelation’ section on EWTN’s interactive ‘Q&A’ online bulletin board, pertaining to “Divine Revelation, especially as found in Scripture, and theology.”

It started on Sept. 22nd, when Fr. Echert, responding to an inquiry about the “Hebrew Bible”, denied that Jews today had any claim whatsoever to their scriptures, and denounced post-biblical Judaism itself as “a religion of apostasy.”

Shortly thereafter on Sept. 29th, another individual named James sought to defend the Jews against Fr. Echart’s unjust characterization of Judaism, and Fr. Echert again defended himself with examples of what has come to be called — in the wake of Vatican II — the “theology of contempt”:

The Bible and the Tradition are clear: the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed as a chastisement upon apostate Judaism for its rejection of the Messiah and for the blood of all the innocent, from Abel to Jesus. Our Lord Himself was quite explicit on this matter, as He wept over Jerusalem and warned of her fate. Thereafter, Judaism cannot fulfill its obligations of worship, and the regrouping at Jamnia recast Judaism to something akin to its present form. Furthermore, faithfulness on the part of God to the Old Covenant would mean that if the covenant partner is unfaithful, then God would punish, not continue to reward and bless. Finally, Jesus Himself made clear the sin of the leaders, namely pride, as we read in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John: “You seek the glory of men; I seek the glory of God.” As to Saint Paul, I note that you neglect to quote this text of the letter which immediately precedes your quote: (Romans 11)

    7 What then? That which Israel sought, he hath not obtained: but the election hath obtained it; and the rest have been blinded. 8 As it is written: God hath given them the spirit of insensibility; eyes that they should not see; and ears that they should not hear, until this present day. 9 And David saith: Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompense unto them. 10 Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see: and bow down their back always.

One day the blindness will be lifted and prior to the Second Coming of Christ, there will be conversions from among the Jews, for which we hope and pray.

Before I address Fr. Echert’s comments, I want to note as well another answer on the same day, in which he expressed the following concern:

Jews were the first to be evangelized, by the Lord Himself and then by the Apostles. To claim that we should no longer evangelize Jews is to abandon the great commission of the Lord and the work of the Church, and is an act against truth and charity, for it wrongly assumes that Jews can be saved without Christ and the Church.

I understand Fr. Echert’s concern, and agree with it completely. It is that which was expressed by many other orthodox Catholics two years ago, in reaction to the document “Reflections on Covenant and Mission”, published jointly by The National Council of Synagogues and The Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, USCCB, which seemed to call for the complete cessation of evangelization to the Jews and a denial of the Church’s missionary mandate.

This document provoked mixed responses from many Catholic theologicans (such as those expressed in a symposium convened by the National Catholic Register, as well as Cardinal Avery Dulles). It also caused some heated debates between members of ‘St. Blog’s Parish’, especially as embittered “traditionalists” moved beyond mere criticism of the document itself to expressions of anti-semitism towards the Jewish people. I responded to all of this at length in the essay: “Jewish Christian Relations: Mixed Signals from the Vatican”.

Consequently, Fr. Echert voices a very real and valid concern — namely, that certain ‘progressive’ theologians and laity engaged in interfaith dialogue advocate the complete abandonment of evangelization to the Jews in any form; secondly, that they perpetuate the notion that contemporary Jews and Muslims may be saved “without Christ and his Church.” (It is interesting to note that, while these assertions are sometimes justified “in the spirit of Vatican II,” not only are they mistaken, but they are demonstratably false in light of the specific teaching of Vatican II and the Church on salvation (see for example Dominus Iesus, a reaffirmation of the “salvific universality” of Christ and his Church, thoroughly grounded in Vatican II).

However, it is one thing to express such concerns by themselves (as Cardinal Dulles or Fr. Schall have done, in an exemplary manner); it is another to do so with a spirit of condescension and animosity towards the Jewish people by denouncing Judaism as “a religion of apostasy”; or to imply that the Church has assumed complete and rightful possession of he scriptures and that the Jews are no longer entitled to them; that contemporary (post-biblical) Judaism is grounded in “a rejection of the Messiah”; that Jews are in a state of perpetual chastisement; that they are, to quote Fr. Echert, “misled by their proud and wicked shepherds, instead of following the one Good Shepherd.”

This kind of speech and characterization is bolstered by a selective quoting of scripture — solely references about Jews which are negative and damning. Just as Fr. Echert criticized ‘James’ for neglecting to mention certain passages of Paul, he himself conveniently excludes Paul’s insistence that God has not rejected his people (Rom. 11: 1-2); or his assurance that “in respect to election, they are beloved because of the patriarchs. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11: 8-9).

Fr. Echert and I could go back and forth on his Q&A board in a trade-off of scriptural passages just as St. Paul himself oscillates in his deliberation of the fate of his people, but my point is this:

Fr. Echert’s comments perpetuate a teaching of contempt which, in the wake of the Holocaust, Vatican II and Pope John Paul II has firmly denounced and struggled to overcome. Just as the teaching of extra ecclesiam nulla salus should be interpreted in light of the full range of Catholic tradition including Vatican II, one cannot present a biblical view of the Jews w/o taking into account the teaching of Vatican II and the Church’s reminder that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues” (Nostra Aetate).

The Church’s teaching on the relationship of Christians and Jews is highly complex and theologically nuanced; it cannot be presented by appeal to scripture alone, but in the developed thought and teaching of the Church up to the present day, and I do not think it can be properly articulated in a few short paragraphs on EWTN’s Q&A forum.

I recognize the validity of Fr. Echert’s concerns about interfaith dialogue and a misleading portrayal of Judaism as a religion sufficient-unto-itself, but so long as those concerns are accompanied by an attitude of contempt and references to the Jewish people specifically condemned by the Church, it will impede a correct (that is to say, full) presentation of Catholic tradition on this issue.

Suggested Links & Readings

  • As I commented on Bill Cork’s blog, I believe one of the best presentations of the Church’s view on Judaism is made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — how could you tell? — in his short essay, “The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas” (L’Osservatore Romano 29 December, 2000).
  • Kevin Miller posts a further reflection by Cardinal Ratzinger on the Jews, being an excerpt from his book God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, (Ignatius, 2002).
  • Why Christianity Needs Judaism, “The Public Square” (First Things 115 (August/September 2001): 77-104), in which Fr. Neuhaus denounces a contemporary form of Marcionism rearing its ugly head:

    Yet it must be admitted that, for many Christians, Marcionism is by no means dead. I do not mean that Christians today subscribe to the doctrines taught by Marcion, although among some fringe groups there are possibly some who do. But in what is viewed as the mainstream of Christianity, also in America today, there is what we might call an operative Marcionism in which it is assumed that Christianity and Judaism are two different religions that have little or nothing to do with one another. It is Marcionism without the animus, or at least usually without the animus. In this view, the People of Israel lived back in the olden days of the Old Testament, and the fact that there are still Jews in the world is little more than a curious anomaly.
  • “Salvation is From the Jews” (First Things 117 (November 2001): 17-22.). Reflecting on Dabrut Emet, a statement “on Christians and Christianity” by the National Jewish Scholars Project, Fr. Neuhaus reminds us that “Marcionism was not a one-time heresy,” encourages us to “to reject every form of supersessionism”, and at the same time respectfully calls us to be faithful to the missionary mandate of the Church, demonstrating the possibility of doing so with respect, civility, and without any taint of animosity towards Jews and Judaism. (Traditionalists, please take note).

  • On the Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures, Pontifical Biblical Commission. Preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. May 24, 2001.

Here and there . . .

  • Shawn McElhinney explains the necessity of defending “the fundamental rights of man” in their entirety:

    One of the three fundamental rights of man that I constantly make reference to is the right to life. With regards to Terri Schiavo, I have made it clear on many occasions that what is needed and needed badly is not just a rally for the preservation of Terri’s life. No, what is needed at the same time is a consistent line of argumentation on these issues if we are to triumph in the long run on them. That means that we cannot focus only on the issue of life as if the other fundamental rights are not interconnected with them — as prolifers have been so often prone to do down through the years. Life is the first of these fundamental rights to be sure; however the others are based directly on it and cannot be separated from it without dire consequences resulting . . . READ MORE
  • William Luse has a gift of writing — he can even turn a trip to the next door neighbor’s into an engrossing story!
  • Jeremy Lott, a contributor to Crisis magazine and guest-blogger at GetReligion, investigates Deal Hudson and “Crisis management” in a special report (American Spectator Online, Sept. 27, 2004).
  • On a related note, Mark Shea criticized The Reporter’s Contemptible Hit Piece, describing it “as satanic a violation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a predator priest is of the Ssacrament of Holy Orders.” Bill Cork disagrees, presenting Catholic teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation on his blog “Ut Unum Sint.”
  • In Word from Rome (Sept. 24, ’04), John Allen, Jr. reports that

    Julian Hunte, a pro-choice Catholic politician in the West Indies who was awarded a papal knighthood Sept. 19. Hunte was made a Knight of the Grand Cross Pian Order. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano bestowed the honor in a New York ceremony.

    As the [Catholic Herald] notes, the award is especially interesting in light of the debate currently swirling in the United States over the eligibility of pro-choice Catholic politicians for the Eucharist.

    Read the rest of the story. According to Allen, the Vatican’s inclination is to justify the award as a “constructive engagement”; Fr. Linus Clovis calls it a mockery, and is appealing the Pope to overturn the decision.

    More here: “Anti-abortion sisters petition Pope Stop Hunte Award”, by Nicole Mc Donal. he St. Lucia Star Sept. 17, 2004.

And for all of you blogging fiends out there . . .

USCCB – Headed toward Schism?

Fifth Column blogger Steven Kellmeyer offers an interesting reflection on the transitory nature of pro-choice “Catholic” politicians in the United States:

Florida hurricanes have delivered two body blows, an uppercut and a vicious right hook, transforming the Sunshine State into an awesome example of what a whirlwind can do. Catholics in America should take careful note.

It has long been the contention of pro-life supporters that geographical location cannot define personhood. A child is a child no matter where that child is located. It cannot be the case that the individual in question becomes a child when she is outside the womb, but remains only a tissue-mass when she is inside the womb.

The USCCB, however, finds the geographical argument compelling in another context, however. Apparently, geographical location does define heresy. For example, John Kerry, Frances Kissling, Ted Kennedy and all the rest may be Catholics in good standing when they step on a plane in Boston, but they are not Catholics in good standing when they step off that same plane in St. Louis. Heresy is diocese-specific. . . .

As Steve develops his line of thought, he arrives at the conclusion that the USCCB is on the verge of schism,
or at least balanced precariously on the edge, awaiting that moment when one bishop decides that another’s decision to continue giving communion to obstinate sinners in a state of public, even defiant, disobedience to the Church, is tantamount to profaning the Eucharist.

. . . You cannot publicly and vociferously support legal abortion and be in communion with the Church. Now, the bishop who first announces that he cannot give Jesus to his fellow bishops because they profane the Eucharist will hardly be looked on with great love by Rome. Formal schisms are terrible things. But, on the other hand, Rome can hardly disagree with such a bishop by arguing that the USCCB’s ruling is (theo)logically coherent. It manifestly isn’t. Worse, Rome has no other basis upon which to dispute the justice of such a decision. She would have to go along with the formal break. The Catholic Church in America is hanging by the merest thread, dependent upon the willingness of every single bishop to remain quiet, to refrain from pronouncing the final, damning words that severs the erring bishops from communion with the Church. Once those words are pronounced, we will have created another Protestant Church.

Undoubtedly, the USCCB is praying the whole issue will just curl up and die after the campaign. That’s why certain bishops have insisted on refraining from judgment until after the elections. Contrary to popular belief, it may very well be the case that these bishops do not give a damn about the elections. They are undoubtedly much more worried about the impending schism the elections have forced out into the open.

It’s certainly an interesting theory. But could it be true? Have things really come this close? — Read his post, then please, discuss. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Update: Jamie Blosser has a thoughtful response to Steven’s concerns in a post to his blog (“Ad Limina Apostolorum”): “A New Donatism?”.

And you’ll know we are Christians by our love.

JERUSALEM (AP) Greek Orthodox and Franciscan priests got into a fist fight Monday at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity’s holiest shrine, after arguing over whether a door in the basilica should be closed during a procession.

Dozens of people, including several Israeli police officers, were slightly hurt in the brawl at the shrine, built over the spot where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. . . .

Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by several denominations that jealously guard territory and responsibilities under a fragile deal hammered out over the last centuries. Any perceived encroachment on one group’s turf can lead to vicious feuds, sometimes lasting hundreds of years.

Source: “Greek Orthodox, Franciscan priests brawl over opening of door in Jerusalem basilica”, by Ramit Plushnick-Masti, Associated Press, 9/27/2004.

Michael Davies, R.I.P.

Leo Darroch, Secretary, International Federation Una Voce reports:

It is with deep sorrow that I have to inform everyone of the death of Mr. Michael Davies, the President d’Honneur of the International Una Voce Federation. Michael suffered a heart attack at 9:20 p.m. on Saturday 25th September an died instantly.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Traditionalist blogger “Restore the Church” has a brief look on the life of Michael Davies. I expect more posts will be forthcoming from both sides of the Catholic spectrum.

Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord . . .

Stratford Caldecott on the "Providential Role of Mohammad"

I’d been recieving old issues of The Chesterton Review from a friend. Besides regular content by the great G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), it features a number of familiar authors like the British historian Paul Johnson, the Catholic priest and scientist Stanley L. Jaki, and Fr. James V. Schall.

The Winter, 2002 issue contained the article “The Mystery of Islam: Further Reflections”, by Stratford Caldecott, director of Oxford’s Centre for Faith & Culture and co-editor of its journal Second Spring. Readers might also recognize his name as a contributor to the ecumenical Touchstone.

The article was inspired by “The Word of God: A Catholic Perspective in Dialogue with Judaism & Islam”, and apparently seems to be a reaction to criticism of a previous article by Caldecott: “His Seed Like Stars”, a medidation on interfaith dialogue unfortunately not available online. Rather convenient, too — given the prevalance of Islam in the public eye these days as well as the discussion of the “salvific status” of other religions that repeatedly surfaces in various conversations around St. Blogs.

Caldecott begins with a review of the Church’s teaching that elements of truth and goodness can be found in other religions of the world, and the ‘broad’ interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus articulated by Vatican II, stating that “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Lumen Gentium 16).

The interpretion of “EENS” and the salvific status of other religions is conveyed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (839-48 and 856), as well as p. 20-21 of Dominus Iesus (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

Above all else, it must be firmly believed that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door”. This doctrine must not be set against the universal salvific will of God (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4); “it is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for this salvation”.

The Church is the “universal sacrament of salvation”, since, united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, her Head, and subordinated to him, she has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being. For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit”; it has a relationship with the Church, which “according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

21. With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself”. Theologians are seeking to understand this question more fully. Their work is to be encouraged, since it is certainly useful for understanding better God’s salvific plan and the ways in which it is accomplished. However, from what has been stated above about the mediation of Jesus Christ and the “unique and special relationship” which the Church has with the kingdom of God among men — which in substance is the universal kingdom of Christ the Saviour — it is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.

Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what “the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions”. Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God. One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments.88 Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation.

It is in response to Dominis Iesus‘s invitation “to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation” that Caldecott takes his cue. Caldecott observes how, in Acts 5:33-9, the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel allowed for tolerance of “the new faith” by Jews under the rationale: “if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself; but if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” In like manner, says Caldecott, Christians are prompted to account for the existence of the world’s great religions, which “as distinct from the various heresies within them, we have to take account of the fact that they have not withered after a few generations, but have successfully inspired an entire civilization.” Just as St. Paul in Romans 9-11 wrestled with the continued existence of Judaism and fact that so few of his contemporaries accepted the Messiah, so too, Caldecott appears to say, must Christians theologically contend with the existence but the expansion of a rival monotheistic religion that is Islam.

According to Caldecott, Christianity may be doctrinally closer than it initially appears. He cites Peter Kreeft, who in Ecumenical Jihad informs Christians that “the Qur’an attributes no shortcomings of any kind to Jesus. [I]t says (3:59) that He was one of only two men who were immediately created by god, rather than having a human father. (The other was Adam); [I]t calls Jesus ‘the Word of God’ (4:171); It says He had the power to work miracles, even giving life to the dead (5:110). He shares with the angels the experience of being in God’s presence (4:172).” It is also worth noting, says Caldecott, that the statements in the Quran criticizing Christianity “may be mitigated to some extent by noticing that they seem to be directed against misunderstandings that were prevalent at the time of Muhammad, particularly in the Jewish and heretical Christian communities with which he may have had most direct contact” — a position taken by Louis Bouyer in his book The Invisible Father:

For Bouyer, Islam is intelligible partly as a protest movement directed against a Christian tendency towards idolatry and tritheism. The “truth, the original and lasting authenticity of the prophetic element” in this protest is attested by “the quality of the mysticism Islam has nourished” ever since. Bouyer looks forward to the time when the “Wedding of the Lamb … will consummate the truth of the prophetic protest of Israel and of Islam, and do this within the pure confession of a Christianity which will have overcome every historical temptation”.

Islam regards Jesus as subordinate to Mohammmed (chief among God — Allah’s — prophets), and yet it is Jesus, not Muhammad, to whom Muslims await “at the end of the world to institute the reign of God.” 1 It is for this reason that Caldecott proposes that Islam may be “tolerated by God” to, in its own way, prepare a portion of the world for the Second Coming:

If it is divinely permitted by God for the Abrahamic monotheists to reject Christ for a time – as it evidently is, despite every Christian effort at evangelization, which must continue till the very end and even in the face of persecution – then Islam must exist as the possibility, now actualized, of a semitic monotheism active on the world stage as a rival to Christianity, constituting for us both a scourge and a challenge. So be it. The passages in the Old Testament where God uses the pagan kings to rebuke Israel and to bring about his purposes in history are there to confirm this possibility. . . .

To Christians Islam, though chronologically subsequent to the birth of Christ, appears to belong to an earlier period of religious development, one that has been extended in time for reasons connected with the failure of Christianity to be accepted by the Jews – a divine “reprieve” for monotheism. Islam no doubt requires its own purification before the End. Of that I am not qualified to speak. Nevertheless, when Jesus does return, the Muslims, unlike our Western atheists, will at least have been taught to expect his arrival.

It should be recognized that Caldecott’s theological speculation is not new — the French mystic Paul Claudel, the French diplomat, Islamicist and Catholic convert Louis Massignon, and even Thomas Merton have, prior to Vatican II, contributed to interfaith dialogue with Muslims. 2

Even so, for Caldecott to even propose this topic strikes one as daring, especially given that it was written in September 2002 — just a year after 9/11, the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil by Islamic militants in Al Qaeda’s self-proclaimed jihad against Western civilization. When the picture of Islam in so many minds (and dominant in the media) is that of the black-masked terrorist reciting “Allahu Ackbar” while decapitating a hostage, the mere suggestion that Christians ought to engage our fellow Muslim neighbors in dialogue, or moreover that Christian theologians are “invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation”, may feel like a slap in the face. And yet, such a call by the Church may never be as necessary as it is today.

Stratford Caldecott’s appreciation of the salvific possibilities within Islam are permitted (and with the qualifications as stated in Dominus Iesus) even endorsed. In his attempts to articulate the “eschtalogical hope” of Christianity, Caldecott remains cognitive of and faithful to the centrality of Jesus Christ and his Church in salvation, emphasizing the obligation of all Christians:

The fact that Christ was an “Incarnation” of God (not a mere Prophet, Manifestation or Avatar)[8] places him at the centre of history. No matter how much of great value there may be in the other religions, and whatever providential roles they may be able to perform, they can only be subordinate to a religion in which God is completely united with man. The fact of the Incarnation, however, can be known only by faith, and is necessarily veiled from those who are not Christian believers. A Christian, on the other hand, is obliged by this knowledge to take seriously the task of evangelization, the purpose of which is to try to convert others: by, for example, removing obstacles that might be preventing them from receiving God’s gift of faith. . . .

If we are Christians, we must evangelize. We must love the Truth, which is God, above all things, and our neighbour (even though he be of a different faith) as much as we love ourselves. We must walk the path that is before us, knowing the direction, but not yet in sight of the end.

  1. “Jesus (Isa) A.S. in Islam, and his Second Coming”, by Mufti A.H. Elias.
  2. See Christian Hermit in an Islamic World : A Muslim’s View of Charles De Foucauld, by Ali Merad, Zoe Hersov. Paulist Press. March 2000; Louis Massignon: Christian Ecumenist, by Giulio Bassetti-Sani, O.F.M. and Merton & Sufism: The Untold Story, edited by Rob Baker & Gray Henry. Fons Vitae. January 1, 2000 (particularly the chapter: “Merton, Massignon and the Challenge of Islam,” by Sidney H. Griffith).

Related Links

Stratford Caldecott on the “Providential Role of Mohammad”

I’d been recieving old issues of The Chesterton Review from a friend. Besides regular content by the great G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), it features a number of familiar authors like the British historian Paul Johnson, the Catholic priest and scientist Stanley L. Jaki, and Fr. James V. Schall.

The Winter, 2002 issue contained the article “The Mystery of Islam: Further Reflections”, by Stratford Caldecott, director of Oxford’s Centre for Faith & Culture and co-editor of its journal Second Spring. Readers might also recognize his name as a contributor to the ecumenical Touchstone.

The article was inspired by “The Word of God: A Catholic Perspective in Dialogue with Judaism & Islam”, and apparently seems to be a reaction to criticism of a previous article by Caldecott: “His Seed Like Stars”, a medidation on interfaith dialogue unfortunately not available online. Rather convenient, too — given the prevalance of Islam in the public eye these days as well as the discussion of the “salvific status” of other religions that repeatedly surfaces in various conversations around St. Blogs.

Caldecott begins with a review of the Church’s teaching that elements of truth and goodness can be found in other religions of the world, and the ‘broad’ interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus articulated by Vatican II, stating that “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Lumen Gentium 16).

The interpretion of “EENS” and the salvific status of other religions is conveyed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (839-48 and 856), as well as p. 20-21 of Dominus Iesus (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

Above all else, it must be firmly believed that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door”. This doctrine must not be set against the universal salvific will of God (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4); “it is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for this salvation”.

The Church is the “universal sacrament of salvation”, since, united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, her Head, and subordinated to him, she has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being. For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit”; it has a relationship with the Church, which “according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

21. With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself”. Theologians are seeking to understand this question more fully. Their work is to be encouraged, since it is certainly useful for understanding better God’s salvific plan and the ways in which it is accomplished. However, from what has been stated above about the mediation of Jesus Christ and the “unique and special relationship” which the Church has with the kingdom of God among men — which in substance is the universal kingdom of Christ the Saviour — it is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.

Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what “the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions”. Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God. One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments.88 Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation.

It is in response to Dominis Iesus‘s invitation “to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation” that Caldecott takes his cue. Caldecott observes how, in Acts 5:33-9, the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel allowed for tolerance of “the new faith” by Jews under the rationale: “if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself; but if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” In like manner, says Caldecott, Christians are prompted to account for the existence of the world’s great religions, which “as distinct from the various heresies within them, we have to take account of the fact that they have not withered after a few generations, but have successfully inspired an entire civilization.” Just as St. Paul in Romans 9-11 wrestled with the continued existence of Judaism and fact that so few of his contemporaries accepted the Messiah, so too, Caldecott appears to say, must Christians theologically contend with the existence but the expansion of a rival monotheistic religion that is Islam.

According to Caldecott, Christianity may be doctrinally closer than it initially appears. He cites Peter Kreeft, who in Ecumenical Jihad informs Christians that “the Qur’an attributes no shortcomings of any kind to Jesus. [I]t says (3:59) that He was one of only two men who were immediately created by god, rather than having a human father. (The other was Adam); [I]t calls Jesus ‘the Word of God’ (4:171); It says He had the power to work miracles, even giving life to the dead (5:110). He shares with the angels the experience of being in God’s presence (4:172).” It is also worth noting, says Caldecott, that the statements in the Quran criticizing Christianity “may be mitigated to some extent by noticing that they seem to be directed against misunderstandings that were prevalent at the time of Muhammad, particularly in the Jewish and heretical Christian communities with which he may have had most direct contact” — a position taken by Louis Bouyer in his book The Invisible Father:

For Bouyer, Islam is intelligible partly as a protest movement directed against a Christian tendency towards idolatry and tritheism. The “truth, the original and lasting authenticity of the prophetic element” in this protest is attested by “the quality of the mysticism Islam has nourished” ever since. Bouyer looks forward to the time when the “Wedding of the Lamb … will consummate the truth of the prophetic protest of Israel and of Islam, and do this within the pure confession of a Christianity which will have overcome every historical temptation”.

Islam regards Jesus as subordinate to Mohammmed (chief among God — Allah’s — prophets), and yet it is Jesus, not Muhammad, to whom Muslims await “at the end of the world to institute the reign of God.” 1 It is for this reason that Caldecott proposes that Islam may be “tolerated by God” to, in its own way, prepare a portion of the world for the Second Coming:

If it is divinely permitted by God for the Abrahamic monotheists to reject Christ for a time – as it evidently is, despite every Christian effort at evangelization, which must continue till the very end and even in the face of persecution – then Islam must exist as the possibility, now actualized, of a semitic monotheism active on the world stage as a rival to Christianity, constituting for us both a scourge and a challenge. So be it. The passages in the Old Testament where God uses the pagan kings to rebuke Israel and to bring about his purposes in history are there to confirm this possibility. . . .

To Christians Islam, though chronologically subsequent to the birth of Christ, appears to belong to an earlier period of religious development, one that has been extended in time for reasons connected with the failure of Christianity to be accepted by the Jews – a divine “reprieve” for monotheism. Islam no doubt requires its own purification before the End. Of that I am not qualified to speak. Nevertheless, when Jesus does return, the Muslims, unlike our Western atheists, will at least have been taught to expect his arrival.

It should be recognized that Caldecott’s theological speculation is not new — the French mystic Paul Claudel, the French diplomat, Islamicist and Catholic convert Louis Massignon, and even Thomas Merton have, prior to Vatican II, contributed to interfaith dialogue with Muslims. 2

Even so, for Caldecott to even propose this topic strikes one as daring, especially given that it was written in September 2002 — just a year after 9/11, the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil by Islamic militants in Al Qaeda’s self-proclaimed jihad against Western civilization. When the picture of Islam in so many minds (and dominant in the media) is that of the black-masked terrorist reciting “Allahu Ackbar” while decapitating a hostage, the mere suggestion that Christians ought to engage our fellow Muslim neighbors in dialogue, or moreover that Christian theologians are “invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation”, may feel like a slap in the face. And yet, such a call by the Church may never be as necessary as it is today.

Stratford Caldecott’s appreciation of the salvific possibilities within Islam are permitted (and with the qualifications as stated in Dominus Iesus) even endorsed. In his attempts to articulate the “eschtalogical hope” of Christianity, Caldecott remains cognitive of and faithful to the centrality of Jesus Christ and his Church in salvation, emphasizing the obligation of all Christians:

The fact that Christ was an “Incarnation” of God (not a mere Prophet, Manifestation or Avatar)[8] places him at the centre of history. No matter how much of great value there may be in the other religions, and whatever providential roles they may be able to perform, they can only be subordinate to a religion in which God is completely united with man. The fact of the Incarnation, however, can be known only by faith, and is necessarily veiled from those who are not Christian believers. A Christian, on the other hand, is obliged by this knowledge to take seriously the task of evangelization, the purpose of which is to try to convert others: by, for example, removing obstacles that might be preventing them from receiving God’s gift of faith. . . .

If we are Christians, we must evangelize. We must love the Truth, which is God, above all things, and our neighbour (even though he be of a different faith) as much as we love ourselves. We must walk the path that is before us, knowing the direction, but not yet in sight of the end.

  1. “Jesus (Isa) A.S. in Islam, and his Second Coming”, by Mufti A.H. Elias.
  2. See Christian Hermit in an Islamic World : A Muslim’s View of Charles De Foucauld, by Ali Merad, Zoe Hersov. Paulist Press. March 2000; Louis Massignon: Christian Ecumenist, by Giulio Bassetti-Sani, O.F.M. and Merton & Sufism: The Untold Story, edited by Rob Baker & Gray Henry. Fons Vitae. January 1, 2000 (particularly the chapter: “Merton, Massignon and the Challenge of Islam,” by Sidney H. Griffith).

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