Report Finds U.S. Catholics Have Much to Learn About Islam

America
Michael O’Loughlin | Sep 12 2016
Well, at least there’s room for improvement.

That could be the takeaway from a new Georgetown University report released on Monday that found fewer than two in 10 U.S. Catholics hold a favorable view of Muslims, with many possessing little understanding when it comes to the beliefs of the world’s second largest religion.

When asked, “What is your overall impression of Muslims?” 30 percent of those Catholics polled said they held unfavorable views, 14 percent said favorable and 45 percent said they held neither favorable nor unfavorable views.

The report was released by Georgetown’s The Bridge Initiative, a program at the Washington, D.C., Jesuit university aimed at improving public understanding of Islam while tracking the public discourse on Islam and Muslim life.
“We hope Catholic educators, catechists and clergy can use this report as a starting point to ask, ‘What do Catholics know; what do Catholics not know; and what do we need to be communicating?’” Jordan Denari Duffner, the author of the report, told America.

The survey also asked about religion and violence. Forty-five percent of Catholics said that Islam encourages violence more than other religions while 24 percent said it encourages violence as much as other religions.

Catholics are about split when it comes to the response by Muslims to violence committed in the name of Islam. About four in 10 U.S. Catholics agree that “Muslims have sufficiently condemned acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam” while another four in 10 disagree.

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Catholics in the United States aren’t sure about what they share in terms of religious belief with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. About a third of all U.S. Catholics (32 percent) believe that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God, while 42 percent say they do not. About a quarter of Catholics are unsure.

The Catholic Church has taught since at least the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate” that the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all worship the same God. But as the report shows, this teaching is still not fully understood, or accepted, by all believers.

Last month, for example, a controversial American prelate made headlines when he said, “I don’t believe it’s true that we’re all worshiping the same God.” Cardinal Raymond Burke shared that assessment at a press conference promoting his new book. He added that he believed Muslims seek domination while Christians promote love.

“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,” Cardinal Burke said.

The report notes that Pope St. John Paul II reiterated Catholic teaching about the three monotheistic faiths worshiping the same God in a 1985 speech to Muslim youth in Morocco. He said then, “We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world.”

Denari Duffy noted that Pope Francis often portrays Islam in a positive light, which has affected how the Catholic press in the United States represents Islam.

“The way our religious leaders talk about Islam is often the way people learn about Islam,” she said.

The report is being released, coincidentally, on the 10th anniversary of a speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in which he quoted a 14th-century emperor criticizing Islam, setting off a maelstrom of protest across the Islamic world. The retired pope has said he did not intend to insult Islam, but in a recent interview conceded that he did not “evaluate correctly” the political implications of the speech.

On the question of salvation for Muslims, which the church teaches is possible, more than half of all U.S. Catholics (55 percent) agree that Muslims can go to heaven, while 11 percent disagree. A third said they don’t know. Again, Vatican II, which theologians say is part of the church’s magisterial teaching, says that non-Christians can indeed go to heaven.

The report took a look at how the perceptions about Islam by American Catholics are influenced by Catholic publications. It found that publications that talk about Islam in the context of what Pope Francis said about the faith give a more positive explanation of Islam, while articles in Catholic publications that don’t mention the pope as often portray Islam negatively.

“Pope Francis’ words, gestures, and activities are often the frame through which Catholics consume information about Islam,” the report found.

However, the report suggests that many Catholic publications still tend to present Islam through references to terrorism, lately because of the Islamic State.

“The headlines of Catholic online articles dealing with Islam have a slightly negative overall sentiment, and the primary emotion conveyed is anger,” the report says.

And those headlines influence how frequent consumers of Catholic media view Islam. Readers of America have the most favorable view of Muslims (50 percent) among consumers of Catholic print media, while readers of Our Sunday Visitor have the lowest share (4.7 percent) describing Muslims as favorable. (Though the report notes that the vast majority of U.S. Catholics don’t consume much Catholic media at all.)

U.S. Catholics do appear to have at least some basic understanding of Islamic theology.

Most Catholics understood that key components of Islam include daily prayer (93 percent) and fasting (77 percent) and knew that Muslims do not believe in the Trinity. But 86 percent of Catholics thought incorrectly that Muslims worship Mohammed, a revered prophet.

When it comes to Jesus, 74 percent of Catholics said Muslims do not hold Jesus in high regard and 88 percent said they do not honor Mary. In fact, Muslims believe Jesus is a revered prophet (but not Son of the Father, as Catholics believe) and that Mary is his virgin mother.

Nearly half of U.S. Catholics, 44 percent, say that they either didn’t know of any similarities between the two faiths or that they believed there were none at all.

Some Catholics could note similarities, such as the two in 10 Catholics who said a belief in God was the most common facet of the two faiths, and the one in 10 who cited monotheism, or the belief in one God.

When it comes to cultural issues, most American Catholics think Muslims are victims of religious discrimination. Half (52 percent) say they agree that Muslims in the United States face similar discrimination that Catholics once faced.

But on the issue of religious liberty, just 26 percent of Catholics say American Muslims face threats. (Meanwhile, 34 percent of Catholics say their faith faces similar threats.)

American bishops have made religious liberty a key issue in recent years, usually around issues related to contraception and same-sex marriage. Critics contend that the bishops’ efforts have not taken into account threats facing non-Christians.

The report found that Catholics who know Muslims personally report having the highest views of Islam generally.

“From our survey, we found that knowing a Muslim personally — or participating in dialogue, social activism, or community service with Muslims—can often impact Catholics’ views in major ways,” the report said.

Reaping the benefits of personal relationships between U.S. Catholics and Muslims may be easier said than done. After all, Muslims comprise just one percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center, and the report found that just three in 10 U.S. Catholics say they know a Muslim personally.

The report is based on a survey of 1,027 people polled between April 9 and April 15, 2015.

Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

Nun Uses Music to Convey Spirited Message Against the Vatican’s Rebuke

  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
  • Sister Kathy Sherman, with the Congregation of St. Joseph, writes popular and folk songs and sees music as part of her ministry.
By
Published: December 1, 2012, The New York Times

LA GRANGE PARK, Ill. — When Kathy Sherman was in college during the final years of the Vietnam War, she played the guitar with friends in her dorm room and sang folk and protest songs over bowls of popcorn. They sang Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and some friends said her voice reminded them of Judy Collins.

Ms. Sherman graduated and joined an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, but she never stopped making music. Last spring, when the Vatican issued a harsh assessment of the group representing a majority of American nuns accusing them of “serious doctrinal problems,” Sister Sherman, 60, said she responded the way she always does when she feels something deeply. She wrote a song.

The words popped into her head two days after the Vatican’s condemnation, as she was walking down the hallway in her order’s ministry center, feeling hurt and angry: “Love cannot be silenced,” she thought. “It never has. It never will.” She went into the center’s dining room and tried out the lyrics on some of her sisters. They liked the message.

“Love Cannot be Silenced” became an anthem, not just for the nuns but also for laypeople who turned out for vigils in front of churches and cathedrals across the country this year to support them. In a voice sweet and resolute, Sister Sherman sang, “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes” — a lyric that evokes the nuns’ novel forging of spirit with steel.

“I see it more as a song of affirmation than a protest song,” Sister Sherman, her gray-green eyes sparkling, said in an interview in October at her religious community’s ministry center here outside Chicago. “I wasn’t protesting anything. I was saying, ‘This is our story.’ ”

Sister Sherman’s story reflects the journey of so many nuns of her generation. She grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, when Catholic women’s and men’s orders were booming and it was natural for a Catholic girl to consider a life as a nun. After college, she became a teacher at a girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, and was attracted to the order’s community life and its ideals of unity and inclusiveness. But by the time she entered the order in 1980, at age 28, the boom was over.

At the time, the sisters were in the midst of a major evolution. The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, had decreed that religious orders should re-examine the writings of their founders in order to reconsider their particular mission and character, or “charism.” The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph sent a delegation to France to study the documents written by their founders — six women and a Jesuit priest. They concluded that their charism was far more expansive than just teaching and nursing.

“There it was, right in print,” said Sister Pat Bergen, who joined the order in 1963 and now serves on the congregation’s leadership team, recalling the excitement. “We can do anything women are capable of doing, as long as what we do enables unity to happen. So the sisters became prison ministers and artists and began following their gifts.”

Sister Bergen and Sister Sherman spoke over breakfast in the community’s sunny dining room, where women were preparing to set off for work dressed in everything from sweatsuits to tailored blazers and skirts.

Sister Chris March headed upstairs to her massage and healing practice. Sister Janet Bolger boarded a bus called the “School on Wheels,” a mobile classroom run by her order, where she and others teach immigrant adults English one-on-one. Sister Mary Southard went to her studio upstairs to paint. Sister Marianne Race, wearing a denim shirt stitched with the St. Joseph logo, descended to the basement where she manages St. Joseph Press, which produces calendars, notecards and wall hangings sold through the congregation’s “Ministry of the Arts.”

The Congregation of St. Joseph, with 650 sisters, was formed when seven independent groups of Sisters of St. Joseph merged in 2007. One member is Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with convicts on death row was the subject of the film “Dead Man Walking.”

Sister Sherman’s ministry evolved too. She composes popular and folk songs — she has recorded 21 CDs — as well as music for liturgies. She also leads spiritual retreats across the country, coordinates her community’s environmental sustainability effort and is helping to produce a curriculum on nonviolence for schoolchildren in the Chicago Archdiocese.

She used to live in the ministry center, but she now lives with two other sisters and a novice in a house nearby where she can garden and cook. She rises at 5:40 a.m., prays in her room for about 45 minutes and then joins the others in the living room for communal prayers. Many days she goes to work in her studio on the sixth floor of the ministry center, a complex that also houses an “eco-spirituality library,” rooms for low-income women and a modern sanctuary with stained glass windows designed by Sister Southard.

“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness. The contemplative life nurtures my ministry, and my ministry nurtures my contemplative life.”

Her studio is a refuge, a long room dominated by a black Young Chang piano (a Steinway was out of reach). There is a prayer plant, a picture of her mother, who taught piano, and a plaque that says “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her long fingers on the keys, she played pieces she wrote at pivotal moments: the start of the Iraq war; the murder of a nun, by an ex-convict, in a Buffalo halfway house she ran; the height of the political vitriol in the last presidential election, in a song she titled “This Is the America I Believe In.”

“A lot of the music I write is not religious, per se,” she said. “It’s got religious values, it’s got spiritual values. The songs may not name God, but they may name the hope, the peace, the love. For me, they are all names for God.”

That evening she met in the sanctuary with a women’s singing group she started recently out of the belief that people do not sing together enough anymore. There were four nuns and 11 laywomen, including one who had asked Sister Sherman over during a storm, around midnight, to sing to her dying mother.

Bouncing on her toes, Sister Sherman conducted as if the women were an orchestra. “Good! Pretty!” she shouted as they navigated unfamiliar lines in Xhosa in a South African piece. “Keep the rhythm going.” They ended with “Love Cannot Be Silenced.”

“It’s an anthem,” Sister Sherman told them. “Go ahead, stand up! Rise up!”


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman’s studio is in the congregation’s ministry center in La Grange Park, outside Chicago.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Her song “Love Cannot Be Silenced” became an anthem after the Vatican’s rebuke of the group representing the majority of American nuns.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman has recorded 21 CDs and recently started a women’s singing group, concerned that people do not sing together enough anymore.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Other sisters in the congregation paint, work in prisons and teach English to adult immigrants.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
    “I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness.”