Catholic Christianity and Islam: A Case for Comparison and Contrast
History has always been a constant witness the myriads of incidences involving bitter human conflicts and misunderstanding. Among others, the thorny issue of religious pluralism has been a constant catalyst for sowing human division and separation. This happens most distinctly when people try to pit one religion against another, or compare one set of teachings against another set of doctrines. But far from sowing division, the chief aim of this paper is to make a successful presentation of the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, and develop a ponderous juxtaposition of Catholicism with the Islamic faith in the process. This paper hopes to draw strains of resemblances between the Catholic and Islamic faith against the backdrop of their palpable differences. Which is why, in the hope of collocating these two goals together, this paper’s main thesis shall try to argue that, despite patent differences, world religions – particularly Catholic Christianity and Islam – can in fact exhibit important elements of correspondences and similarities, while maintaining the uniqueness of their respective beliefs and doctrines just the same.
Methodology and Scope
The methodology with which this paper employs shall be both expository and analytical. In the first place, a systematic presentation of the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, which shall be firstly done in this paper, necessitates an expository method of discussion as a way to demonstrate the beliefs without making qualitative judgment over the same. Secondly, there is also a need to engage in an analysis in order to develop a successful comparison and contrast of the two religious organizations hereinabove cited. The paper does not hope to exhaustively discuss all doctrinal teachings of both the Catholic and Islamic faiths. Due to the limit of this paper, the discussions shall try to zero in on key elements such as doctrines, ethics and rituals.
Catholicism: Core Doctrines and Fundamental Beliefs
Before delving deep into the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, it is certainly wise to be reminded of the fact that Catholicism does not solely represent the entire Christian religion. Far from it. Instead, Catholicism must be appropriately taken a distinct religious expression within the large umbrella of Christianity. While Catholicism it is generally considered as the mainline religious organization – it being an organization with the largest adherents – other denominations such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Protestant Church, the Anglicans and Evangelicals, among many notable others, must be considered as part of Christianity too.
The emergence of Catholicism, as indeed the whole of Christianity, is traces its roots from the first set of followers who embraced the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as a compelling, if not a sufficient cause to establish themselves as a distinct community of believers. Just like most religious phenomena, Christianity begun with only a handful of believers who felt the need to preach their beliefs and share their personal experiences of faith on Jesus Christ. In a manner of speaking therefore, Christianity started when “an undetermined number of Jews believed that the prophet Jesus of Nazareth who was ‘has risen from the dead’ was alive in their midst’ by the power of the God’s Spirit” (Tavard, 1992, p. 15). Alister McGrath thus rightfully notes that “the precipitating cause of Christian faith and Christian doctrine was and is a man named Jesus” (1997, p. 1). Thus, it one’s faith in Jesus Christ sets the fundamental identity of every Christian.
The center and crux of the Catholic faith lies on the belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Son of God. In other words, every Catholic – and every Christian for that matter – accede to a belief that first, Jesus Christ is God-made-man who chose to live among men in order to save them from their sinfulness, and that second, he is the Son of God, or properly, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Herein it would be palpable that from a simple belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, what ensues is a corollary belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. It might be good to mention that biblically speaking, there is no mention of the exact term referent for the Trinity. However, when one gleans from the teachings of Jesus Christ, it would appear that he implied being Son to a Father God, as well as essentially being related to the Spirit whom the Father would send. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the reality of divine life consists in “three persons” of equal and same divine nature – the Father, the Son (who is Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit (Neuner & Roos, 1967, p. 86). This doctrine does not claim that there are in fact three different divinities; Catholicism, it has to be remembered, embraces monotheism and not polytheism. Instead, the doctrine teaches that the three persons of the Trinity share one divine nature and the same reality.
Catholics moreover believe that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, came down from heaven in order to bring salvation to all men and women. Thus, a person’s belief in Jesus Christ already constitutes the initial path towards salvation. But the dynamics of salvation is not singular path into where that all men and women are necessarily called to tread. Depending on how a person has lived his or her life – i.e., depending on how good or bad a person has chosen to live his or her life – one can either merit the rewards of heaven or the punishment of eternal damnation in hell. This means that a belief in Jesus Christ is not a sure ticket to salvation. For those whose lives have been deemed exemplary, salvation is offered in the afterlife. And Catholics believe that salvation consists in attaining an ultimate experience of bliss and perfection in the fellowship of the Trinity. Normally, this incomparable state of happiness is called heaven. Therein, Catholics believe that a soul shall see God face to face in that one is able to enter into an eternal “living contact with the infinite perfection of God” (Sheed, 1957, p. 220).
To work for salvation by striving to become holy here on earth is a common notion for Catholics. And in order to help them in this earthly journey, Catholics believe on the efficacious and effective power of Sacraments in sanctifying their lives. Sacraments are outwards signs that make Catholics recall the great saving works of Jesus Christ; they are, as commonly held, “vehicles of grace” which are instituted by Christ. The Catholic Church maintains that Christ established seven sacraments: namely, baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance or reconciliation, marriage, orders and anointing of the sick; and they all work for the sanctification of human life from womb to tomb (Neuner & Roos, 1967, pp. 253-254). A particular example of this practice would be to cite the operative notion in the sacrament of penance. While it is commonly known that Catholics confess their sins to priests, there are surely certain questions as to its necessity and reasonability. But Catholics believe that, since Christ has the power to forgive sins and that since his priests – through the sacrament of holy orders – are ordained to become Christ representatives here on earth, then sacrament of confession is able to concretely mirror God’s mercy towards sinful humanity. True, “as Son of God, Christ could have forgiven sins on his own authority”, but the logic that runs underneath the sacrament of penance is that the need to confess one’s sins to the priest presupposes a belief that genuine personal contrition is essential to the sanctification of life, since forgiveness of sins is incomplete without a corollary change of ways towards becoming better (Palmer, 1963, p. 6).
In many ways, it is quite a challenge to live Christian belief and ideals into one’s own life. For once, the ethical demand to comport oneself in a manner being morally upright at all times is indeed a telling responsibility for every Catholic. The main ethical system of the Catholics cannot be summed into a single concept. By and large however, they see the life and teachings of Jesus as the supreme exemplification of holiness and uprightness. Catholics, and many Christian denominations for that matter, believe that following the commandments of God and living virtuous is one expression of moral living. In fact, a life lived informed by an enlightened reason (and the Gospel) is the best life there can possible be (Waller, 2008, p. 114). Many times over, one would hear that Catholics tend to shun things that lead to untoward behavior such as corruption, gambling, excessive eating and drinking, as well as sex done outside marriage, among many others. These things fall into what is called the seven capital sins: namely, anger, envy, gluttony, greed, pride, lust and sloth. These are “evil desires to which the reason does not consent and which men suffer against their will” (Neuner & Roos, 1967, pp. 253-254). For instance, Catholics believe that the consumption of alcohol is in itself not really bad or evil, for even Jesus Christ himself ate and drank in the company of people as well. But it becomes evil when done excessively; i.e., when, because of too much alcohol intake, a person begins to exhibit unacceptable behavior such as being irascibly angry, uncontrollably craving or unreasonably lustful. The challenge of living a Christian life therefore lies in choosing a path marked by holiness and uprightness in a world replete with occasions for indulgence and malice.
Catholic ritual and worship practice are also intricately knitted with the teachings on the sacraments. This is for instance seen in the sacrament of the Eucharist (or what is commonly called the Mass), where Catholics are said to gather so as to thank God, worship him and seek for assistance altogether. Firstly, the Eucharist is an occasion to receive their Lord in the sensible signs of bread and wine. What is quite unique about the Eucharist is that Catholics believe that “Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially contained in the bread and win” after the priest consecrates them (Neuner & Roos, 1967, pp. 253-254). Secondly, the Eucharist acts a one type of commemorative gathering. Specifically, Catholics commemorate the saving works of their Lord Jesus Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.
In many ways, it is in celebrating the Eucharist that Catholics are able to observe their holy days of obligation. Of paramount importance would be the commemoration of the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ during Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil. These usually happen during the months of March or April, depending on the days set by the Catholic Church. Still, every Sunday is considered by Catholics as a holy day of obligation. Like Easter Sunday, each ordinary Sunday of the year is a time to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as well. Other notable holidays include the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s birth on December 25 and the adoration of the Holy Trinity sometime in June. In addition, it is worthy to mention that the remembrance of Mary – the mother of Jesus – takes a special place in the Catholic life of worship. Select dates are faithfully observed by Catholics in her honor: December 8, to celebrate her being immaculately conceived; September 8, to celebrate her birth; and January 1, to honor her identity as the Mother of the God-man Jesus. Other important feasts, which are of lesser importance, are also observed. These may include, but are not limited to, the commemoration of apostles, martyrs, holy men and women, as well as dedication of churches.
Catholicism and Islam: A Comparison and Contrast
From among the world’s major religions, the Catholic and Islamic faiths perhaps represent two of the most compared and contrasted religious organizations to date. In fact, one may not deny that these two religions have had their own share of conflicts and misgivings; and history is a witness to a fair amount of incidences when they figured in wars resulting from doctrinal and socio-political disputes. The purpose of this brief juxtaposition is, as earlier mentioned, not to pit the Catholic faith against the Islamic religion, or vice versa. Instead, the succeeding discussions aims at bringing into the fore doctrinal or thematic correspondences ensuing from the two religions’ otherwise distinctly formulated tenets.
First, it has to be noted that one of the most striking similarities palpable in both the Catholic and Islamic faith lies in their religious subscription to monotheism. On the one hand, Catholics adheres to a faith called Trinitarian monotheism. Put in other words, Catholics believe on the essential unity in the nature of the three distinct persons Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, Moslems – like Catholics – also embrace a monotheistic faith. But unlike Catholics, their faith does not permit any distinction within the divine God-head. Moslems believe that Allah – the name for God provided by their holy book Qur’an – is defined by the principle of “tawid” – simply, the unity of God. “According to this central Islamic idea, (God) is utterly and inevitably One, a perfect unity (and) unique unto himself” (Gordon, 2002, p. 24). It needs to be further mentioned that such monotheistic worship makes both Catholicism and Islam distinct from many polytheistic religions of the world.
Second, there is certainly a case to for one to argue that both the Catholic and Islamic faiths share a common ‘Abrahamic’ heritage. In a sense, both Catholics and Moslems scriptures – the Bible for Catholics, Qur’an for Moslems – give Abraham a special place in their religious traditions because they believe that he is unto whom God’s primordial call was revealed. In fact, it can be argued that Catholics and Moslems alike “adore God who is speaker to men when they submit to His decrees, even when inscrutable, after the example of our father Abraham” (McLean, The Relation of Islamic and Christian Cultures). In addition, the reverence or respect which Catholics and Moslems render unto Abraham is a tacit recognition that their faiths are revealed by nature. In other words, both Catholics and Moslems acknowledge that the gratuitous initiative of God’s revelation to humankind is the necessary condition for the possibility of faith one’s faith.
Third, it is not without reason to say that both Catholicism and Islamism’s emergence was marked by an embrace of the mission of key personalities who are considered to be God-sent. Catholics – in unison with the rest of Christianity – emerged from a small circle of followers who believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah sent by God to save humanity from its frail and sinful nature. In ways more than one, the circumstances defining the emergence of the Islamic faith resemble that of Christianity’s otherwise tough beginnings; i.e., Islam started from a small group of followers who, sometime in 570 AD, believed that Muhammad was a prophet and was chosen by God to reveal his teachings and precepts (Renard, 1998, p. 7). But unlike Christianity, Islam does not believe that Muhammad is himself God, or any expression of divinity thereof. While Muhammad enjoys a kind of esteem second to none, Moslems nevertheless contend that he is wholly distinct from Allah.
This paper ends with a conclusion that affirms its slated thesis statement – i.e., that far from being wholly distinct and separable, the doctrinal teachings of both Catholic Christianity and Islamic faith can in fact exhibit patters of similarities and resemblances as well. The first part of the discussions dwelled specifically on the chief tenets of Catholic Christianity. In many ways, it was seen that the religious organization itself is accedes to a belief on the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Trinitarian character of the divine God-head, the efficacy of the sacraments, as well as the sacred nature of Eucharistic worship and commemoration of holy days of obligation. In a special manner, it was further noted that Catholicism shares certain resemblances with Islam. Chief to these would be the faith in monotheistic terms, the nature of emergence and the belief on the authority of their respective founders believed to be both sent by God.
Gordon, M. (2002). Islam: Origins, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Persons, Sacred Places. New York, Oxford University Press.
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