Dear Mr. President:
Although one of the hallmarks of your Presidency is tolerance and respect of all persons, I respectfully want to inform you that your recent comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, albeit well intended, offended me very deeply and profoundly as a Catholic-American.
Even assuming your references to the Crusades and the Inquisition were intended to contextualize the current crisis regarding ISIL, your remarks were nevertheless offensive to me and many fellow Catholic-Americans because such historical reminders invite a backward looking approach into human sinfulness rather than looking to our Catholic Faith for a positive and hopeful approach to ending acts of violence committed in the name of religion once and for all.
Thus, despite the complexities and admittedly sinful components of many, many episodes in Church history, I invite you to consider the reality that despite its sins, the Catholic Church has actually offered a way forward, which should guide all religious persons of goodwill, including the many peaceful Muslims, who rightfully condemn the use of their faith to justify barbarism, rape and murder. And so just as we Catholics look to God as our priest prays for God to “look not on our sins, but on the Faith of the Church,” we Catholics similarly ask you as our President: “look not on our sins” but what we have to offer as a path forward towards peace and good will for persons of all faiths.
I respectfully ask you, therefore, that rather than looking to the papacies of the Crusades, look to the papacy of the current Holy Father, Pope Francis, whose papacy is marked by “joy” and “peace.” Pope Francis is uniquely qualified to engage in true dialogue with persons of the Muslim Faith.
Instead of referencing the Inquisition, please look to the Church’s 20th Century Teaching on Religious Liberty. One need only look to the last Ecumenical Council, which is the Church’s most definitive teaching about the issue, to find the hermeneutic by which all persons of good faith should view non-believers. Vatican II not only recognized the sins of our past, but unequivocally reaffirmed the truth that religious liberty leaves no room for force. Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (12) states:
Although in the life of the people of God in its pilgrimage through the vicissitudes of human history there at times appeared a form of behavior which was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the Church that no one is to be coerced into believing.
Concededly, our Muslim brothers and sisters do not have a self-correcting mechanism similar to our Ecumenical Councils, or even one spiritual leader such as the Pope; nevertheless, all Muslim leaders of good will can affirm the principle that “no one is to be coerced into believing.”
And lastly, instead of referencing Church history as a means of contextualizing the current crisis of evils done in the name of religion, please look to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, when he referenced history in order to provide the intellectual groundwork for a permanent solution to the problem of evils committed in the name of God. Although his Regensburg address was misinterpreted by many, it’s not too late to pay attention to his roadmap out of this nightmare: the human capacity to embrace Reason. Just as we Christians must vigilantly and consistently use Reason as the barometer by which all our ecclesiastical actions are judged, Muslims can similarly ask themselves whether or not it is reasonable to assume that the God of Abraham would want a practicing Muslim of today to commit violence in His name against another human person — even if that person is an infidel?
In sum, Mr. President, please look not on our sins, but look to what our Church has to offer going forward. Please look not into Her past failures, but look to Her present principles, which can guide all men and women of faith into a future of goodwill, tolerance, and peace.
Charles J. Gernazian, Esq.
Director, Catholic-American Center on Law and Religion, Inc.