A Catholic Model for Muslim Awakening: Look to the Second Vatican Council, Which Drew on Church Doctrine to Embrace Religious Freedom

December 22, 2015

The attacks in Paris promise a new round of debate on what sort of religion Islam is. If the past is any guide, commentators will pronounce that what Islam needs is a Reformation. Others will say it needs an Enlightenment. 
Both analogies are defective. Protestant reformers enforced their orthodoxy with every bit the deadliness that Catholics employed. While England’s Queen Mary acquired the sobriquet “bloody” for her brutal restoration of Catholicism, her little sister Elizabeth was equally violent in reestablishing the Anglican Church. 

The eighteenth century Enlightenment advanced individual religious freedom but was skeptical towards religion. The French Revolution, the Enlightenment’s political enactment, asserted the rights of man but severed the heads of men and women of faith. 

Neither analogy will appeal to faithful Muslims today. Should westerners abstain, then, from commending their history to Muslims? No, western history contains a more promising pathway, ironically one found in the very religious body that the Reformation and the Enlightenment considered freedom’s greatest enemy: the Catholic Church. 

It was in Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, on Dec. 7, 1965—a date whose fiftieth anniversary is right around the corner—that the Church finally and authoritatively endorsed the human right to religious freedom.
 

While the Catholic Church’s road to religious freedom will not suit Islam in every respect, it shows how a religious community that for many centuries did not teach religious freedom could discover grounds for the principle that were rooted in its own teachings rather than in modern secularism. 

Like Islam, Catholicism long predates the modern world. The period from which Dignitatis Humanae most dramatically departs is medieval Christendom, when the integrity of the Catholic faith was regarded as crucial for social order. Heresy was not merely a sin but an act of sedition. 

Today, most of the world’s Muslim jurists defend Islamdom, a pre-modern jurisprudence that envisions the state upholding sharia in every area of life. Apostasy and blasphemy are seditious and punishable even by death; non-Muslims often only practice their faiths under heavy restrictions. ISIS enforces the most severe version of Islamdom. 

Islam and Catholicism both faced hostility from—and therefore are suspicious of—the movements that purported to usher freedom into the modern world. Enlightenment intellectuals portrayed the Church as the purveyor of the inquisition and the suppressor of Galileo, spawning political parties that sought to emasculate the Church’s social influence. 

Islam has found modernity’s messengers no friendlier. When regimes based on Enlightenment ideas have gained power in the Muslim world—like Kemal Ataturk in Turkey—they have imposed sharp controls on the practice of Islam, even down to dress. Most Muslim societies first encountered modernity through European colonial domination. Western consumerism and sexual and familial mores erode modernity’s credibility even further. 

The Catholic Church’s innovation 50 years ago was developing a defense of religious freedom that swung free from secularism—and rested on traditional Catholic commitments. Architects of Dignitatis Humanae rooted the human right to religious freedom in the dignity of the person as a being who searches for and finds fulfillment in religious truth.
 

Might Islam follow a similar trajectory? Already the crucial parallel factor exists: a cluster of Muslim intellectuals who argue for religious freedom on an Islamic basis. Central to their case is Qur'an 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” 

Grounded thus, religious freedom requires no compromise of Islamic beliefs or of the aspiration for an Islamic society. Paris gives urgency to the hope that such a view will become widely shared in Islam.   

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the New York Daily News. A link to the article can be found here. This piece was also published for the Religious Freedom Project's Cornerstone blog as a response to a series on Religious Freedom and Dignitatis Humanae.
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