Fort Hood, Vatican II, and Regensburg

What do Fort Hood, Vatican II and Regensburg have in common? More than you might think.

As details continue to emerge surrounding last week’s massacre at Fort Hood, which wounded nearly  three dozen people and left thirteen others dead, the consequences of a hyper-sensitive kid glove approach to Islam is being brought into increasingly sharper focus.

According to coworkers, the accused gunman, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, had plainly divulged his anti-American, pro-jihadist sentiments over a period of years, but rather than confronting Hasan’s radical Islamic hostility head-on, his military superiors chose to tread lightly.

“They don’t want to say anything because it would be considered questioning somebody’s religious belief,” one of Hassan’s former classmates, Lt. Col. Val Finnell, told Fox News.

“The issue here is political correctness,” he concluded.

This tiptoe-through-the-minefield approach to addressing Muslims isn’t confined to the diversity mongers of the U.S. military I’m afraid, nor is it anything new.

Enter the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, which had this to say on the topic:

“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” (NA 3)

It’s not very difficult to understand, especially given the stark realities of life in the post 9-11 world, why so many Catholic eyebrows have been raised by this rather sanguine assessment. I will admit that I don’t much care for the approach taken here — not because it is necessarily incorrect, however, but because it strikes me as incomplete to the point of practically inviting confusion.

If I may play armchair quarterback for just a moment, the Council Fathers would have served all of us well to include some clarifying statements in order to preempt the false interpretations that are so commonly posited on the matter. Thankfully, Pope Benedict XVI provided some much needed clarity four decades after the fact, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

At the risk of offending the ecumenically squeamish, we need to be very clear about what the Council Fathers are saying, as well as what they are not saying, in Nostra Aetate. A careful review of the text reveals that the Council is simply acknowledging that to the extent that Muslim persons adore the “merciful, all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth,” they do indeed worship the God of Judeo-Christian tradition; a fact that is self-evident since there is only one Creator God “living and subsisting in Himself.”

It is crucial to realize that the Council Fathers are not saying that God as defined by the tenets of Islam — a faith tradition that is replete with many grave errors — is indeed the God of Judaism and Catholicism. Nor are they suggesting that the Allah of the Qur’an is also the God of the Old and New Testaments. One will notice in fact that the Council had very little to say about “the faith of Islam” itself beyond the notion that it “takes pleasure in linking itself” with Abraham while deliberately leaving the validity of the claim unaddressed.

So why was the Council’s approach so nuanced on these points? In spite of the title to the Declaration, the Council Fathers appear to be speaking not so much about the non-Christian religion known as Islam as they are about human beings who call themselves Muslim. Evidently the Council’s intent was to draw attention to the building blocks of shared convictions such as they may exist in individual Muslim persons.

While finding common ground might be a good conversation starter, on its own it can hardly suffice as the actual substance of authentic ecumenism. True ecumenical dialogue requires what my Jewish friends would call chutzpah, (something we Italian-Americans know by a slightly more colorful name, but we’ll just stick with chutzpah.) Whatever you happen to call it, it’s the conviction of faith and the intestinal fortitude to meet error and evil head-on — in spite of those worldly voices that are so quick to label such behavior “bad manners” — even when it’s difficult, and, yes, even when it appears to be dangerous.

When it comes to confronting the view of Allah as the impetuous God who commands the killing of innocent lives many people seem far more inclined to simply walk on eggshells and hope for the best, but not His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

During an address given at University of Regensburg in September of 2006, the Holy Father recounted a dialogue that took place between a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor and a Persian defender of Islam, and he quoted the emperor as saying to his Muslim counterpart, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Worldwide reaction to this one solitary quote ranged from self-righteous indignation in the politically correct media of the West, to outbursts of violent public protest in many segments of Islam. Read in context, however, one finds that the Holy Father never actually endorsed the emperor’s assessment; rather he used it to challenge those who embrace the strategy of evangelization-by-sword, ultimately suggesting that such an approach contradicts both human reason and the very nature of God Himself.

For Benedict’s Muslim listeners, it was an invitation to either join him in confronting the notion of an irrational God, or to dare an attempt of its defense through rational thought. You see, the fertile intellect of Pope Benedict XVI had determined that common ground was most usefully constructed, not upon flowery language, but upon the divinely given gift of human reason that can serve as the launching point for true interreligious dialogue — if only the parties are willing.

So, the Holy Father proposed to the Muslim world from the lectern in Regensburg, are you willing?

No small number of observers, Jews and Catholics included, entirely missed the point and condescendingly questioned the Holy Father’s religious and diplomatic acumen. Many claimed recourse to the mistaken notion that Vatican II had ordained the Allah of Islam as one and the same as the God of Judeo-Christian belief.

While the most widely publicized immediate result of the Regensburg address was condemnation and unrest, we can now see these knee-jerk reactions for what they largely were: the predictable recoiling of those who “hate the light lest their deeds should be exposed” (cf John 3:20).

Three years after Regensburg the Holy Father’s challenge to Islamic leaders is beginning to bear fruit as sincere Muslims are slowly emerging from the shadows while those bent on evil and destruction are paradoxically revealing their motives as they scurry further into the darkness. Therein lies a valuable lesson; boldly confronting error with truth not only serves to make Christ known, it also serves to make the heart of man known as each is compelled, with the gratuitous aid of God’s grace, to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).

One can discern in these events nothing less than the natural progression of evangelization; when Christ is proclaimed, the Truth confronts, and a choice demands to be made: “one is either with Him or against Him” (cf Mt. 12:30).

So what do Fort Hood, Vatican II and Regensburg have in common? Each in its own way demonstrates the importance of straightforwardness, intrepidness and honesty in the matter of Judeo-Christian-Muslim relations.

So what now?

No, Nidal Hasan’s military superiors can’t turn the clock back and rethink the “political core-weakness” (a phrase newly coined right in this very space) that may have contributed to the Fort Hood tragedy. Nor can the Council Fathers go back and rewrite Nostra Aetate with an eye toward offering a greater degree of clarity. All of us, however, can learn a valuable lesson from the Holy Father’s example of what it means to answer the Lord’s call to carry the truth to all peoples, including the Muslims.

This article was previously published by Catholic News Agency and is used by permission of the author.

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