Most Catholics do not personally know a Muslim; and U.S. Catholics are less likely than the average American to know one. Three in 10 American Catholics do know at least one Muslim person, whereas in the general U.S. population four in 10 do. That is one set of the disturbing facts uncovered in "Danger and Dialogue: American Catholic Public Opinion and Portrayals of Islam," a report issued Sept. 12 by the Bridge Initiative of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Other troubling findings include the belief, held by 83 percent of Catholics, that dialogue is undertaken to convert Muslims to Christianity and the disclosure of high quotients for Islamophobia in the Catholic media and among best-selling Catholic authors.
The report confirms that face-to-face encounters are key to building positive attitudes between strangers. One-third of Catholics who know Muslims met them in the workplace. Almost a third claim them as friends, and 7 percent say they are family members. But overall only 14 percent of Catholics have a favorable attitude toward Muslims.
Veterans of interreligious dialogue comment that the secret to successful interreligious dialogue is spiritual friendship. While spiritual friendship has been especially prevalent in inter-monastic dialogue, it is also found in gatherings of Catholics and Muslims.
At Saint Paul's Church in Cambridge, a few blocks from Harvard Yard, a Catholic-Muslim prayer and support group called a Badaliya meets to pray, study and converse with one another. It is part of a renewal of a post-9/11 revival of the Badaliya movement founded by Louis Massignon and his disciple Mary Kahil in the 1930s.
Another Catholic movement that has had enduring relations with American Muslims is Focolare. Its ties with the American Society of Muslims (formerly the Nation of Islam) and its leader Warith Deen Mohammed arose out of Focolare's charism to unity.
In 2000 Blessed Chiara Lubich, Focolare's founder, addressed a Washington meeting of about 5,000 Catholics and Muslims as part of the Great Jubilee. She told the crowd, "I read in the Bible [that] Jesus, peace be upon him, invited his followers to wash each other's feet, and I think that is what we are doing. We are washing one another's feet."
The words "dialogue" and "interfaith dialogue" rank high among the terms Catholics recognize in connection with Muslims, says the report. It is not surprising, therefore, to read that 47 percent of Catholics regard the purpose of interreligious dialogue "to learn about and grow closer to God."
Unfortunately, the Badaliya movement and Focolare are exceptions to the norm of Catholics' lack of familiarity with Muslims. The level and frequency of dialogue with Islam are far lower than they ought to be given the significance for the global common good of what Pope Francis calls "social peace" between Christians and Muslims. (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 250)
In the context of violent persecution of Christians, Muslims and others across the Middle East in 2014, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs said, "Through building networks of dialogue [we] can overcome ignorance, extremism, and discrimination and so lead to friendship and trust with Muslims."
One reason for the low level of dialogue is that in the last decade many dioceses have reduced or eliminated their offices for ecumenical and interfaith affairs. If Catholic attitudes are to improve, those offices need to be re-established and strengthened. In addition, many more priests, deacons and lay leaders need to be prepared to participate in interfaith undertakings. Seminaries especially need to include interfaith dialogue as part of their curricula.
The bishops testify that two decades of dialogue with Muslim groups "has forged true bonds of friendship that are supported by mutual esteem and an ever-growing trust that enables us to speak candidly with one another in an atmosphere of respect. Through dialogue we have been able to work through and overcome much of our mutual ignorance, habitual distrust, and debilitating fear. ..."
It must be acknowledged, however, that Christian openness to Islam will never reach its full potential as long as leading Muslim countries deny Christians religious liberty in their territories or fail to protect them from persecution. "I ask and I humbly entreat [countries in the Islamic tradition]," Pope Francis wrote in "The Joy of the Gospel," "to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!"
At the same time, Catholics must recognize that Muslims in large numbers also suffer persecution at the hands of other Muslims. For Muslims and Christians alike, as the U.S. bishops wrote, "the random and sometimes systematic acts of violence and harassment ... threaten and disrupt the harmony that binds us together in mutual support, recognition, and friendship."
Open dialogue is often also hampered by foreign governments' funding of emigré Muslim institutions and by the ties of Muslim religious leaders to their home country leaders and policies. Foreign political agendas can and do affect what Muslim interlocutors are willing to say and prevent free exchange between members of the two faiths.
Another obstacle to honest exchange is the Muslim fear that theological discussion will be used by Catholics to proselytize them. The Bridge report's finding that 83 percent of Catholics view dialogue as a prelude to conversion shows that this fear is legitimate. Rather, dialogue ought to be an occasion for mutual understanding and appreciation rooted in reciprocal witness. It may sometimes occasion conversion, but that is not its purpose.
The Bridge Initiative is a program of Georgetown University's al-Alaweed Center for Muslim Christian Understanding. The data was gathered in opinion polls by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, also located at Georgetown. The analysis and presentation are the work of the Center's staff and especially of analyst Jordan Denari Duffner.
[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Al-Dajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator. This is Christiansen's last planned blog in this series, as he is making more time for research and other writing. Al-Dajani plans to continue to blog for NCR.]