Whenever we talk about lands tormented by decades of wars and violence, sometimes perpetrated in the name of religions, divinities and faiths, we must do so with sobriety and circumspection. It is easy to pontificate from a distance, comfortably seated and safe, forgetting the tragic context and the widespread suffering in the situation you want to talk about. This is to say that commenting on Pope Francis’ recent trip to Iraq can become a pretext for easy criticism if one does not try to enter the complexity of the situation and the tragedy of the hour. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that the Roman pope’s call to religious freedom and freedom of conscience was very good. His appeal to respect for minorities was extremely helpful. His invitation to national conciliation and solidarity between the various components of society was also commendable.
Having said that, the theological framework of his visit to Iraq cannot be overlooked. The climax of his journey was the address given at the inter-religious meeting at the Plain of Ur (March 6th). In a very evocative and emotional way, his speech was centered on the figure of Abraham as the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. According to Francis, “Abraham our father” is common to all: Jews, Christians and Muslims are the “descendants” promised by God to Abraham and therefore “brothers and sisters” among them. These three groups are called by God “to bear witness to his goodness, to show his paternity through our fraternity”. In the name of Abraham, they experience the same human (in Abraham) and divine (in God) fatherhood, thus being brothers and sisters. Applying it to today’s situation, according to the Pope,“there will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us”.
All Brothers and Sisters
After laboring the point of the shared brotherhood in God and in Abraham, Francis ended his address in a way that boils down his vision:
Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth.
This heartfelt appeal was followed by the “Prayer of the children of Abraham” (recited with the Christian and Muslim representatives present at the meeting) in which, among others, these expressions are striking:
As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith.
We ask you, the God of our father Abraham and our God, to grant us a strong faith, a faith that abounds in good works, a faith that opens our hearts to you and to all our brothers and sisters; and a boundless hope capable of discerning in every situation your fidelity to your promises.
Abraham is presented as “our common father in faith” and the prayer is addressed to “our God” without mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, taking for granted God’s fatherhood not as Creator of all things, but as “our God”, God of us “brothers and sisters”.
In addition, by concluding his address with an inter-religious prayer, the pope shifted the focus from a religious speech to a form of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. joint prayer. For him, speaking about universal fraternity and praying as brothers and sisters to the same God are one and the same. Inter-religious dialogue becomes a spiritual form of unity based on the conviction that all humanity shares faith in the same God. In the Roman Catholic understanding and practice of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, joint prayer is always in view when talking about “unity”.
The papal address and his inter-religious prayer require a “grammar” to be fully understood. It is easy to stop at the level of a convinced call for religious freedom and peaceful coexistence. It would be reductive and not in line with the intentions of the pontiff. What Francis said and did is embedded in a truly Roman Catholic theology of the unity of the human race as it is made up of sisters and brothers, all children of the same God who, as such, can and must pray together.
The Pope’s Slippery Slope
There is an evident slippery slope in this train of argument related to the themes of otherness and coexistence between different people. Apart from the heavy implications of universalism (i.e. the idea that all religions lead to God), the pope says that in order to not be in conflict with one another, people must be friends; to be friends,they must be brothers and sisters; and to be brothers and sisters, it is necessary to refer to the same divinity which, although differently constructed on the theological level, is the same God. The train of thought ends in this way: being all children of the same God, we must pray together.
If we consider all the steps involved in this argument, we are faced with an impressive concentration of what the Roman Catholic vision looks like.
There are strong theological implications as far as the doctrine of God is concerned: is the Muslim Allah the same as the Triune God of the Bible? If we are praying as brothers and sisters together, the pope’s answer is YES.
There are evident soteriological consequences: are we all saved regardless of faith in Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God? If we pray to the same God as brothers and sisters, implying that we are all accepted in His eyes, the pope’s answer is YES even though the language of “universal salvation” is not explicitly used.
There are also missiological overtones: what about the great commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel in view of the conversion of the lost? If we are already brothers and sisters, praying together to the same God, the pope’s answer is that the church’s mission is to make visible and concrete what is already true: no one is really lost and, as human beings, we are already part of God’s family.
The Roman Catholic “Logic” and its Dangers
If one accepts this Roman Catholic “logic” of Pope Francis, in order to live in peace among those who are different, one must recognize the pan-religion that unites everyone. Having a common religion is foundational for striving towards peace. According to the pope, peace is possible among brothers and sisters who are children of Abraham, and who are ultimately children of God.
Those who do not accept this “logic”, i.e. those who believe that one should not have to have the same faith to live together in peace, that one should not have to pray together to love the neighbor as Christ commands us, that one should not have to resort to the rhetoric of “we are all brothers and sisters” to work together for the common good, they sow enmity, foment violence, and create conflicts. The slippery slope of the pope’s speech is extremely dangerous. It undermines the Christian “scandal” according to which Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and, at the same time, Christ’s disciples are called to live in peace with everyone (Romans 12:18) regardless their religious beliefs and practices. This is the Christian claim: in the process of loving the neighbor and living in peace, one should never fudge the gospel that says that apart from Jesus Christ there is no salvation (Acts 4:12). On the contrary, the pope thinks that in order to have peace one MUST profess the universal religion of “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters-praying-to-the-same-God”. His is not the Christian way.
A final word on Abraham. What the pope said about the patriarch, the apostle Paul would not have said. For Paul, Abraham is the father of the believers in Jesus Christ (Romans 4:11-12). For Paul, the descendants of Abraham are the disciples of Jesus Christ from every nation (Romans 4:16-17): his inheritance, in fact, does not follow the biological line of flesh and blood but is received and transmitted “by faith” in Jesus Christ (4:16). Jesus himself questioned ethnic and cultural appropriations of the common fatherhood of Abraham (John 8:39), saying that Abraham rejoiced in waiting to see the day of the Lord Jesus (John 8:56). Without Jesus, and outside of faith in Jesus Christ, being children of Abraham can be a cultural identity marker, but not the basis for unity in faith and prayer.