Study raises questions about Catholics’ views of Muslims

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, September 18, 2016

A report released Sept. 12 gave some Catholic leaders in the field of interfaith dialogue reason to redouble their efforts when it comes to building connections between the Catholic and Muslim communities.

“Danger and Dialogue: American Catholic Public Opinion and Portrayals of Islam” was released by the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia in the public square based in Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Among its key findings were that one in five Catholics believe Islam and Catholicism have no similarities and that more than twice as many Catholics — 30 percent — have an unfavorable impression of Muslims as the 14 percent that have a favorable view of Muslims.

The survey of U.S. Catholics also found that Catholics are less likely than the general population to say they know someone who is Muslim personally. Those who do have connections with Muslims, either through a personal relationship, joint community service project or interfaith dialogue are far more likely to have a positive view of Muslims.

In a way, that is good news to Father Thomas Baima, vicar for interreligious and ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“This is exactly my experience,” Baima said. “If you want to know about another religion, you need to talk to people from that religion. It is most important not to talk about people but to talk to people.”

But Baima, who has been active in interreligious dialogue for over 35 years, did not expect the lack of understanding among Catholics about their own church teaching.

“What surprised me most was how the general Catholic population has still not received the teaching of the Second Vatican Council even 50 years after the event,” Baima said. “It reinforces how critical it is for priests and deacons and catechists to present Vatican II at every opportunity.”

“Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican II Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, speaks particularly of the “high regard” in which the church holds Muslims.

Baima said he was also surprised by the second section of the report on how consumption of Catholic media affected views of Muslims. The report showed that Catholics who consume Catholic media are somewhat more likely to have an unfavorable view of Muslims, perhaps because Catholic media outlets tend to focus on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“To those Catholic media outlets, I would say that every pope since John XXIII has called for respect for Muslims as a people and a respect for Islam as a religion,” he said. “Those same six popes have all affirmed that we all worship the same one God, the God of Abraham, and esteem the virtues taught by Middle Eastern monotheism.”

Baima and Rita George-Tvrtkovic, an associate professor of theology at Benedictine University in Lisle and a former staff member at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, both said they would like to see more work breaking down the results by age, education and geographic area. Large urban dioceses, like Chicago, have larger Muslim populations and Catholics there might have more familiarity with Muslims, they said.

“You simply can’t duck interreligious dialogue in Chicago,” Baima said. “It’s living on your street and going to school with your kids. It’s in the water, as it were.”

But George-Tvrtkovic cautioned that living near Muslims won’t automatically solve questions of perception.

“It’s not enough to know a Muslim if you don’t engage them in conversation,” she said.

Still, she said she sees that happening in parishes all the time. While her academic specialty is medieval Muslim-Christian relations, she is a frequent speaker at parishes and schools on modern interfaith dialogue, and she was scheduled to give a presentation on Muslim-Christian dialogue to the youth group at St. Clement Parish on Sept. 11.

“I’ve given thousands of talks, and I always bring copies of ‘Nostra Aetate,’” she said. “They go like hotcakes.”

Baima said the thing that gave him hope was the reach of diocesan newspapers, which are seen by more Catholics than any other form of Catholic media mentioned.

“It shows the importance of diocesan teaching in terms of educating the Catholic population,” Baima said.

Baima also pointed to items that showed Catholics are not as ignorant as a first glance at the report might make them appear. A majority of Catholics were able to identify prayer and fasting as important components of Muslim spiritual life.

The other encouraging sign he saw was the “Francis effect,” in which people who got their news from media which most frequently mentioned Pope Francis were more likely to have a positive view of Islam and Muslims.

“I think the pope would be gratified to know that,” Baima said.

Baima was in Rome in 2015 for an interfaith meeting of Catholic and Buddhists.

“Pope Francis said quite directly at that meeting that the path forward is a path of fraternity and service,” Baima said, which mirrors the findings of the survey that those who share fellowship and service with Muslims tend to have better views of them. “This is the way we bring the Francis effect down to the grass roots.”


  • muslim-christian relations
  • interreligious dialogue
  • interfaith
  • nostra aetate

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