Did Pope Francis Really Reconcile Christianity with Islam?
On February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, signed a "Document on Human Fraternity For World Peace and Living Together ('Doc')." The Doc is deemed a historic détente between the Christian religion as represented by the Catholic Church and Islam, which, to put it mildly, have had a lot of intense conflicts over the centuries. The document is not a peace treaty as such, but a philosophical statement of presumed good intentions going forward between the two religions. Specific theological differences are not mentioned, and that gloss presumably adds to the intended sense of unity and peace.
Despite my personal disgust at this pseudo-reconciliation, in the interest of having a more truthful world, a world with greater moral clarity, and a world where vile deceptions are repudiated, it will be helpful to assess a few of the statements in this document.
Let us acknowledge upfront that the nature of Almighty God is in no way clarified by this document; the purpose of life on Earth for humanity as a whole is not defined; and specific reasons for 1,400-year-old conflicts between Islam and Christianity are not listed, addressed, or expressly forgiven (though the existence of the document itself is, one infers, meant to imply forgiveness).
The background for the word "fraternity" in the Doc is important. It is rooted in and connotes a connection with a secularization of culture and is notably found in the motto of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Once the monarchy was overthrown, it replaced the French motto "One King, One Faith, One Law," which had held sway since the early 16th century, when Francis I was king of France.
The words "life" and "pursuit of happiness" found in the American Declaration of Independence are conspicuously absent in the French revolutionary motto. Equality and fraternity are used instead because of the deeply anti-Christian themes in French history. France had numerous wars of religion against the Protestants in the 16th century, and kicked them out when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Further, as the French Revolution picked up steam, the French clergy who were Roman Catholic had their lands confiscated, and the clergymen themselves were imprisoned, were executed, or fled in large numbers from France. Thus, while there were still many believing Catholics in France, the revolution was basically atheistic, and it appealed — through many vicissitudes — to a bloodthirsty, homogeneous mass of anti-clerical "citoyens" (citizens). Given its identification with non-theistic politics, one might expect the pope to be somewhat uncomfortable with the word "fraternity," yet it is embraced here.
This Doc begins sounding like our Declaration of Independence. It states, "In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duty and dignity ..." This is the natural rights segment, sounding like our Declaration, which refers to "inalienable rights" that have been "endowed by our Creator." Then it states, "... who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters ..." This is a shift more to the French equality and fraternity. Then it switches suddenly to a more transcendent level not found in either the American or French founding documents. This Doc states, "... to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace." Here we see that rights and equality are not ends in themselves, but have a teleology or purpose. Even Thomas Aquinas assured the Catholic Church that salvation, not any type of worldly happiness, is the purpose of life. Yet the pope abandons his most glorified philosopher. Instead, the signers are leading toward the actualization of goodness, love, and peace.
So the purpose of life in the Doc is at odds with Catholic philosophy. But we might also ask, would the approximately 800 million Protestants agree with "the actualization of goodness, love, and peace" as the purpose for life? While not all Protestants will agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism (published 1649), the answer it provides is that the purpose of life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Christians are to be good — i.e., follow a path of holiness; to love one's neighbor as ourselves; and to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind (Matt. 22:39, 37); and "as much as lies in you, [to] live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18). But these good things are not separately or together the purpose of life. Protestants have known this for the past 370 years, if not longer.
Further, at the beginning of the first and eleventh paragraphs of this document, the signatories cry out passionately, "In the name of God ..." Yet this sense of urgency raises the question: in the name of whose God? What indeed is the name of God? Islam rejects the hypostatic unity (oneness) of the Trinity of Christianity and, instead, defines Christianity as a polytheistic theology. Christ's very nature or essence ("ousia") defined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 as the same as God the Father ("homoousia") is totally rejected by the Islamic world's theologians.
The Doc goes on to provide a brief overview of the successes and dislocations found in the modern world. While acknowledging many successes in various fields of endeavors in the modern world, the Doc deplores that the world has "generated, and continues to generate, vast numbers of poor, infirm and deceased persons." Anyone will be happy to confirm, along with the authors of this Doc, that the world's mortality rate continues to be 100%, so at least in that respect, the Doc is accurate. However, in New York City, there are many hospitals and other institutions trying to deal with poverty and life-and-death issues, but where are the Islamic institutions in dealing with the teeming millions of NYC? There are Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic hospitals and social services agencies that serve all people regardless of religion, national origin, race, sexual orientation, age, or disability. Yet, despite many private Muslim schools in the area, there are no Islamic institutions whatsoever serving the needs of all persons. Further, to what extent are Muslim refugees being supported or welcomed into Muslim-majority nations? For the pope even to give credence to language about "compassion" from his Islamic counterpart is to this writer even more offensive than to have that claim made by the Islamic co-signer.
Also, it is worth noting that the signees of the Doc "affirm also the importance of awakening religious awareness and the need to revive this awareness in the hearts of new generations[.]" However, the truth is that the life of true Christian faith offers salvation, not mere "religious awareness." In a free society, anyone is free to accept or reject that salvation claim, but "awareness" alone does not provide the embrace of the godhead that true religion requires.
Lastly, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where this Doc was signed, Catholic churches can operate freely, although Islam is the official religion of that country. It should be noted that apostasy laws are in effect, so no Christian organizations can try to win converts, and conversion is punishable by death. Would any honest observer consider this an environment of reconciliation? How can the pope sign this Doc in a location like this?