Beliefs and Dialogue

I read with interest and appreciation the article by Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., The Roots of Muslim Anger (11/26). As a Catholic Christian Arab with a fair knowledge of Islam, I appreciate the scholarship Father Ryan devoted to this article. While I believe all his points are valid, I am concerned that his analysis is primarily secular. He failed to articulate the religious and spiritual dimensions of Muslim anger. Let me explain.

Muhammad lived in the seventh century C.E. The Muslim calendar dates from 622 C.E. Had Muhammad lived before Jesus, Sept. 11 might never have happened. Muhammad would probably be universally recognized as the greatest of the prophets, the Koran would be incorporated into the Bible, and all the Muslim people of the world (all one billion 200 million of them) would be considered part and parcel of our spiritual culture and civilization. They would be one of us, so to speak. But Muhammad lived after Jesus, and the church teaches that the deposit of faith closed with the death of the last Apostle. What then are we to make of Muhammad and his revelation? This is the religious and spiritual dimension.


Who do we, as Catholic Christians, say that Muhammad isa generic holy man, a prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as he claimed to be), a charlatan, a madman, the anti-Christ or an agent of the Devil? (I have heard them all expressed since Sept. 11.) What do we believe about his revelation, the Holy Koran? Is it some generic spiritual philosophy; is it a book of religious poetry; is it the inspired word of God; is it the ravings of a madman, or is it truly the Satanic Verses? What of Islam itselfis it a true religion, a cult or a manifestation of the Occult? When we speak of Islam, are we speaking of God or of Satan? This is the religious and spiritual dimension.

A popular evangelist publicly declared recently that Islam is not a true religion. By contrast, President Bush and some secular authorities praise Islam, call it a true religion that preaches peace, love and compassion, and make a point of saying that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same God. So, as Christian Americans, what are we to believe? Is it possible that we are not sure what we believe?

Historically, Muslims and Christians have shared the language of commerce and the language of war. We understand each other perfectly well when we are speaking about money and killing. We do not have a religious or a spiritual vocabulary that we share in common with Islam. As a consequence, we are vague, confused and ambivalent concerning our beliefs about Islam. This is the religious and spiritual dimension.

Only the Catholic Church has the moral authority to invent a language and to develop a dictionary for dialogue. When the Catholic Church speaks, all Christians listen, and so do all Muslims.

It might be useful for us to begin a dialogue among ourselves by inviting knowledgeable experts to respond to the these questions. Who does the Catholic Church think Muhammad was? What does the Catholic Church teach concerning the Holy Koran? What does the Catholic Church teach concerning Islam? Are the church’s current teachings adequate for the circumstances we are living in? Do we need to reinterpret our beliefs to allow Muslims into our religious civilization and culture, as we did with the Jews?

The roots of Muslim anger are both wide and deep, and any effort to prevent a recurrence of Sept. 11 must involve dialogue, and dialogue must begin with a clear statement of our beliefs.

Ronald J. Jebaily

Florence, S.C.

Happy Priests

The news brief that Dean R. Hoge has found celibacy the major reason for new priest resignation (11/5, Signs of the Times) left me drifting between ho-hum and so sad. Ho-hum because the finding is déjà vu; so sad because Hoge’s new priests have been fed the line that sex is human fulfillment and celibacy is dehumanizing deprivation. Given the current divorce data and the incidence of depression among non-married lovers, the assertion of the new priests seems a bit naïve.

Is celibacy a deprivation? Of course it is, for sex is or can be a rich human experience. Unless, then, celibacy has some significant rewards, who would make a lifelong commitment to it, even for the sake of the kingdom?

In my associations with priests of varying ages and ministries before, during and after my 13 years as a faculty member at a major seminary, I have listened to numerous accounts of struggles with celibacy. Two instances in particular occur to me now.

One was a conversation with a 40-year-old seminarian who had been around before he entered. In response to my casual question, How are things going? he answered, I’ve been having trouble with celibacy. In turn, I asked, When is it most difficult for you? His response: On weekends when few fellows are around. After a short pause, I mused aloud, Aren’t you talking about loneliness? Blushing and looking sheepish, he answered, Yeah, but it is easier to talk about celibacy.

The other instance that stands out now was a conversation with a young priest-alumnus. As he reminisced, he said, What helped me most to decide on celibate priesthood was the remark of a priest professor who began his after-dinner speech with, You are looking at a happy priest.’

Apparently the happy priest had found some of celibacy’s rewards, but who ever talks about them? In the reams of reading I have done on the subject of celibacy, only one nonpietistic, nontechnical, experiential presentation of celibacy’s rewards has impressed me. It was made by the late Christopher Kiesling, a Dominican priest, in Celibacy, Prayer, and Friendship (1978). In fairness, Kiesling deals with celibacy’s difficulties too, but his positive notions are singular. This book, together with some mentors’ assistance of seminarians toward personality development and noble friendship, might reduce the numbers of new priests’ departures. And a little dose of realism might help. It can be found in The Poor Father’ Syndrome and Celibacy as Answer, companion pieces in The National Catholic Reporter in the 1980’s. They are down-to-earth comparisons of the day’s agenda of a secular father and a clerical counterpart.

It is common knowledge that celibacy, like marriage, is not for everyone. But the former is a valid lifestyle, and the many fulfilled priests in my acquaintance give witness to its rewards.

Mary Anne Huddleston, I.H.M.

Monroe, Mich

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12 years ago
In his letter to America (12/17/01), Ronald Jebailly asks: “Do we need to reinterpret our beliefs to allow Muslims into our religious civilization and culture, as we did with the Jews?” Mr. Jebailly’s question appears to misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Despite past conflicts and misunderstandings, Judaism is, as Pope Innocent III characterized it, the mother of the church, since it preceded the church and the church proceeded from it. What Innocent wrote reflects the long-held teaching of the church. Islam and its followers, who certainly share much with both Christianity and Judaism, deserve our respect as sincere religious people. But Christianity would be distorting the divine place of the chosen people to engage in the kind of reinterpretation Mr. Jebailly seems to imply. In my opinion, Muslims would regard such a step as condescending. It could do more harm to an already fragile relationship. As Christians, our acknowledgment of the role of the Jews in salvation history should not, however, as is done by some fundamentalist Christians, be translated into contemporary political support for Israel on quasi-apocalyptic grounds. We must work for solutions in the political arena that will provide peace and security for both parties within a framework acceptable to each. Our faith should inform our desire for justice.

12 years ago
Mary Anne Huddleston, I.H.M., makes a very important point in her letter to America (12/17/01), that there are many happy, fulfilled celibate priests. I feel that I am one of them.

It is unfortunate, however, that she leaves the impression that Dean Hoge’s study is incorrect in saying that most young priests who resign from the priesthood do so because of mandatory celibacy. My own experience of 26 years as director of the Religious Consultation Center of the Diocese of Brooklyn is that the Hoge study is right on target—not only for young priests, but for priests of all ages who have resigned from the priesthood.

Sister Mary Anne is absolutely right in saying that celibacy is a valid lifestyle. But that is true only for those who have the charism of celibacy and who, therefore, choose it freely.


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