On Evangelistic Dialogue with Jews and Muslims

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The following was a college essay written by Jonathan McMonigal. It has been edited and approved by Julea Pehl. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Part I: Introduction

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council decreed that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. This is a particularly hotbed issue, as the theological relationship between Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam have been historically controversial to say the least. While many on the more traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church felt betrayed by this so called heretical pronouncement, those on the progressive perspective seized the wording of the council to promote a sort of Abrahamic syncretism. These two extremes are certainly far from the truth, since the Ecumenical Council merely drew on the rich resources of Scripture and tradition for this answer. While the three faiths did stand in enmity before the council, a rapprochement was reached afterwards. The council spoke on Jews and Muslims not from a place of discontinuity or rupture but actually from the vantage point of the greater Catholic tradition. What was once only implicit within the deposit of faith was finally made explicit by the council.

The Catholic Church now engages in evangelistic dialogue with Jews and Muslims based on their shared spiritual patrimony, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and the New Evangelization. The Catholic tradition clearly lists Jews and Muslims as worshipping the one, true God, albeit in a heretical manner. As well, The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council draws on tradition to outline the specific relationship between the Abrahamic faiths. Last, the New Evangelization inspired by the council freshly encounters Jews and Muslims with Christ. From these three wellsprings the Catholic Church can truly make disciples of all nations. The goal of the council was to be better able to encounter Jews and Muslims with the gospel of Christ that they so desperately need. A knee jerk reaction of bigotry, intolerance, or hatred could no longer be permitted within the venue of the modern Catholic world. In engaging Jews and Muslims from a shared Abrahamic perspective, the Church could attempt to win them for Christ.

Part II: The Shared Spiritual Patrimony

Since the Second Vatican Council declared the Word of God to be “the soul of theology”, this summary must begin with Holy Writ itself. In the Old Testament, St. Moses the Prophet recited to the People of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength. (Deut 6:4-5)” This creed excludes all other gods, so it is the very heart of monotheism. The Catholic Church references this verse in the Nicene Creed, for as the Catechism states: “The Christian faith confesses that God is one in nature, substance and essence.” The three Abrahamic religions are founded on this unique profession of one God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Turning now to the New Testament, our Lord Jesus Christ goes on to challenge the Pharisees with his own divine Sonship. Our Lord frankly states “…You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father (John 8:19).” This is because our Lord goes on to identify himself with God, stating: “The Father and I are one (John 10:30).” This is a great stumbling block to the prideful Pharisees, who pay lip service to God but without faith. The Son is the mediator between God and man, so that rejection of Christ is to no longer know God. This is why St. Paul the Apostle states of the Jews: “For I bear them witness, that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2).” The one God of Abraham can only be known through our Lord Jesus Christ, so the Jews who reject Christ are devoid of God. 

Arriving now at the ancient Church, the disciples of the Apostles considered Judaism as an antiquated religion. As the bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius wrote that: “For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God.” Of particular note is St. Justin the Martyr, who created the earliest Christian apologetic for Jewish evangelism. St. Justin remarks to Trypho the Jew that: “For indeed you are not in the habit of sacrificing to Baal, as were your fathers,… but you have not accepted God’s Christ. For he who knows not Him, knows not the will of God…” The theme is that the Jews worship the God of Christ, but they do not know God for lack of Christ. 

Now the Holy Doctors of Late Antiquity continue the polemical discourse. The greatest of Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo classified Christianity and Judaism contra Paganism as religions of “those who worship one God…” In contrast, St. Ambrose of Milan wrote this of the Jews: “Who is to avenge the Synagogue? Christ, Whom they slew, Whom they denied? Will God the Father avenge those who do not receive the Father, since they have not received the Son?” The Church Fathers hold a tension concerning Judaism, namely that Christians and Jews do worship the one God of Abraham but that the Jews are in rebellion against their own God. The Church Fathers point to the Jewish rejection of Christ as separation from God.

During the 7th c. AD, Muhammad of Arabia supposedly received a new revelation from God, and from this the so called prophet started a militant religion. In response, St. John of Damascus wrote the first Christian polemic against Islam. He regarded it as the “heresy of the Ishmaelites”, and he accused Muslims of being “Mutilators of God” for cutting off the Word and the Spirit from the Father. This charge of Islam being a Christian heresy would echo throughout Christendom. St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the Medieval Scholastics, regarded Islam as a sect “committed to erroneous doctrines”. Islam became likened to a distortion of Judaism, where Moses was simply exchanged for Muhammad.

From the Middle Ages up until the 20th c. AD, certain Catholic saints wrote more nuanced opinions on Jews and Muslims. In the 11th c. AD, Pope St. Gregory VII wrote a diplomatic letter to the Muslim ruler of current day Algeria, stating: “we believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way…” During the 16th c. AD, St. Robert Bellarmine, the great Counter-Reformer, wrote: “…the Jews themselves and the Turks [Muslims], although they are impious, yet worship the one God.” During the 20th c. AD, Pope St. Pius X categorizes Muslims as infidels, stating: “though admitting one true God, they do not believe in the Messiah…” The sense of the faithful is that Jews and Muslims do worship God, but in their rejection of Christ the Mediator they do not know this God.

Part III: The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council

At the middle of the 20th c. AD, Pope St. John XXIII decreed that the Catholic Church would hold the 21st Ecumenical Council. During his announcement speech, the Good Pope outlined his motivations for the new council, namely “Aggiornamento”, which means in Italian “bringing up to date”. Pope St. Paul VI explicitly referred to “Aggiornamento” as the “guiding principle of the Ecumenical Council” so that the Church could “give careful consideration to the signs of the times”. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI further reflected on the concept, stating “This constantly updated vitality, this ‘aggiornamento’, does not mean breaking with tradition; rather, it is an expression of that tradition’s ongoing vitality.” The goal of the council was to equip the Catholic Church to present her ancient truths to a modern audience.

In the declaration entitled “Nostra Aetate”, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council specifically addressed the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions.  The implicit inspiration for this document was the Holocaust, for Pope St. John XXIII previously consulted the Jewish scholar, Jules Isaac, to respond to this grievous act of Antisemitism. The document eventually developed into an assessment on all of the major world religions in relation to the Catholic Church. The goal of the declaration was to open up the pathway to interfaith dialogue, putting aside polemics in favor of peace.

“Nostra Aetate” first reflects on the Muslims before the Jews, for the purpose of outlining “what men have in common”. It states: 

“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. 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.”

Of particular note, the Ecumenical Council lists that the Muslims “adore the one God” and “worship God”, yet “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God”. Although Muslims do reject the Holy Incarnation, the council traditionally reaffirms their shared Abrahamic monotheism. 

Taking up over half of the document, “Nostra Aetate” then reflects on the Jews. The council states that: “Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers…” The document continues in saying “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” The section ends by stating “…the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews…decries hatred…directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” The shadow of the Holocaust is certainly palpable. Such an atrocity necessitated these kind words.

Part III: The New Evangelization

In tandem with the call to interfaith dialogue, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council proclaimed the necessity for missionary activity. In the document “Ad Gentes”, the council desired that “the people of God, marching along the narrow way of the Cross, may spread everywhere the reign of Christ, Lord and overseer…” About a decade after the council, Pope St. Paul VI remarked that “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity”. Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of “Ad Gentes”, Pope St. John Paul II specifically called for a “new evangelization” unto the modern world, stating: “No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” The Church made clear her modern recommitment to the ancient Gospel of Christ.

Within the post-conciliar Church, a dynamic tension arose between interfaith dialogue and the new evangelization. In particular, Pope St. John Paul II became the first pope to ever step foot in a Jewish synagogue, as he lamented the atrocities of the Holocaust. He also became the first pope to visit an Islamic mosque, all the while pleading for peace. Since then, the papal successors of Pope St. John Paul II have continued to meet for cordial dialogues on peace with Rabbis and Imams. These actions were earnestly meant for peace, but it is hard to imagine the Holy Doctors of old understanding these actions.

The answer of reconciliation between interfaith dialogue and the new evangelization is the necessity of Christ. In his encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam” released during the council, Pope St. Paul VI coined the term “dialogue of salvation”, citing revelation as the “…supernatural link which God has established with man…”. The pope authoritatively states that “Indeed, honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that the Christian religion is the one and only true religion…” In the document “Lumen Gentium”, the Ecumenical Council would explicate this sentiment, stating: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” Thus dialogue is always in the pursuit of evangelization.

In order to clear up all doubt, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated the document “Dominus Iesus” under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The document boldly stated that followers of other religions in comparison to Catholics are in “a gravely deficient situation”. This necessitates interfaith dialogue as the common bridge for the new evangelization. As Pope Francis stated in “Evangelii Gaudiume”: “Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.” The outreach to Jews and Muslims for peace is in actuality outreach for their salvation, for these followers of the Abrahamic faith are not to be addressed with harsh polemics or angry tomes but with friendly dialogue over shared beliefs.

Part V: Conclusion

The Catholic Church teaches that in the modern world an evangelistic dialogue with Jews and Muslims is necessary based on a shared spiritual patrimony, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and the New Evangelization. Among the great world religions, there is a special connection between Christians, Jews, and Muslims through Abraham. The Catholic tradition informs the Catholic mind that Jews and Muslims have a deficient faith in their rejection of Christ, but it is a general faith in God nonetheless. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the shared adoration of God among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As well, the New Evangelization connected interfaith dialogue over Abrahamic commonalities to the necessity of salvation in Christ. Many hold a temptation to both extremes regarding Jews and Muslims, either demonizing them as heretical monsters or pandering to them as already saved. However, the Catholic Church calls for a golden mean, where genuine dialogue in the love of God bridges the gap of fear and alienation to provide a genuine opportunity for evangelization. This is the true goal of Christians, to go out and make disciples of all men.

Part VI: Bibliography

Barnes, Michael, “Nostra Aetate – the moral heart of the Second Vatican Council,” at Jesuits in Britain (27 October 2015), at www.jesuit.org.uk.

Bellarmine, Robert. “Disputations about Controversies of the Christian Faith, Volume One, First General Controversy: On the Word of God, Written and Unwritten In Four Books.” at Sensus Fidelium, at www.sensusfidelium.us.

Boudreaux, Richard, “John Paul First Pope to Visit Mosque,” at Los Angeles Times (7 May 2001), at www.latimes.com.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, At The Holy See, w2.vatican.va.

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“Dominus Iesus,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009, (Detroit: Gale, 2009), 246-267.

Fitzgerald, Michael L. “Nostra Aetate, a Key to Interreligious Dialogue.” Gregorianum 87, no. 4 (2006): 699-713. At JSTOR, www.jstor.org.

Joseph Ellul, “The Issue of Muslim-Christian Dialogue “Nostra Aetate” Revisited,” Angelicum 84, no. 2 (2007): 361-81, at JSTOR, www.jstor.org.

Mazurczak, Filip, “How St. John Paul II changed the Church and the world,” at The Catholic World Report (22 October 2016), at www.catholicworldreport.com.

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Pope John Paul II, Encyclical On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate Redemptoris mission (7 December 1990).

Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelization in the Modern World Evangelii nuntiandi (8 December 1975).

Pope Paul VI, Encyclical on the Church Ecclesiam suam (6 August 1964).

Pope St. Pius X, “Catechism,” II, 12, at Eternal Word Television Network, at www.ewtn.com.

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St. Ambrose, Letters, 40, 26, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1896), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 20, 10, trans. by Richard Stothert. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4. ed. by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1887), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

Sandra Toenies Keating. ““Say Not Three”: Some Early Christian Responses to Muslim Questions about the Trinity.” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 74, no. 1 (2010): 85-104, at Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu.

St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Magnesians, 10, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org. 

St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 136, trans. Marcus Dods and George Reith. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

The New American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,2011.At United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, I, 6, at Calibre Library, https://isidore.co.

Edited by Julea Pehl

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