A few years ago, Britain’s Prince Charles received some mockery when he said that, upon his accession to the throne in a pluralistic and (some say) post-Christian society, he would prefer to be called “Defender of the Faiths” rather than “Defender of the Faith.” He has since compromised on “Defender of Faith.”
Last Sunday, in a visit to refugees at the Sacred Heart parish in Rome, Pope Francis entered a similar area of controversy. He told the refugees that they should share their experiences with others, across religious boundaries, and look to sacred writings of their traditions: “Sharing our experience in carrying that cross, to expel the illness within our hearts, which embitters our life: it is important that you do this in your meetings. Those that are Christian, with the Bible, and those that are Muslim, with the Quran. The faith that your parents instilled in you will always help you move on.”
Some of the usual suspects are already calling, basically, for a Two Minute Hate against Pope Francis because of this, one even condemning what he calls a “diabolical disorientation that has taken hold . . . even to the highest offices in Rome.” But it bears stressing that Pope Francis is, in fact, 100 percent Catholic in what he said. He believes that Catholicism has the fullness of the truth (which is, in fact, why he is Catholic, as opposed to Protestant or Muslim or atheist or what have you). But he believes that God, in his providence, has allowed aspects of the truth to be manifested in other religious traditions. Cardinal Ratzinger was once asked, How many ways to God are there? His initially startling, but in fact very discerning, response was: “As many as there are people.” Pope Francis here is saying basically the same thing the future Pope Benedict XVI was saying: Mankind typically moves from partial truths to fuller ones. No one will have the absolute fullness of the truth until united with God (in what Catholic tradition refers to, in a singularly lovely phrase, as the Beatific Vision), but in the meantime we must encourage one another along the path.
In defending the Muslims’ particular faith, then, Pope Francis is defending a road of access that they have to what he considers the Faith. And whether this “works,” in the narrow sense of leading to an increase in the percentage of short-term conversions, is in my view less important than what it says about Pope Francis’s Catholicism: This is a faith that respects others, and moves out toward them in a spirit not of hostility and boasting, but of good will. Which is one of the best messages any evangelist can send, when it comes to showing the world what Christianity really is.
(Fun fact: When I Googled “Pope Koran” to look for articles about this, the entire first page of hits was devoted to stories about when Pope John Paul II — whoops, sorry, I meant Saint John Paul II! — kissed a Koran. Just a little reminder to the liberal media that Pope Francis did not invent, out of thin air, this whole idea of loving a neighbor who has a different religion. I would even contend that the concept goes back to a certain fellow 2,000 years ago.)