Catholics are often surprised to learn that the church has formal teaching about Christian and Muslim relations. It is set out in the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate,” which says:
The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God…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…. Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
Three features of the teaching are particularly salient today.
First, Muslims worship God. Often, this is doubted or denied by Christians—even some Catholics. But the church herself unambiguously affirms it. Of course, as “Nostra Aetate” notes, Islam and Christianity differ in important ways in how they understand God. Christians believe God is a Trinity of persons. Muslims do not. Christians believe Jesus is God—the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Muslims do not. Still, the God whom Muslims (and Jews) worship is the true God.
Second, the church has esteem for Muslims. One cannot hold in contempt those for whom one has esteem. Catholics are enjoined to eschew hatred for Muslims and oppose discrimination against them. We must recognize that most Muslims are decent, honorable people. Yes, there are evildoers who claim to act in the name of Islam while committing atrocities—and they must be resolutely opposed by all legitimate means, including the use of force. But we must not tar innocent Muslims with responsibility for their crimes.