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Panel Discusses Divergence of Sunni Islam and Roman Catholicism

Three major events—or “defeats”—served as points of divergence for Sunni Islam and Roman Catholicism, according to Jonathan Laurence.

“For both traditions, each defeat provoked a multipronged institutional response, a religious countermove overhauling their infrastructure, their education systems, and their hierarchies,” Laurence said.

Laurence, the director of Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and a political science professor, discussed his book Coping With Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern States in a lecture on Oct. 27.

According to Laurence, extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban heightened the separation in Islam’s and Catholicism’s modernization processes. 

“Recent events exacerbated the long-standing fears about the capacity of Islam to adapt to the modern world,” he said. 

Laurence said the first defeat surrounds the decline of Roman Catholicism from the 11th to 17th centuries and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire from the 17th to 20th centuries.

“For the modern Catholic Church, that is the [Protestant] Reformation,” he said. “The Ottoman Empire underwent a similar loss of territory and millions of believers.”

According to Laurence, the second defeat then occurred with the rise of the nation-state, which lead to the decentralization of both Catholicism and Islam from the 18th to 20th centuries. 

“The second defeat was inflicted internally by national governments with secular agendas,” he said.

While Laurence said Catholicism was able to expand its reach and power through a method called “believing without borders,” he argued that Islam lacked the centralized authority to do the same.

Detailing the third defeat—voluntary mass migration across the 20th century—Laurence said Catholicism and Islam diverged, becoming more challenging to compare despite sharing several inherit similarities.

“For the church, this was largely the immersion and migration to the U.S. in the mid to late 19th century, and for Muslim-majority countries, it was to Western Europe,” he said.

Laurence then turned to a panel of political and theological experts. Michael Driessen, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University in Rome, contrasted the competing values of modernity and tradition in both Catholicism and Islam.

“The freedom gained by the Catholic Church ultimately made it more powerful,” he said. “Others see modernity as a categorical defeat for Catholicism.”

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, then expanded upon Driessen’s points while circling back to Laurence’s “defeats,” particularly as they apply to the Catholic Church.

“The [Second] Vatican Council was certainly a moment of coping with defeat,” Faggioli said. 

Balancing tradition and modernity, Faggioli said, raises questions about the role of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

“How much de-theologization [can] the Catholic Church sustain?” Faggioli said.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution and the final panelist, concluded by drawing attention to misrepresentations of Islam in the world today.

“Islam is still being weaponized,” he said. “Islam is still being politicized.”

November 2, 2022