New report shows U.S. Catholics have negative, limited views of Islam

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In grappling with the issue of
Islamophobia, a Georgetown University research group conducted an examination
of conscience of sorts by looking at Catholic perceptions of Islam and how these
views may have been influenced by Catholic news outlets and publications.

results are a mixed bag, showing how Catholics often have negative or limited
views about Islam, but also giving catechists, church leaders and Catholic
journalists a starting point for the work ahead, according to the study’s
author, Jordan Denari Duffner.

a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, which studies Islamophobia,
presented results of the report, “Danger and Dialogue: American Catholic
Opinion and Portrayals of Islam,” Sept. 12 at the university.

report, based on a survey of 1,027 people polled between April 9-15, 2015, is
available at Some of its key findings show:

Nearly half of Catholics can’t name any similarities between Catholicism and

— When
asked about overall impression of Muslims, three in 10 Catholics admit to
having unfavorable views.

Catholics are less likely than the general American public to know a Muslim

Those surveyed who read Catholic publications had more unfavorable views of
Muslims than those who didn’t. But the study also was quick to point out that the
“vast majority of Catholics do not frequently consume Catholic
media,” according to a 2012 study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate,
which also is based at Georgetown.

In its
introduction, the report said the study appears at a crucial time since there has
been an increase in anti-Muslim political rhetoric, acts of violence and discrimination
in this country.

Theodore E. McCarrick, Washington’s retired archbishop, who spoke at the
report’s unveiling, said he was not surprised by the findings and said part of
the misunderstanding of Islam stems from fear. The cardinal, who has taken part
in several interreligious dialogue efforts, said it is important for Catholics
to read and study Islam not only to be able to talk about it but to make
efforts toward peace and understanding.

is so much we can all learn from each other,” he said, noting that
Christians and Muslims share the same God. He added that a future companion
piece to this report might examine how Muslims perceive Christians.

Father Drew Christiansen, a scholar at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for
Religion, Peace & World Affairs, said the most disturbing part of the
report was the finding that Catholics are less likely than the general public
to know a Muslim personally.

knowledge makes a big difference,” he said. The report also said as much,
noting: “Catholics who know a Muslim personally, or have participated in
dialogue or community service with Muslims often have very different views
about Islam and interfaith dialogue than those who haven’t interacted with

he said a more promising aspect of the report was the section on interreligious
dialogue where 47 percent of the respondents said its purpose was to get closer
to God.

Christiansen said interreligious dialogue occurs far less than it should in
Catholic settings. To encourage it, he suggested that dioceses reinstate
interreligious affairs offices and seminaries include interreligious training
as part of their curriculum.

He was
critical of books by Catholic authors, cited in the report, that tend to incite
fear or anger in their discussion of Islam, described in the report as
“part of the Islamophobia industry.”

In its
examination of the Catholic media’s portrayal of Islam, the report looked at
material published by nine online news sources from October 2014 to September 2015
and found nearly 800 references to Muslims or Islam. In major news outlets, it
said, half of the time the word “Islamic” was used it was in reference to the
Islamic State terrorist group.

headlines of Catholic articles dealing with Islam had a negative sentiment or
conveyed anger, the report said. Catholic Answers and Catholic Culture were
listed as having the most negative sentiments in headlines about Islam and only
American Catholic had positive headlines related to Islam.

news outlets, including Catholic News Service, often quoted Pope Francis in
stories about Islam. Mentions of the pope’s words about Islam, not
surprisingly, had the least negative connotations. CNS was listed as the outlet
most likely to bring up the topic of Islam and politics.

the lines, the report seems to indicate that U.S. Catholics should take their
cue from the pope regarding Islam and interreligious efforts. It quotes his apostolic
exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” which says: “Our
relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since
they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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