Interview: How Pope Francis is transforming Catholic-Muslim relations
Pope Francis, now the first pope to set foot in Iraq, hopes to bring consolation, healing and peace to a people devastated by war. A meeting between the minarets and the bell-towers is how the trip is spoken of by journalists and on social media. That image is a helpful one to keep in mind when thinking about the history between Islam and Catholicism. While churches and mosques have been built for centuries in close proximity to each other, the relationship between those who worship God inside these sacred houses of prayer has not always been as close.
“Islam and Christianity have found themselves the official religions of neighboring empires,” said Damian Howard, S.J., the provincial of the Jesuits in Britain, in an interview with America. “And those empires have not always had good relations.”
Before serving as provincial, Father Howard studied for a doctorate in Islamic thought and lectured on the promotion of better relations between Christians and Muslims at the now-closed Heythrop College in the University of London.
Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.
When did the church commit itself to better relations between Muslims and Catholics?
I suppose the church really committed to dialogue and positive engagement at the Second Vatican Council, with the famous declaration on the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions, “Nostra Aetate.” There’s a paragraph in there dedicated to Islam and opening up possibilities for good, positive relationships. Of course, that was prefigured by some important historical figures in the church, who found positive ways to engage with Islam. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the key figures here.
While churches and mosques have been built for centuries in close proximity to each other, the relationship between those who worship God inside these sacred houses of prayer has not always been as close.
Pope Francis taking the name of Francis of Assisi when he became pope was in many ways a statement of intent with regard to openness to the Muslim world. I think that’s now being seen very clearly. But you could point to several other people in the Catholic tradition who have been very open to the Muslim world; who have overcome some of the prejudices of their age and who reached out.
If you were to do a kind of whistle-stop tour between Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis, how would you characterize the popes’ interactions with Muslims?
Pope St. John Paul II was a towering figure in Christian-Muslim relations. He is known in the Muslim world as somebody who was unprecedented in his outreach to the Muslim world. He visited many Muslim countries; said very positive things about the Muslim tradition; famously kissed the Quran. It was an important moment, and he attracted a huge amount of criticism from the Catholic world for having done this. But he was a real pioneer of interreligious relations and especially in the worlds of Islam and Judaism. So his efforts represent a high point.
The papacy of Benedict XVI is a time of more strained relationships with the Muslim world, of course. Coinciding with 9/11 geopolitically, it included the Regensburg lecture, which was perceived at the time as something of an attack on Islam. It was actually much more an attack on Western secularism. But people interpreted it in an opportunistic way.
It led to a certain amount of damage. I think there were hurt feelings in the Muslim world, Muslims wanting to understand why the pope was joining in the sort of Islamophobia so apparent in much of the Western world at that time. That was something of a low point.
More from America on Pope Francis in Iraq:
- DEEP DIVE: A round-up of America’s on-the-ground reporting, interviews and analysis of the apostolic visit to Iraq
- WATCH: The Rev. Christopher Clohessy of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies on the ‘papal visit of the century.’
- LISTEN: On the Inside the Vatican podcast, Colleen Dulle explains why Pope Francis is going to Iraq now—amid increasing violence and Covid-19 cases
But then, of course, Pope Benedict visited the Blue Mosque in Turkey and had that extraordinary moment when he stood in a moment of prayer there. That was thought to have saved the situation, something of a diplomatic triumph.
Francis has right from the beginning struck a very different tone. The agenda before Pope Francis was above all focused on religious freedom; what the Vatican calls reciprocity. In other words, “We Christians allow you Muslims to come to our countries and worship freely. Why don’t you do the same for us?”
With Francis, there is a desire to understand religious extremism in all its forms, so you get this acknowledgment, right from the beginning of his pontificate, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he refers not just to religious fundamentalism as a phenomenon you find in other religions but also in Christianity. And I think that’s been quite a helpful thing to have pointed out because it means that the enemy, if you like, is not Islam. It’s a certain kind of extreme Islam, but you don’t find that Christianity is free of extremism either.
Pope Francis is convinced that suasion and warmth and encounter and mutual understanding can in the long term actually change relationships.
Certainly, I think the last few years— if you have been watching what’s going on in the United States—would bear that out. You see an extraordinary politicization of Christianity in the name of a certain political agenda, which is not exactly the same but it is reminiscent of the way that Islam was hijacked by radical Islamism. And while Pope Benedict was keen to detect that as evidence of a fundamental problem in Islam, I think Francis would be saying, “Well, actually, this is a weakness present in all religions, including our own, and this is something we have to combat together.”
It’s a vision of human encounter as a locus of transformation. I think Francis’ idea is that what you do is you promote good relations and understanding. Not because it’s guaranteed to lead to success; that would be to instrumentalize dialogue. But he is convinced that suasion and warmth and encounter and mutual understanding can in the long term actually change relationships.
There is a shift here that is important. Under Benedict, there was a certain impatience with dialogue. One heard several voices complaining that it served no purpose because it was relativistic, wishy-washy, no one ever saying anything challenging. The notion sometimes promoted at that time was that it was only robust confrontation that could deal with Islamic fundamentalism and the poor treatment of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority states.
Well, that’s fine. It’s nice and strong. And you can feel very good about how brave you’ve been, but you will not gain any traction because people will just say, “Well, I’m sorry, that’s our religion, and our religion is true.”
Francis follows a deep conviction of the Second Vatican Vatican Council that the way to progress in this relationship will be through human fraternity, understanding and encounter.
And when it comes to calling on Saudi Arabia to respect the rights of the many South Asian Christians who live and work in that country and to allow them to go to church, it’s simply going to fall on deaf ears. All that is going to happen is that you’ll arouse defensiveness.
Francis follows a deep conviction of the Second Vatican Vatican Council that the way to progress in this relationship will be through human fraternity, understanding and encounter. Because we don’t understand each other. Christians are very good at analyzing Islam from outside to say how it is deficient; what they don’t try to do is understand how it works from the inside.
To do that you have to stick around for a bit. You have to be faithful to the encounter and the dialogue. You have to really try and understand the way that the other person sees the world. That’s a demanding thing to do. And I don’t think many Christians are up for that kind of encounter. But Francis sees it as vital.
Do you think that is informed by Pope Francis’ Ignatian outlook or his Jesuit spirituality? Where do you think that comes from?
He is certainly helped by Ignatian spirituality, which is attuned to the way that God works in particular places and civilizations. The early Jesuits were all trained in that demanding humanism of the Renaissance, immersing themselves in ancient languages and cultures. They applied that learning to the reality they encountered in China and India and everywhere else they went as missionaries. They knew that it wasn’t enough just to walk around clutching a crucifix and telling people, in Latin or Italian, the truth of the Gospel. They had to really spend their lives understanding the culture, the religious experience and how to engage with all that in order to be able to say what the Gospel was really about.
Jesuits have always known in their guts that that prolonged encounter is necessary. I don’t want to be tribalistic and say that we’ve always got that right—because we haven’t—or that we’re the only people doing that sort of thing—because we’re not—but I think our spirituality certainly helps.
Pope Francis won’t be going to Syria, but he’ll be drawing attention to that part of the world again. For me, Syria really is the dark heart of this century, which has already witnessed such calamities.
As a Jesuit, I can’t help but be thankful that we have two martyrs of this period in Syria—Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Italian Jesuit who founded a monastery in Syria, and Frans van der Lugt, the Dutch Jesuit who died when the Islamic State arrived in his town.
Paolo, trying to make peace, reached out to Islamic State before it became for a short time a dominant force in Syria and Iraq. And there was Frans, shepherding his people, faithfully staying with them as the nightmare unfolded. For Jesuits to have been such fine witnesses in that place and at that time is powerfully meaningful, and I hope somehow that whatever mystery is being worked there continues through Francis’ ministry.
The meeting between the pope and the grand ayatollah is basically symbolic. There is not going to be some great transformation, but it is about forging relationships at a time when it’s extremely difficult to do that.
And the pope going to Iraq now? What do you think he is trying to achieve in terms of Muslim-Catholic relations?
He has been in a very positive and quite brave public relationship with the Sunni leader, the grand imam of al-Azhar. That was a courageous relationship to cultivate and it certainly seems to have borne fruit. Francis thinks that partnership has had a positive effect.
So that covers, if you like, 90 percent of the Muslim world, the Sunni world. Not everybody will look to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and say, “Yes, he is my leader.” But enough will recognize his authority for that to have real impact. It leaves the 10 percent minority, the Shiites, out of the picture. There’s nothing in Catholicism that says that we relate particularly to Sunni Muslims rather than Shiite Muslims, so I think it makes a lot of sense for Pope Francis now to reach out to the Shia world in this way.
When it comes to Shia Islam, the question is whom to talk to. The dominant voice in Shia Islam today is Iran, and the Vatican has been involved at various times in a dialogue with the Iranian regime. But Iranian Shia Islam is extremely ideological and politicized. It’s a particular sort of revolutionary Islam, associated with the term velayat-e-faqih, which was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, which says, for the first time in the history of Shia Islam, that the religious scholars should have a lead role in government. And so the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih transformed Shia Islam and gave the ayatollahs in Iran governmental influence so that today the Supreme Leader in Iran is a cleric, Ayatollah Khamenei. It is noteworthy that the pope is not heading for Tehran.
Why is the meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah al-Sistani so important if the Catholic Church is to make progress with the Shia branch of Islam?
Pope Francis, by going to Iraq and engaging with Ayatollah al-Sistani, is engaging with a much less ideological and more spiritual form of Shiism. Ayatollah al-Sistani is a very different figure from the Iranian mullahs, much more aligned to the old tradition of Shia Islam, and so much easier in a way for someone like Francis to engage with.
The meeting between the pope and the grand ayatollah is basically symbolic. There is not going to be some great transformation in the relationship between people on the ground. There is not any kind of syncretism going on; people don’t change their fundamental beliefs. But it is about forging relationships at a time when it’s extremely difficult to do that.
I suspect that’s probably quite an important factor in what Francis is doing now by reaching out to the Shia world. Above all he has a passion for peace, peace through encounter and engagement and justice. And there’s no doubt that is one of the things he will be trying to do.