Journalistically speaking, there are some newsmakers that reporters come to cherish for what we call the “say it out loud” factor – because they’re willing to say, crisply and clearly, things we know other people in their circles are thinking but often hesitant to voice.
One such figure is obviously American Cardinal Raymond Burke, which is the reason why over the last three years he’s consistently been one of the most oft-quoted figures in Catholic life after Pope Francis himself.
Burke puts into words the sentiments of many Catholic conservatives in the era of Francis, and he was at it again this week, taking part in a virtual press conference to promote his new book Hope for the World from Ignatius Press, done in the form of a Q&A with French journalist Guillaume d’Alançon.
Burke took questions on multiple topics, from American politics to the looming canonization of Mother Teresa, but it was probably what he had to say on Islam that was the best example of his “say it out loud” panache.
He asserted, firmly and unmistakably, that Muslims and Christians simply do not worship the same God.
while our experience with individual Muslims may be one of people who are gentle and kind and so forth, we have to understand that in the end what they believe most deeply, that to which they ascribe in their hearts, demands that they govern the world.”
That, of course, is not the usual Vatican rhetoric when it comes to Muslims and Islam. (For the record, Burke is no longer the head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura, but he is the patron of the Order of Malta and thus, at least in a sort of nominal way, he remains a Vatican official.)
Usually, senior ecclesiastics, very much including Pope Francis, begin any commentary on Islam with some version of the statement that “we’re all children of the same God.” That, for example, is the language Francis used on Holy Thursday this year when he went to an asylum center in Rome to wash the feet of immigrants and refugees, including Muslims from Mali, Eritrea, Syria, and Pakistan.
Quite probably, Francis will say something similar later this month when he travels to Assisi on Sept. 20 to take part in an inter-faith summit organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the new movements in the Catholic Church known especially for conflict resolution, ecumenism and outreach to other religions.
Burke, however, takes a very different, and obviously less irenic, point of view in thinking about Islam.
“Our ancestors gave their lives to save Christianity because they saw that Islam was attacking sacred truth,” he said on Monday. “Everything I’ve said of Islam is based on my own study of its book and its commentators.”
With no hesitation, he said, “Capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity.”
To be precise, it’s not that there’s necessarily any contradiction between the pope’s line and Burke’s. Francis is likely making a doctrinal point, which is that there’s only one God and Muslims (like Jews and others) join Christians in professing belief in that God. Burke is really talking theology, making the equally common sense observation that Muslims have a different theology from Christians on many points. (The Trinity may be the most obvious example, but hardly the only one.)
Still, there is an unmistakable contrast between the way Pope Francis and many Catholic leaders talk about Islam, and the way Burke does.
What does that tell us, aside from the blindingly obvious point that not everyone in the Catholic Church thinks the same way on every question? Perhaps the point isn’t so much what it tells us – if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ll have noticed that Burke’s approach on many things is often a study in contrast with that of the pope – but what it ought to be telling Muslims.
Here’s the thing. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world and 1.6 billion Muslims. Because Islam is disproportionately concentrated in countries with higher than average fertility rates, the Pew Research Center projects that by the year 2070, Islam will more or less pull even with Christianity, resulting in vast global pools of roughly 3 billion people each, which will be two-thirds of the total human population.
To put the point as simply as possible, there is no future for humanity that doesn’t involve constant cycles of violence and bloodshed if there isn’t some sort of détente between these two religious Goliaths.
What Muslims probably need to know is that two things are true about Catholic thinking, which will inevitably be a decisive factor in any Christian response.
First, there’s obviously willingness on the Catholic side for détente, exemplified by Pope Francis’ firm insistence that terrorism does not represent the true face of Islam, and that new Muslim arrivals in the West must be treated with dignity and respect.
Second, however, there’s also the fact that many Catholics have no appetite for peace at any price, and that as they see it, the cost of admission to dialogue is for Islam to accept religious pluralism – not just as a sort of second-class citizenship under Islamic domination, but in principle, as a defining feature of a society that respects the freedom of its citizens.
Burke can rankle people, especially the most ardent Pope Francis devotees, with his unwillingness to dial down his fairly hardline positions. In this case, however, he’s giving voice to a position that Muslims need to understand is part of the conversation awaiting them as both Christianity and Islam try to grope together toward the future.