On Islam, Francis Follows in Benedict’s Footsteps

COMMENTARY: The new Muslim-Catholic joint document takes up Benedict’s earlier assertion that religious believers — despite theological conflicts — can contend together for the place of God in our common life.

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, sign the joint document on fraternity last week.
Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, sign the joint document on fraternity last week. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

The centerpiece of the Holy Father’s trip to the United Arab Emirates was the joint signing of a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Pope Francis signed it with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading university in the Sunni world.

While Islam does not have a central authority like the pope, Al-Azhar has sufficient history and prestige and as such  can be considered a leading institutional voice. It was a mark of the Vatican’s esteem for Al-Azhar that the Pope himself would sign alongside the grand imam, instead of deputizing a Curial cardinal to sign it on behalf of the Holy See. Usually the Holy Father does not sign such declarations himself.

The joint document is lengthy and addresses topics from poverty to the sanctity of life, but at its heart is a condemnation of any and all forms of religious violence. It insists upon a place for religious believers in the public life of societies and extends an “invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and nonbelievers, and among all people of goodwill.”

The joint document is best situated against the background of Vatican debates on the proper role of interreligious dialogue in recent years, especially under Benedict XVI.

Since 1988, there has been a Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, successor to the “Secretariat for Non-Christians” established during the Second Vatican Council. In March 2006, Benedict XVI appointed as its president Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was also the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The bureaucratic maneuver clearly signaled a desire to abolish a separate interreligious dialogue council and to assign its work to the culture council. This shift from religious dialogue to cultural encounter had a theological rationale.

Benedict held the view that there could not be authentic “interreligious” dialogue because disagreement on the nature of God meant that strictly religious dialogue was impossible. For example, Christians profess the Trinity while Muslims consider that doctrine abominable. Christian thinking about communion is rooted in an understanding of the Triune God; Islamic thinking would admit no such possibility.

All sorts of other dialogue and encounters are possible, Benedict thought, in philosophy, history, literature and the arts. In short, a cultural encounter was possible, but not a religious one — hence his decision to shift dialogue with non-Christians to the cultural sphere rather than the theological one.

Benedict XVI’s decision was met with ferocious resistance and was widely criticized as reversing the post-Vatican II path of encounter with other religions.

Whatever Benedict’s intentions, after the Regensburg Address of September 2006 — and its fierce denunciation in the violent quarters of the Islamic world — it became necessary to demonstrate that Catholic-Islamic relations were a key priority. So in 2007 Benedict XVI reversed course and appointed a specific president for interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who served until his death last summer.

In 2009, Benedict, visiting the Kingdom of Jordan, argued that even if Christians and Muslims may not be able to have a specifically theological dialogue, they could make common cause in contending for the place of faith in the common life of increasingly secular societies.

Now, Pope Francis is building upon that recent history. The joint declaration is not, at heart, a theological document. It speaks of God, but the emphasis is on cooperation between peoples. Key to this is the central place of “fraternity.”

The concept of fraternity, or brotherhood, has Christian echoes, of course, but more fundamental to Christian theology is “communion,” in which the life of grace incorporates disparate peoples into one “mystical body.”

“Fraternity” is a natural, rather than supernatural, concept. Natural does not mean bad, or even lacking. Many natural things are good, or even very good, in the eyes of God. Fraternity would be one such good, but it remains a natural good. Most famously, it comprised the motto of the French Revolution, along with liberty and equality.

“Fraternity” is literally — as declared by L’Osservatore Romano — the Vatican’s “word of the year.”  Referring to the French Revolution, the Vatican’s newspaper said that “fraternity” was needed to correct an imbalance that has favored equality and freedom for more than two centuries.

“Fraternity” was the key to the Holy Father’s Christmas 2018 address urbi et orbi (“to the city of Rome and to the world”) and also provided the leitmotif for the recent papal letter providing direction for the Pontifical Academy for Life.

To emphasize that God grants the gift of fraternity rather than communion is certainly exchanging, if only for rhetorical purposes, a supernatural vision for a natural one. In that, it implicitly confirms the position of Benedict in 2006, namely that between different religions there can be fraternal encounters on the level of culture, but not communion on the level of grace.

The joint document also takes up the argument of Benedict XVI in Jordan, namely that religious believers — despite theological conflicts — can contend together for the place of God in our common life.

The joint document needs to be read alongside the speech of Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi, as well as his speech in Cairo in 2017, both of which strongly called for religious freedom to be recognized as a fundamental human right. Thus the Emirati trip summarized the differing emphases of Vatican thinking regarding Islam over the past 15 years — challenges on religious freedom, a shift from theology to culture, and a common cause in making space for God in social life.

There was a minor controversy about a line in the joint document that said that “God willed” a “diversity in religions.” It alarmed some commentators that it might appear that the Holy Father was affirming that God positively willed religions that denied, inter alia, the divinity of Christ.

During the in-flight news conference home, Pope Francis said that the document — which is not written in precise theological language — should be read in continuity with the teaching of Vatican II on non-Christian religions, from “which it does not pull back one millimeter.”

Father Raymond J. de Souza

is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.