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.
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 Duffner 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.