When I was a child, as I vaguely remember, there was some official Vatican publication known as “The Pope Speaks.” When I look back, I recall it to be entirely sober and cautious, written by speech-writers, vetted by the curia, printed in the pope’s name. Pope Francis is different, of course, and his interviews ever promise something new and unexpected. His latest, the interview with the French Catholic magazine, La Croix, with Guillaume Goubet and Sébastien Maillard, is no exception. It is extraordinary in many ways, and I recommend that you read the whole of it here.
Two points are particularly striking — Francis' rather novel view of “Europe” in relation to Christendom, and his analysis of fearful responses to Islam.
When asked about the “roots” of Europe and why he did not talk simply of Europe’s roots in Christianity, Francis says, “We need to speak of roots in the plural because there are so many. In this sense, when I hear talk of the Christian roots of Europe, I sometimes dread the tone, which can seem triumphalist or even vengeful. It then takes on colonialist overtones. John Paul II, however, spoke about it in a tranquil manner. Yes, Europe has Christian roots and it is Christianity's responsibility to water those roots. But this must be done in a spirit of service as in the washing of the feet. Christianity's duty to Europe is one of service. As Erich Przywara, the great master of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar, teaches us, Christianity's contribution to a culture is that of Christ in the washing of the feet. In other words, service and the gift of life. It must not become a colonial enterprise.” As always, Francis points us to practice, works of charity, what we are to do. However “Europe” came to be, we Christians are here to serve.
Benedict, by contrast, had a very strong sense of the roots of Europe in Christianity. For example, in his 2006 Regensburg address, he evoked a nearly mystical sense of the interdependence of “Europe” and “Christianity:” “Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” (His emphases.)
The interviewers also asked Francis about “fear of Islam:” “The fear of accepting migrants is partly based on a fear of Islam. In your view, is the fear that this religion sparks in Europe justified?”
Francis replies to this question in at least three steps (which here I present out of order). First, a reflexive, self-scrutinizing turn is necessary: “In the face of Islamic terrorism, it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way in which an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed. Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account.” Perhaps we in the West are at fault, trying to make over other nations in our images and blaming them when our efforts fall short.
Second, Francis argues that good relations between Muslims and Christians are possible because they have already been happening: “I come from a country where they co-habit on good terms. Muslims come to venerate the Virgin Mary and St. George. Similarly, they tell me that for the Jubilee Year Muslims in one African country formed a long queue at the cathedral to enter through the holy door and pray to the Virgin Mary. In Central Africa, before the war, Christians and Muslims used to live together and must learn to do so again. Lebanon also shows that this is possible.” What has happened, can happen; harmony is the ordinary and most typical relation of Muslims and Christians.
Third, and most surprisingly, he balances a rather absolute claim about Islam next to a surprising but candid reading of Jesus’ mandate at the end of St Matthew: “I don't think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.” (My emphasis.)
Conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam? When I posted some entries on the Study Qur’an a few months ago, one post was devoted to violence in the Qur’an and, as some readers will recall, I (ever the academic) found the topic to be complicated, requiring textual interpretation—even before we get to realistic judgments that are to be made in any given social situation today. The complexity of the matter makes it very unlikely that one could assert that “conquest” is inherent in the “the soul of Islam,” however one might go about identifying that soul. Thus far, it is hard to understand what Francis means, and one wishes there had been follow-up questions that pushed him a bit.
We know that the great mandate in Matthew 28—“Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you” (Mt 28.19-20a)—was not literally calling for conquest of all the nations of the earth. Jesus was not sanctioning empire. But we also know that this text has been taken to support, perhaps even fuel, the European colonial expansion throughout the world in the sixteenth century and thereafter, in that unparalleled and largely unfortunate era when European Christians decided, rather disastrously, that they had the right to rule the world. At least some colonizers were inspired by the possibility of bringing the Gospel to all nations, supported by the colonial venture. We Christians cannot blithely blame others for conquest, when we have done a lot of it ourselves.
I have spoken with many Hindus over the years who point to passages such as Matthew 28, and read along with Dominus Iesus (2000) and with John Paul II’s Ecclesia in Asia (1999), which boldly states, “With the Church throughout the world, the Church in Asia will cross the threshold of the Third Christian Millennium marveling at all that God has worked from those beginnings until now, and strong in the knowledge that ‘just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent.’” My Hindu friends have wondered: are you not militarizing the Gospel? Is the pope not calling Christians to a new conquest of Asia?
Francis knows this, and shifts our attention, by admitting that the mandate can be reduced to the work of conquest, and at times has fueled colonialism. He highlights a difficulty lying deep “in the soul of Islam” only to pair it, humbly, with a difficulty lying deep “in the soul of Christianity.” The deep truths and values of the two traditions are not denied, but neither is the problem of the historical record covered over. The logic seems to be: if we admit the militaristic history of the Christian nations, linked even to the spread of the Gospel, we might be in a better position to talk candidly and humbly with Muslims, who have their own problems in this regard.
The pope speaks. He is definitely not infallible in such an interview, and has not given any definitive new turn to Christian-Muslims relations. But in his candor, he frees up the issues, pushing us to think anew about things we had thought we understood.