Is There Room in the Catholic Church for Those Who Don’t Believe Islam is a Religion of Peace?

One priest and college president thinks not – and he is likely not alone.

Last Wednesday, I had a lively discussion with Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, on Relevant Radio’s Drew Mariani Show, on whether or not Islam was a religion of violence. Msgr. Swetland argued not only that Islam was a religion of peace, but that to believe otherwise was to place oneself in opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Now, I’m a Catholic. But if Msgr. Swetland is correct, I may not be one for long.

Msgr. Swetland has now helpfully supplied me with remarks clarifying his position and supporting it with statements of various Popes and the Second Vatican Council. Msgr. Swetland contends that statements of recent Popes to the effect that Islam is a religion of peace fall into the category of teachings to which Catholics must give “religious assent,” as per the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, which states: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.”

If Msgr. Swetland is correct that this “religious assent” must be given to Pope Francis’ claim that Islam is peaceful and rejects violence, then I am, as he puts it, “a dissenter from the papal magisterium.” So also, then, would be millions of other Catholics, including those from the Middle East who have borne the brunt of Muslim persecution of Christians and know what Islam teaches, such as a gentleman from Lebanon who phoned in to the Mariani Show during my discussion with Msgr. Swetland.

If Msgr. Swetland is correct, then Catholics must affirm that Islam is a religion of peace as part and parcel of being Catholic, and the Catholic Church will be requiring that its faithful affirm the truth of what is an obvious and egregious falsehood, as I demonstrated here and in many other places.

If Msgr. Swetland is correct, and it is Church teaching that all Catholics must accept that Islam is a religion of peace, then the Catholic hierarchy will have demonstrated that it does not have the authority or reliability in discerning and transmitting the truth that it claims to have; Papal claims to speak in the name of Christ will be eviscerated; and the Catholic Church as a whole exposed as a fraud.

Thus the stakes are extremely high in this question. This is why I do not think he is correct, and do not believe that Catholics are bound to affirm that Islam is a religion of peace:

  1. Msgr. Swetland says: “At least in the area of morals, Robert seems to be a dissenter from the papal magisterium.” The cornerstone of his case is that  statement from Lumen Gentium, that “in matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.”

Msgr. Swetland seems to think that affirming that Islam is a religion of peace is a matter of morals. But is it really true that the affirmation that Islam is a religion of peace really a matter of Catholic faith or morals? I don’t see how: it’s a statement about the teachings of a different religion altogether. Is the content of the Buddhist or Hindu faith also a matter of Catholic morals? My contention is that the statements about Islam by the Second Vatican Council and recent Popes are not matters of faith or morals, and so do not fall within the realm of those matters upon which Catholics must assent to the statements of Popes and bishops.

  1. If, as Lumen Gentium says, “this religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra,” and “must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will,” the question then becomes, which Roman Pontiff? Pope Francis, who declared that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” or Pope Callixtus III, who in 1455 vowed to “exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East”?

Are Catholics to believe that Islam is a “diabolical sect” because Pope Callixtus III said it was, and simultaneously believe that it is “opposed to every form of violence” because Pope Francis said so? Or must Catholics go with Francis and reject Callixtus as a “dissenter from the papal magisterium” because he believed Islam to be diabolical? What authority does Francis have that Callixtus did not have? Or does Francis trump Callixtus solely by virtue of being of the present day and not forgotten? The Church fought Crusades against Muslims for several hundred years. Are all the Popes who called for and approved of those expeditions to be accorded “submission of mind and will,” or do only John Paul II, Benedict XVI (whom Msgr. Swetland numbers among the Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace crowd, but may not really belong there) and Francis get that?

  1. Msgr. Swetland’s claim that Catholics must as a matter of obedience affirm that Islam is a religion of peace would require the Church to repudiate much of its history. Will Santiago Matamoros be repudiated and no longer regarded as a saint? Will St. John of Damascus be rejected for his eighth-century criticism of Islam? Will the Dantescan fresco of Muhammad in hell in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna be whitewashed? Will the Church call on Catholics not to celebrate the victories at Tours in 732, Lepanto in 1571 and Vienna in 1683, and others over Islamic jihadis, and express regret for them?

Will Hilaire Belloc’s writings on Islam as “the most formidable and persistent enemy” of the Church be officially repudiated by the hierarchy? From the beginning of Islam, Muslims have warred against Christians and the Church, as numerous saints and martyrs attest. Were all of them out of step with the Church’s teaching? No, the Church’s teaching on Islam was vastly different then from what it is now. Will all of these saints and martyrs be repudiated as well?

There are other problems with Msgr. Swetland’s statement. He quotes a statement of the U.S. bishops and the American Muslim Council to show that “mainstream Muslims reject terrorism and violence.” The fact that numerous Muslim groups condemn jihad terror attacks is not really at issue, and just raises the further question of why there are no programs in any U.S. mosque to teach young Muslims why they should reject the understanding of Islam taught by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihad groups.

But aside from that, I wonder if Msgr. Swetland is aware that Abdurrahman Alamoudi, the founder of the American Muslim Council, is now in prison for financing al-Qaeda. How could it be that the founder of a group that shows how “mainstream Muslims reject terrorism and violence” ended up financing al-Qaeda? Might the sanction that the Qur’an gives to religious deception shed any light on that question? This is not to say that there are no Muslims who are sincere in rejecting jihad terror, but Msgr. Swetland’s choice of an example to illustrate that was unfortunate in the extreme.

Msgr. Swetland includes in his statement to me an article in which Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo says: “It would be naive to pretend that there are not certain episodes in the Koran and the Hadith that may lend themselves to a violent interpretation…how the Muslim community worldwide can give a peaceful hermeneutic to these passages is a task which I imagine will be made more difficult with too much pressure ‘from outside’…I wouldn’t dream of telling Muslims how to interpret their faith. But those who want to work towards that end from within will find a strong ally and friend in the Catholic Church, ready to accompany on the way.”

Great. But Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo has thus tacitly admitted that “a peaceful hermeneutic” of the Qur’an’s violent passages does not now exist, and that the task of formulating it will be “difficult.” Islam is 1,400 years old. Why doesn’t this “peaceful hermeneutic” already exist? Why is it yet to be developed? Isn’t its non-existence telling?

Msgr. Swetland also included in his clarifying remarks some highly insulting and defamatory things to say about me personally. One is that I’m an ISIS recruiter: he claims that “Spencer’s interpretation also allows these radical groups to say to potential recruits, mostly disaffected young persons who are susceptible to radicalization, ‘See, even our most vocal opponents agree with us that our interpretation of Islam is the correct one.‘”

The idea that jihadis invoke non-Muslims in recruiting is absurd, albeit held not just by Msgr. Swetland but by Barack Obama, John Kerry and a host of others. In reality, Muslims do not look to non-Muslims for validation of what is Islam and what isn’t, any more than Christians look to non-Christians to tell them what Christianity is and isn’t. If Msgr. Swetland knew anything about Islam, he would know that “the best of people,” which is what the Qur’an calls Muslims (3:110), do not look to “the most vile of created beings” (98:6) to explain Islam to them.

Msgr. Swetland also says that I have failed to “avoid hateful generalizations.” This is a false charge, and I challenge him to produce even one example of a “hateful generalization” in any of my fifteen books, hundreds of articles, and 40,000+ website posts about Islam. He can also consult hundreds of YouTube videos of me speaking in all sorts of contexts. There is so much material, he shouldn’t have any difficulty finding one. When he fails to find one, however, as he will certainly do, I respectfully request that he retract that charge.

Whether or not Msgr. Swetland’s analysis is correct, he certainly reflects the way the winds are blowing. And so the Church hierarchy, and perhaps Pope Francis himself, needs to clarify whether there is still any place in the Catholic Church for those who do not believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Since it is a readily demonstrable fact that it isn’t, if affirming Islam as peaceful is now required of Catholics, then I will follow in the footsteps of another notorious Catholic detested by the hierarchy, the monk who said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

But those in the Catholic Church who agree with Msgr. Swetland may find my departure from the fold, however devoutly they may desire it, to be a pyrrhic victory, for they will in that event have bound themselves to a falsehood so great as to destroy utterly all their claims to speak with moral authority in the name of Christ and to delineate the correct understanding of Christianity. They will also by their willful ignorance have thereby abetted the destruction of Christianity on the continent where it was most flourished, and around the world.