The Vatican’s Ambiguous Interreligious Dialogue

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Today marks the 47th anniversary of the establishment of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims by Pope St. Paul VI. A distinct body from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), it was erected in order to promote and stimulate religious relations between Muslims and Catholics. At the time the Holy See, like many European countries, was reaching out to the Islamic world to mitigate the oil embargo by OPEC member states on Western consumers, but now Rome holds that its ongoing mission is to contain the violence that continues to threaten the Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim states. While such efforts are to be commended, the effects have been paradoxical for the fact that such dialogue has led to a syncretism in the Catholic Church, especially under the present pontificate. 

Many Catholics today, or, for that matter, members of Orthodox churches and ecclesiastical communities who equally choose to identify themselves as Christians, have been quite disillusioned, if not misled, by the interreligious meetings promoted by Pope Francis. The confusion has been the perceived pretension that our Christian faith is on par with Islam.

Such ambiguity was further incited when the Bishop of Rome cosigned with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University—the oldest and most prestigious university in the Sunni Islamic world—the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together on February 4, 2019, during his visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) when he partook of the “International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity.”

During the encounter, Francis went on to say that “pluralism and the diversity of religions…are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” While this statement may befit the masonic-inclined titles of both the document and the meeting, to say that God in His divine and infinitely perfect wisdom wills other religions puts our Christian faith on equal level with Islam.

In other words, praying toward Mecca as the Prophet of Islam taught his followers to do can be as meritorious as partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Incidentally, when Francis canonized the 800 Martyrs of Otranto, who were executed by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam, the decision to raise them to the altars of the Church had been made earlier by Benedict XVI—his last act before announcing his resignation.

The dialogue with the Islamic world, which has anthropologically put Islam on equal footing with Christianity, has been a priority to Francis since becoming pope. We should not be surprised of his religious syncretism, however, because this has been part of the Vatican approach to Islam (and other organized non-Christian forms of worship) since Paul VI created the PCID (originally called the Secretariat for Non-Christians) on May 19, 1964—there is a different commission for Catholic-Jewish relations.

The PCID, not to be confused with the equally fruitless Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, officially seeks “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of others religious traditions; to encourage the study of religions; to promote the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue.”

Pope St. John Paul II raised the PCID to a new level when he held an interfaith meeting in Assisi in 1986 and declared there is truth in all religions. In 1995, he lauded the opening of the first mosque in Rome—its construction began in 1974 when Paul VI gave his personal approval to the Italian government to allow Europe’s largest mosque to be built on Rome’s outskirts. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, maintained diplomatic ties with Muslim countries, but his disposition toward Islam was quite different (as expressed in his Regensburg address in 2007).

One can concur that dialogue is to be sustained by the awareness that there are common values across cultures because these values are rooted in human nature, such as the defense of the institution of the family which is founded on marriage between male and female and opposition to abortion. This is not what Francis, however, has necessarily been doing at his interreligious gatherings, anymore than what John Paul II did, or for that matter the PCID’s mission—they have been sending messages of good wishes to Muslims for the month of Ramadan, to Buddhists for the Feast of Vesak or Hanamatsuri, to Hindus for the feast of Deepavali, to Jain communities on the occasion of Mahavir Jayanti, and to Sikh communities on the occasion of Prakash Diwas.

Albeit, John Paul II was clear, at times, in seeking a reciprocal respect to human rights from the Islamic world. Nevertheless, it has been with Islam, more so than with Judaism, that the Vatican interreligious dialogue has been focusing. Its tenuous tenet maintains that both Christianity and Islam share the same Abrahamic roots as Judaism—a position Jews find offensive, especially since they claim their roots from Isaac and not Ishmael as Muslims do. 

Such interreligious encounters come off to be in contradiction to what Pope Pius XI warned in his encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928): 

For which reason conventions, meetings and addresses are frequently arranged by these persons, at which a large number of listeners are present, and at which all without distinction are invited to join in the discussion, both infidels of every kind, and Christians.… Certainly such attempts can nowise be approved by Catholics, founded as they are on that false opinion which considers all religions to be more or less good and praiseworthy.… Not only are those who hold this opinion in error and deceived, but also in distorting the idea of true religion they reject it.

It should be noted for Catholics that a “declaration” is not a “definition” of what has been divinely revealed. In other words, while the former may explain or reaffirm certain aspects of the Catholic faith, it is distinct from the former; the latter clarifies what has been revealed in Scripture as an article of faith to be observed by the faithful.

Considering that the Second Vatican Council was primarily convoked to discuss how the Church was to confront the challenges in society, Nostra Aetate—the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions—is to be read as a pastoral document relative to the socio-historical circumstances of the time and not as a doctrinal definition. Nevertheless, such common ground theses have underhandedly equated both Christianity and Islam, and for that matter Judaism, as mutually and interchangeably intelligible or translatable.

When we claim that Christianity and Islam are similar to one another, what we essentially do is give analytical priority to the classification of “religion” as constituted by the historical experiences of both Western and Eastern Europe. We can then conclude that there is a categorical equality in value between them that makes it significantly important to speak of Islam in paradigmatic terms of Christianity.

If this is the case, we forbear to give sufficient attention to whether there are inherent, fundamental, or categorical qualities with regard to Christianity that render it essentially different from Islam, different to the point that it so severely diminishes the utility of the analytical classification of religion as a meaningful analysis for Christianity or any other religious entity. For example, with regard to the matter of equality between a man and a woman, Christian doctrine embraces the natural law principle that both are equal. In Islam, the supremacy of the religious law denies this equality. 

We must also bear in mind that although Vatican II reasserted that Muslims believe in the same One and Merciful God as Christians, Muslims outright refute the divinity of Jesus and, consequently, the Christian profession on the fullness of who God is: the Holy Trinity (Father, Son [Jesus], and Holy Spirit): 

They [Christians] have certainly blasphemed who say, ‘Allah [God] is the Messiah, the son of Mary,’ while the Messiah has said, ‘O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord:’ for there is no God except one God Allah. They have certainly blasphemed who say, ‘Allah is the third of three’ (Sura 5:72).

While we are called, under the principle of religious freedom as a political right to respect the free will and conscience of others (i.e., we cannot impose our Christian faith upon anyone), we at the same time are called to at least invite those who do not know the fullness of who God is to learn the teachings of Jesus Christ. Consequently, for those in the Church who believe that Islam, or for that matter any other religion, equally offers the same path to salvation as Christianity, it serves us all to recall the last command the Lord gave His Apostles before returning back to the Father: 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20)

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]

By

Fr. Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He was born in New York and holds a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He is the author of Islam: Religion of Peace?—The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up (Westbow Press, 2018).

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