George Weigel’s new book falls short of Christian charity

In his weekly column in the January 9th Denver Catholic Register, George Weigel mentions his new book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism. I have admired the work of Weigel, which includes a magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, but I take issue with several conclusions in the new book. These conclusions belie his lofty goal of countering violent, radical movements within Islam.

Crucial to promoting peace is a clear affirmation by leaders of the West of the goodness of Islam and recognition that terrorist movements are an aberration of Islam. In his January 9th column, Weigel does well in saying that Jihadism is “a lethal distortion of Islam.” Unfortunately, this crucial message is not clear in his book, which traces terrorist movements to Islamic theology and tradition.

The book consists of fifteen lessons to be learned since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001. Lesson 2 runs contrary to Catholic teaching. It reads:

“To speak of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the ‘three Abrahamic faiths,’ the ‘three religions of the Book,’ or the ‘three monotheisms’ obscures rather than illuminates. These familiar tropes ought to be retired.” Weigel, p. 17

In reality, these phrases are important to interfaith dialogue, which begins with finding common ground. These phrases have been used by recent Popes many times. Here are two examples:

“This appeal [to justice and peace] is first and foremost for those who believe in God, in particular for the great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, called to declare their firm and decisive rejection of violence.” John Paul II, Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and World Day of Peace (January 1, 2002).

“Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in the one God, Creator of heaven and earth. It follows, therefore, that all three monotheistic religions are called to cooperate with one another for the common good of humanity, serving the cause of justice and peace in the world.” Benedict XVI, Address to Members of the National Jewish Committee (March 16, 2006).

John Paul II and Benedict XVI are following the positive view of Islam proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Council’s affirmation that Muslims and Christians worship the same God:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind”s judge on the last day.” CCC 841; Lumen Gentium 16.

Weigel’s pitting of Christianity and Judaism against Islam is deeply troubling. “Islam,” he says, “is ‘other’ in relation to Christianity and Judaism.” (p.28) And again: “Islamic theological anthropology…yields, in turn, a view of the just society that seems to be different from that of Judaism and Christianity.” (p.30) “A bit later he speaks of “Islam’s difficulties in creating the cultural conditions for the possibility of social pluralism.” (p.31). Weigel mentions John Courtney Murray at this point. But it is important to remember that Fr. Murray was silenced by the Vatican for his teaching on religious freedom a scarce ten years before his views were proclaimed at Vatican II in Dignitatis Humanae. The Catholic Church, then, has also had difficulties with accepting pluralism and religious freedom, and not all that long ago. This is a sign of hope that Islam will continue to move toward embracing democracy and toleration.

Weigel’s book continues with an imbalanced presentation. He says next to nothing positive about Islam, Mohammed, or the Quran. In Lesson 12 he mentions no positive contributions of Muslims in Western Europe, as he recites a litany of examples to show how Muslims fail to assimilate and how they undermine Western ideas of freedom.

Weigel’s language betrays an us-against-them mentality, where Western countries are criticized for appeasing Muslims in their midst. Enemies are appeased; fellow countrymen are accommodated. The dangers of categorizing a people in our society as enemies is too obvious to elaborate.

You might suppose that Weigel bears, in a civil manner, with those of us who take issue with his views. On the contrary we are labeled cowardly (“feckless”), careless (“insouciant”), and “unhinged.”

The attentive reader might have suspected he was in for a belligerent reading of Islam when Weigel dedicates his book to George Cardinal Pell, who is notorious for dismissive comments about Islam and the Quran. I am saddened to see a respected Catholic writer upholding ideas that are contrary to Christian charity and our Catholic magisterium. They are also contrary to reaching a lasting peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Dr. Michael Woodward, Library Director and Assistant Professor, St. John Vianney Seminary, Archdiocese of Denver