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A Catholic model for Muslim awakening

Look to the Second Vatican Council, which drew on Church doctrine to embrace religious freedom


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 18th 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 50th 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.

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