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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