‘Catholicism is the One True Faith’

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The Creation of Adam, as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Creation of Adam, as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Catholicism is the “one true faith.” You might think that’s a pretty odd thing for a Jew to say. But in a Western context, we treat it as if it’s true.

Everything in the West is oriented around the Catholic church. Sunday is the day of rest. Even if contemporary corporate culture has largely abandoned the idea of resting as a concept, government offices and banks and other such things are more often than not closed on Sundays. We even use the Catholic calendar, created by a pope and dating the years from the birth of the Catholic savior, Jesus Christ.

The other major western branch of Christianity (in all its myriad fractions) defines itself relationally to the Catholic Church. It’s called Protestantism – because they were protesting against the papacy.

Catholic terminology and ideas are embedded into our culture.We say talk about things being “sinful” or “pure” and mutter “Jesus Christ” when we swear. The way God is traditionally depicted, as an old, white man sitting on a throne with a long beard comes from Catholic iconography and art.

The history we learn centers the Catholic church, for a long time the most powerful religious institution in Europe, and then later on the planet. We talk about separation of church and state because the historical norm was the opposite (they were fused under Catholic rulers for hundreds of years).

The very way Western culture conceives religion makes Catholicism the default, with other systems defined as how they compare to Catholicism. This has been imprinted over a 2,000-year period of social conditioning. Why else would we talk about “the Old Testament” or “Eastern spirituality?” Both of those terms define their respective traditions in relation to a European Christian norm.

A lot of this has to do with the history of European colonialism, which very successfully exported Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular around the world. Extricating Catholicism from that context is all but impossible.

Which brings us to Islam. Muslims are aware that Western countries and people see Catholicism as the default. Contrary to what some people have argued, religions are actually quite different. The way Muslims conceive of and operate their faith is very different to how Catholics do so.

Many Westerners do not know this, and thus treat Muslims as if they relate to their faith as Catholics do. Many Westerners may not even realize they are doing this, as they may not have thought deeply about how they conceive of religion.

Treating Islam and Muslims in this way is insulting inherently. It also inevitably leads to misunderstandings. If we are serious about tackling radical Islam, we need to engage fully with Islam — as a faith, as the background context to a myriad of cultural norms, as a living tradition and as a variety of sects, factions and practices. This means treating it on its own terms and not seeing it relationally to a Christian default.

Once we start doing that on a societal level and understand each other better, we can make progress towards true intercultural harmony. Then we might be within a shot of defeating radical Islam for good.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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