Pope Francis (center) prays during a livestreamed weekly private audience in the library of the apostolic palace in the Vatican on March 10. (Photo: Vatican Media/AFP)
Pope Francis’ immediate predecessors, St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, watched with keen eyes the Catholic Church’s relationship with other religions moving from “confrontation to dialogue,” to quote the title of a well-known book written by Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian theologian.
Jesuit Dupuis (1923-2004), who spent decades in India from 1948, focused on Hindu-Christian dialogue and ultimately faced Vatican investigation for his “unclear” statements about “uniqueness of Christ” and on the role of “other religions in God’s plan of salvation of the human race.” The stress of the investigation, his friends claim, accelerated his death.
Pope Francis seems to be unfazed about such discussions of professional theologians about the uniqueness of Christ. He is taking church teachings on the human fraternity to the next level, fully convinced that it is “not a betrayal of the mission of the Church, nor is it a new method of conversion to Christianity” as stated by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio. The only aim is to make the world a better place for all humans to live.
If the “teaching church” served its purpose and was the accepted norm before the Second Vatican Council, a “listening church” took birth in the age of universal suffrage, human rights and diversity of culture.
It was not easy for the Church to shed its negative evaluation of other religions, which oscillated between hostility and neglect and which even found expression in daily prayers. However, the Church since the middle of the 20th century worked assiduously to make it a two-way process and to affirm spiritual and moral values (“seeds of the word”) in non-Christian religions and cultures.
The Church no longer considers non-Christian religions as “cocktails of idolatry or superstition,” and works of the devil and evil spirit. Among the non-Christian religions, ties with Muslims assume a vital role in the Vatican’s scheme of things. The Vatican dicastery looking after interfaith talks — Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue — has a special dedicated commission to cement ties with Islam.
A cordial Christian-Muslim relationship has been the hallmark of Pope Francis' pontificate too. After he assumed the papacy in 2013, the new pope washed the feet of prisoners in Rome, a Christian ritual, and he made it a point to include two Muslims.
The 84-year-old pontiff has visited several countries with large Muslim populations. During his visits to Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Albania, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Central African Republic, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bangladesh, he made a point to stress human fraternity.
Pope Francis' encounter with the Muslim world was fructified with his Feb. 4, 2019, visit to the UAE, where he signed the document on "Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together."
The Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, set up under the joint mission, is planning to build an Abrahamic Family House with a synagogue, a church and a mosque facing each other on Saadiyat island in the UAE.
His reaching out toward Muslims is based on two points. One is that Christians in Muslim-majority countries do not enjoy the same religious and political freedoms that are enjoyed by Muslims in the Christian West.
The other is more political and theological. Many radical Islamic clerics sanction, tolerate or side with violence in the name of religion. Islamic fascism poses a serious threat to Judeo-Christian Western values, more than godless communism.
Pope Francis was loud and clear on both these aspects during his just-concluded apostolic visit to the Middle East, a hotbed of sectarian and jihadist violence.
During his visit to UAE, the pope was accused of courting and siding with the Sunni branch of Islam by ignoring the other prominent section — Shia.
However, his latest visit to Shia-majority Iraq and the March 6 meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia leader of Iraq, was the “second step” towards forging fraternity with Islam.The pontiff defined his meeting with al-Sistani not as a message to Iran but to the world.
Now that both branches of Islam are connected with the Holy See, it “will act as the bridge-builder” between the warring factions. An Islam-loving Pope Francis has his due share of critics who accuse him of “one step from heresy.”
When this was pointed out during his media briefing aboard the papal plane, the pope candidly admitted that when it comes to fostering human fraternity, he takes “risks” because this is “necessary.” “These choices are not capricious, and it’s the path set forth by the Second Vatican Council,” he told journalists.
Dialogue of cultures
Most critics of Pope Francis, particularly of his initiatives with Muslims, continue to see the Church through Western cultural glasses. Interreligious dialogue by its very nature means accepting other cultures and languages.
As religions are embedded in cultures, interreligious talks are, at the same time, intercultural dialogues. The ideas of a "clash of civilizations" and "clash of religions" should give way to embrace human fraternity, stressing the common roots of human existence, shared hopes and collective efforts to face disasters of all shapes and hues.
From St. Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis, the popes have stressed talks with Asian religions during their papal visits to Asian nations.Efforts for interfaith dialogue intensified in Asia soon after the Second Vatican Council and in 1974 the Asian bishops published a document stressing relations with other religions. However, the Church in Asia has been tardy in cultivating major Asian religions.The effort and importance accorded to engage people of Abrahamic religions — Jews and Muslims who together with Christians consider Abraham as the father of their faith — is absent in the case of other Asian religions.One of the reasons for the aloofness of the Asian Church in countries where Christianity is a minority religion is the absence of a clear plan to engage with contemplative Asian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism by the revealed religion of Abraham.
During the 1990s and 2000s, several Asian theologians and dioceses were chided by the Vatican for going too far to blend Eastern concepts and progressive practices into Christianity. The Vatican moves obliterated the concepts and methods Asian theologians developed painstakingly for over three decades. They paralyzed theologizing in Asia.
The inability of Western-oriented theological minds to understand and appreciate the faiths and lives of Asian people remains a major block for interreligious dialogue in Asia. The result of this inability is painful: Christians continue to be on the receiving end in almost all Asian countries, where the gulf between local religions and cultures is widening.The Vatican's efforts for interreligious dialogue and human fraternity should go beyond religion and make it a dialogue with people, their cultures, sense of god and goodness. In order for that to happen, church pundits immersed in discussions to produce theological verbiage should look at Asia and Africa and their cultures with love and acceptance.
Will Pope Francis include people of Asian and African cultures in his human fraternity network?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.