Was Pope Francis Overindulgent Toward Islam and Violence?

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s words in his post-World Youth Day press conference should be interpreted very carefully.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists during a press conference on the papal flight to Rome on July 31.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists during a press conference on the papal flight to Rome on July 31. (photo: CNA/Alan Holdren)

During the days immediately prior to Pope Francis’ recent visit to Krakow in Poland for World Youth Day, Father Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old French priest, who was standing in for the local parish priest who was on vacation, was murdered by Islamic terrorists. The July 26 incident in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, occurred while he was celebrating Mass, and the terrorists forced him to kneel down before cutting his throat.

Pope Francis condemned this “horror,” but insisted that there was no war of religion, since wars were caused by conflicts over economics. During the return flight from Krakow to Rome, the customary interview with journalists took place, and one journalist asked the Pope for his comments about these events. The Pope responded:

“I do not like to speak of Islamic violence … because in Italy, too, there are those who kill their girlfriends or their mothers-in-law, which means that there are also Catholics who are violent; and so if I were to speak about Islamic violence, I would also have to speak about violence from Catholics. Not all followers of Islam are violent; not all Catholics are violent.”

He considered that “in almost all religions, there is always a small group of fundamentalists. We have some fundamentalist (sic). And, when fundamentalism reaches the point of killing — but it is also possible to kill with the tongue; and it is the apostle James who says this, not I — and with a knife, I think that it is not right to identify Islam with violence. This is not just; it is not true ...”

The Pope referred to imams he has met, including the grand imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, who are looking for a way of living together and achieving reconciliation. Turning once more to “these groups of fundamentalists,” he added: “And I ask myself, also, how many young people — how many young people — that we Europeans have left without ideals, who have no work, who become involved with drugs and with alcohol — got here and enroll in fundamentalist groups.”

The Pope concluded his answer, saying:

“But we cannot say — I think it is not true, and it is not right — that Islam is a terrorist entity.”

The journalist then posed a supplementary question on how terrorism and violence should be counteracted, which leads to what we may call Francis’ final point. Pope Francis noted that terrorism is everywhere:

“Terrorism — I don’t know whether I should say this because it is a little dangerous — terrorism increases when there is no other option, when, at the center of the world’s economy, there is the god of money rather than the human person, man and woman. This is the first element of terrorism.”  

The Pope’s desire to avoid worsening an already tense situation — to avert any war of religion and especially from the Catholic side, to call for dialogue and for reconciliation, even and especially in these sad circumstances — can be well understood. Nevertheless, what he says needs to be interpreted very carefully, not least because he could easily give the impression of being overindulgent towards many in Islam and of having very little understanding for the experience of Catholics, particularly those in Europe.

The term “fundamentalist” is applied these days far too easily. It is possible to speak of Christian fundamentalists, but this might be applied correctly perhaps to certain groups of evangelical Protestants who take the sacred Scriptures 100% literally and who limit themselves to the Scriptures alone, interpreted in this literal way. Or, perhaps, the Pope could have had in mind those Catholics who like only the liturgy celebrated in Latin according to the extraordinary form. And among those, there may be a much smaller minority who might perhaps have a kind of longing for a political system long since superseded. Or, again, it could be that, by “fundamentalists,” the Pope might have meant those Catholics who hold to the doctrines of the Church’s magisterium.

It must be said that neither the evangelicals, nor those who like the extraordinary form of the liturgy, nor those who are faithful to Church magisterium even think of undertaking acts of violence, and much less of conducting terrorist attacks in support of their opinions.

On the one hand, the warning given by St. James fits in perfectly with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on the need to internalize and to go to the roots in applying the teaching of the Ten Commandments in relation to the basic human goods, which its precepts protect and propose. And so Pope Francis’ warning not to fall into the trap of thinking of others and of speaking of others, Muslims for example, with contempt is in keeping with that.

His point that not all Muslims are terrorists is very important. On the other hand, there is a world of difference between thinking or speaking ill of someone or of a group of people and killing them, especially through acts of terrorism. In actual fact, St. James was speaking about the tongue, warning that it can be “full of deadly poison” and can be used either to bless or to curse (3:7-8). Even so, “killing with the tongue” is the equivalent neither of murder nor of the terrorist slaying of innocent persons, whether of an 86-year-old French priest while celebrating Mass or of the numerous outrages of these recent years, many, though not all, of which were perpetrated by Muslims.

Although it is true that there are always economic factors involved in wars and that, at times, these may be the major influences, it is manifestly reductive to set aside other explanations, especially when the terrorists themselves admit or even vaunt the fact that they are conducting a jihad. Nor is the responsibility for all of this to be laid only or primarily at the door of Christians or of Christians in Europe.

It must be very clearly stated that poverty or indigence does not in any way justify doing moral wrong, much less does it justify murder and even less mass murder through terrorism.

The allusion to domestic violence and to domestic murder in the Pope’s comments is likewise highly problematic. This phenomenon is not limited to Catholics or to Europeans. Indeed, officially sanctioned violence by husbands against wives and quite serious violence by parents against children, as well as honor killings, is a major problem in many Muslim communities in Europe and in many Muslim countries.

Violence in Christian families is scandalous, but it is limited neither to Christians nor to Europeans. Moreover, it is not remotely comparable to the mass hatred of a specifically religious nature that lies behind so many of the episodes of terrorism. All murder is intrinsically and gravely immoral, but genocide is worse in scale and in motivation, and so is the mass murder of jihadic terrorism worse in scale and in kind. The parallel drawn is out of place and does not stand up to scrutiny. It should be noted that jihad means “holy war,” which means not that Islam is at war with the Church, as the Pope emphasizes, but that the significant minority within Islam that is committed to, or sustains, this position is conducting what they consider to be a war of religion against those they call “crusaders.”

Governments cannot ignore this very real danger, manifested several times in brutal outrages, without betraying their people and their own raison d’etre. If Pope Francis is correct to insist that the threat is not to be exaggerated, it is neither to be minimized nor trivialized.

The underlying intentions of Pope Francis’ remarks are clear and important. As Benedict XVI expressed matters almost 10 years ago at his lecture at the University of Regensburg, the current within Islam that favors the sword needs to cede the place to that much broader current which recognizes the role of reason and dialogue. Seeking to avoid worsening a difficult problem and a war, especially of religion, is laudable, but burying our heads in the sand and not facing the reality of a major and sustained threat cannot be responsible.

No doubt, the intention was that of trying to calm the waters, but Pope Francis’ failure to speak out about persecuted Christians in the first year of his pontificate created delusion among many. His recent remarks will not have remedied that.

Since August 2014, he has prayed for the victims of such atrocities, lamenting the fact that people have been killed “just because they are Christian” and that “no one says anything.” Of course, these expressions of the Pope are in effect a recognition that these victims are the victims of a religious persecution or war (just because they are Christian), which does not square with his answers to the journalist when returning from Poland.

We need to heed the Pope’s warnings seriously, not to fall into the trap of generic accusations, of hatred and of allowing a full war between the religions to break out. Likewise, as with Benedict XVI before him, his call to take the path of dialogue and reconciliation is crucially important. Yet “no one says anything” does not seem sufficient. Those charged with the care of the common good must act urgently and justly in the ways indicated to protect innocent human life, Muslim, Catholic or other.

These interviews with the Pope on his apostolic journeys are often far from straightforward. It is a very great pity that Francis did not mention Father Hamel in his responses to the questions posed by that journalist on the flight back to Rome (although it is true that he had done this earlier in the week); a prayer for the repose of his soul would have been more than appropriate.

Father George Woodall is a professor of moral theology and bioethics

at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university.