In the midst of many wonderful things in Francis I’s exhortation, there are some missteps. One of these comes towards the end in his pastoral advice concerning Islam. I don’t object to his exhortations to Christians to treat Muslims with dignity and love. He’s undoubtedly right that “Many [Muslims] also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.” Whether their lives are in fact for God, I have no doubt of their conviction that this is the case.
But the basis for his exhortation is mistaken, and seriously so.
Quoting Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium , he says that “we must never forget that they ‘profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day.’” He adds, “The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration and it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services.”
On both counts, Francis’s statements are at odds with the New Testament.
True, Muslims venerate Jesus, but they do not regard Him as the incarnate Son of God because they think it absurd to say that God has an eternal Son. But according to 1 John 4, this is the test of whether a spirit is from God or not: “every spirit thatconfesses thatJesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit thatdoes not confess Jesus is not from God; this is thespiritof theantichrist” (vv. 2-3). Perhaps “veneration of Jesus” can provide some starting ground for evangelizing Muslims; and in the narrow sense that Christians and Muslims both “venerate” Jesus, they share a conviction in common. But that blurs the critical divergence of Christian and Muslim beliefs about Christ. Even “veneration” is evasive: In heaven, the angels worship the Lamb (Revelation 5:14).
Nor is it possible, from the New Testament or from classic orthodoxy, to say that Muslims retain the Father even as they reject Christian claims about Jesus. Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ doesn’t just deny Christ but the Father (1 John 2:23). Athanasius made a great deal of this: If you deny that there is an eternal Son, you must also deny that the Father is Father in the specific sense that Christians confess the Father as Father: He is no longer eternally Father. You can’t adore the “one, merciful God who will judge humanity at the last day” unless you adore Him as the Father of Jesus who raised His Son from the dead. That God is the one God who judges.
Many Muslims are devoted to prayer, no doubt, and Francis has grounds for using their zeal to exhort Catholics to prayerfulness. Yet, Muslim prayer is only superficially similar to Christian prayer, because Christian prayer has an inherently Trinitarian structure. We offer prayer to the Father only through the one Mediator who intercedes for us, Jesus the Christ, and we offer prayer in the Spirit who is eternally God with the Father and Son.
Francis knows these biblical passages, and he surely understands the Triune structure of Christian prayer. Catholics in general know these things. But that only makes their statements on Islam, and the implied theology of an Unbaptized God ,all the more bewildering.