The Strange Treatment of Islam in Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All)

3. “Unconcerned for the hardships and dangers involved, Francis went to meet the Sultan with the same attitude that he instilled in his disciples: if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”, without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake”.” [FT 3]

The main problem with the encyclical, one of very few criticisms that I would offer, is the absence of the words Muslim and Islam. The Islamic faith is referenced repeatedly in the encyclical, but without naming the religion (Islam) or its followers (Muslims). The above quote from Saint Francis is an awkward choice, as it offends Muslims without necessity. The same point could have been made without the quote that calls Muslims by a somewhat derogatory term and names them as among “nonbelievers”. Yes, Muslims do not believe in Christianity. But that does not make them non-believers, as the document Human Fraternity makes clear. Muslims believe in the same God as Christians, though with different ideas about God. So Muslims are not nonbelievers. By using this quote, Pope Francis obscures his own belief that Muslims are believers in the same God as Christians.

Saracens is a somewhat derogatory term as it seems to be derived from an Arabic word for “marauders” or possibly even to “travel on a military mission”, suggesting use of force in conjunction with religion. To use the term today is not merely archaic, but misrepresents Muslims as if they all thought that force should be used to spread their religion. That is the case for some extremist Muslims, but not for very many moderate peaceful Muslims, devout followers of Islam, who live in peace with persons of other beliefs. So this was an error of judgment in his choice of words. Even though the words were from Saint Francis, another quote or a paraphrasing could have accomplished the same purpose. But this is not a doctrinal error.

5. “In this case, I have felt particularly encouraged by the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, with whom I met in Abu Dhabi, where we declared that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters”.” [FT 5]

Pope Francis repeatedly references the Islamic faith without using the words Muslim or Islam. This is offensive to those Muslims who devoutly love God and neighbor. And it is in conflict with the very words of Pope Francis: Saint Francis “became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all. Francis has inspired these pages. Issues of human fraternity and social friendship have always been a concern of mine.” [FT 4-5]. If so, then why does Pope Francis insult Muslims and treat their religion as if it were unworthy of being named. And it is not as if the absence of these words, Muslim and Islam, were due to the subject matter of the encyclical. Pope Francis repeatedly references Islam and Muslims. But for some unknown reason, he does not name their religion or its followers.

If Muslims are our brothers and sisters, why can’t their religion be named? The effect of this error of language is not trivial. There are many misguided Catholics who think that Muslims are nonbelievers, and that their religion does not worship the one true God. And some very prominent papal critics, in particular Bishop Athanasius Schneider, claim that Muslims do not have supernatural faith and are not in the state of grace, because they reject the Trinity and Jesus as the Son of God. They reject the baptism of desire for Muslims and for most other persons. They have a view of salvation which is close to that of Feeneyism. And Pope Francis, so far from correcting them, inadvertently plays into their hand by using a quote from Saint Francis that categorizes Muslims as “nonbelievers” and refuses to name their religion and their followers. Pope Francis treats Islam as if it were not, as Pope Benedict XVI phrased it, one of “the three great monotheistic religions,” as if it were not, as Pope Saint John Paul II phrased it, one of “the three great religions”.

Although Fratelli Tutti contains a number of teachings and corrections which apply to the papal critics, in this one case, Pope Francis has unwittingly reaffirmed their errors on Islam. However, his error is not doctrinal, as he does not state any falsehood in this regard. He seems to imply error by a poor choice of a quote from Saint Francis (“among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”) and the absence of the words Muslim and Islam. But he teaches no error in this regard.

How could this have happened? Perhaps Pope Francis is not the only contributor to this encyclical. Perhaps others assisted him in writing it — a common and well-accepted practice of the Roman Pontiffs — and those persons surreptitiously altered the document in the above described manner. I call on Pope Francis to make a public clarification: that Muslims are not non-believers, but rather believers; that Muslims and Christians worship the very same and only God, who created heaven and earth; and that, in so far as the grace of God cannot fail to bear fruit, it is certain that very many Muslims are in the state of grace, and have the three infused theological virtues of supernatural love, supernatural faith, and supernatural hope. Absent such a clarification, the encyclical Fratelli Tutti provides kindling wood for the flames of grave error by the papal accusers.

The reader should call to mind the following teachings of the Magisterium:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. ‘The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.’ ” [CCC 841; inner quote from Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 16]

Second Vatican Council: “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

“Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” [Vatican II, Nostra Aetate 3]

Pope Francis: “Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.” [FT 6]

I believe Pope Francis’ intentions and motivations are pure and are filled with the grace of God. However, he or one of his co-authors of this encyclical made some choices which, without Pope Francis realizing it, have played into the hands of the worst of the papal critics, those who absolutely reject the messages of Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti on the fraternity of all humanity and on the brotherhood of all believers, on “the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity” and on “Fraternity between all men and women.” [FT 8].

The Grand Imam is mentioned in n. 5, 29, 136, 192, and 285. Yet his religion, Islam, and the name given to its adherents, Muslim, is found nowhere in the document. I believe this is entirely inadvertent on the part of Pope Francis. But I also believe that some person or persons at the Vatican, taking part in the authorship of this document, altered it in the way described above. They perhaps suggested the quote placing Muslims among the “other nonbelievers”, or at least they noticed the implicit suggestion of the quote and made sure that it remained in the final version. They perhaps edited the document repeatedly, to make certain that the words Muslims and Islam did not appear.

Now, I could be wrong about this hypothesis, that someone editing or co-authoring the document has a strong bias against Islam, and sought to inculcate that hatred into the document, in subtle ways that escaped the notice of Pope Francis. But even if I am wrong on the source of this problem, it is certain that the problem exists in the document. The Grand Imam is mentioned five times without naming his religion. The Sultan visited by Saint Francis is mentioned twice, and the Crusades are named once and referenced a second time (“In the world of that time, bristling with watchtowers and defensive walls”). And not only is the word “Islam” not used even once, but the only word referencing Muslims as a group is a derogatory term: “Saracens.” See the Wikipedia page on this term.

The message of the document Fratelli Tutti, “a universal aspiration to fraternity,” is undermined and contradicted by this problem. I again call on Pope Francis to issue a formal clarification on these points:

* whether Muslims are to be considered by Catholics as believers or nonbelievers
* whether Muslims worship the very same and only God, who created heaven and earth
* whether it is certain (or uncertain or impossible) that many (or few) Muslims are in the state of grace, and therefore possess the three theological virtues of supernatural love, supernatural faith, and supernatural hope.
* whether Muslims (and Jews and other believers, as well as non-believers) can be in the state of grace, and can die in the state of grace, without converting to Catholicism, to Christianity, or even to belief in God.

I have some other comments about Fratelli Tutti, which I will reserve for other articles. Overall, the document succeeds in proposing love of all our fellow human persons, universal family-hood, and the love of God for all humanity and all individual human persons. However, it fails to answer questions on salvation, and fails in the manner described above on Islam.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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2 Responses to The Strange Treatment of Islam in Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All)

  1. Matt Z. says:

    Your article Ron in my opinion is way too Politically Correct. When the Pope uses words like non believers he is referring to people that do not believe in Christ. The use of the word Saracens is perfectly fitting since at the time of St. Francis the Muslims were not peaceful. This shows that St.Francis put himself in a hostile environment becuase he wanted to be martyred but his humilty and meekness instead got the best of the Sultan and the.Sultan let St.Francis free.

  2. erm6 says:

    I feel that there is a stylistic tendency for papal documents and speeches to avoid mentioning specific names of people, groups, or places. I agree that this may sometimes provide kindling wood for criticism.

    Example 1: Saint John Paul II on May 13, 1982, : “In modo speciale ti affidiamo e consacriamo quegli uomini e quelle nazioni, che di questo affidamento e di questa consacrazione hanno particolarmente bisogno.” Google Translate: “In a special way we entrust to you and consecrate those men and nations who are particularly in need of this entrustment and consecration.” So he did not literally say the word “Russia”… His choice to not use the word “Russia” has provided kindling wood for almost 40 years of people saying that Russia was not consecrated… Perhaps there was a reluctance to say “Russia” because maybe some Soviet political leaders may have objected in some way. But would that really have mattered much? Maybe some Soviet leader would have come on TV and expressed some reaction to hearing the Pope name his country. But maybe some Russian leaders would have liked being mentioned that way by the Pope. But it would not have mattered much, and probably most Russian people who objected to having their country named, would have forgotten about it in a couple weeks. But 40 years of kindling wood for papal criticism seems like a bigger problem than any such minor fallout, so in retrospect, it seems like it would have been more helpful to just say “Russia.”

    Example 2: Saint Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis: Paragraph 2: “… the partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church’s open enemies; they lie hid, a thing to be deeply deplored and feared, in her very bosom and heart, and are the more mischievous, the less conspicuously they appear…” and several more paragraphs in which Pius X tells us how dangerous and sneaky the modernists are, but he doesn’t identify them in any way, not even (unless I missed it) naming a specific book, university, or group of people. I understand he was perhaps being polite and not wanting to criticize individual people. But by not naming anyone, and not narrowing down the scope of his criticism in any way, PDG inadvertently opened the door for future generations of papal critics and Council critics to imagine that Saint Pius X was prophesying a long-term presence of these menacing hidden enemies at Vatican II, among the Consilium that drafted the Novus Ordo Mass, among the advisers of all recent Popes, etc, thus providing kindling for conspiracy theories over 100 years later.

    In general, the reluctance to name people, groups, or religions by their names, seems occasionally to be part of the style of papal documents or speeches. It may be seen as more formal or more polite. Or it may reflect linguistic tendencies in the native language of some Popes. But I agree it can accidentally provide kindling for critics

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