Some of the comments on social media yesterday seemed to imagine that in saying what I did about the Pope’s comments on Islam and violence, I was in some way accepting some degree of parity between Christianity and Islam, or, to be more precise, that the Pope ought to have been telling us all that Islam would not lead anyone to salvation. I must confess to not knowing any Catholic who imagines anything other than that; indeed, I cannot quite imagine why any Catholic would think such a thing. It is, however, a fact of life that there are a great many Muslims living in the West, as it is that the vast majority of them are no more inclined to violence than the rest of the communities in which they live. In the aftermath of the murder of Fr Hamel, it is not the time for the Pope to make disparaging comments about Islam – many will do that – it is, however, the time to say something serious to make it clear to our Muslim neighbours that the Church is not tarring them with the same brush as the murderers. To have done that would have been to have served the purpose of the killers, who would, like ISIS itself, have liked nothing better than to appear on the public scene as representative examples of Islam.
It is unclear to me what the critics of the Pope actually want? Unless they take the view that most Muslims are at war with us, it is hard to see what good could come from the Holy Father making disparaging comments about Islam at a moment like this? Perhaps, to adapt a phrase, it is ‘political incorrectness gone mad’; are they so desperate to upset the PC brigade that they are willing to risk inflaming relations with the Muslim communities in our midst? That, after all, would surely have been the consequence of the Pope taking their advice. Even if the cinema is on fire, shouting ‘fire’ is seldom a good idea; doing so when it isn’t is a very bad one.
I can understand those who wish that we could just go back to the days when the Catholic Church regarded itself in a state of siege, and Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others could be regarded as, literally, outside the walls. But the Church decided back in the 1950s that this was not the position it wished to continue, which required it to work out ways of maintaining its eternal position – namely that it is the Church Christ founded, and that only in it can the fulness of the faith be found – alongside a more ecumenical attitude. The results have not satisfied everyone, and in this fallen world it is unlikely they could. It is easy enough (which is why it is done so often) to contrast Mass attendance then with Mass attendance now, as though in some way the Catholic Church could have been cut off from the changes in the wider society of which it is part, but it is a temptation to be resisted. Every Christian Church in the West has been hit by what has happened to our society since the early 1960s, and we should beware of correlating Mass attendance with the spiritual health of the Church; when it is expected that you go to Mass, people go to Mass.
The Church remains the one major institution in our society which takes the sanctity of human life really seriously, and which speaks out against the evils of abortion; that the Media do not emphasise Pope Francis’ words on this tells us everything we already know about it, and nothing about the Pope. It remains the last, best hope of our civilization. Not even the Gates of Hell can prevail against it – we have Christ’s word on that, as we have about the trials and tribulations of it and of the faithful. The Pope witnesses to the hope that we have, he does not need to engage in polemic about other religions. Islam exists, Muslims are in our midst living, for the most part, peacefully; it we wish to witness to the Faith, we don’t do it by engaging in polemic, but by our lived faith. That is what the Pope does; do we?