139. Would You Ever Ask Muslims to Pray for You? Pope Francis Did

July 1st, 2017

In our fragmented and violent world, peaceful and respectful relationships between people of different religions can be crucially important. Such relationships can help us avoid tragedies of religious extremism, such as terrorists attacking their neighbors or political authorities mistreating religious minorities. Pope Francis is working hard to establish and maintain friendly relationships with peoples of all religions, Muslims in particular. In his 2013 programmatic document, he wrote that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, 250). His relentless encouragement for mutual listening and even cooperation is a clear indication that this is one of the top priorities of the pontificate.

More than Friendships

But there is another side of the coin. Based on Pope Francis’ words and his inter-faith activities and dealings, it is evident that something more is at stake than an attempt at fostering peace and freedom in our world. In a video released in 2016, the Pope appeared with several religious leaders. One after another, each leader affirmed his or her beliefs in a celebration of religious pluralism and fraternity. At the end of the video the Pope concluded by arguing that “there is only one certainty we have for all: we are all children of God”. The message could have hardly been clearer. “We are all children of God” sounded like an endorsement for a pluralistic religion whereby all different theologies and worldviews are legitimate and truthful ways to live out one’s own faith, with the Pope of the Roman Church ultimately endorsing their validity.

For those Christians who are committed to the words of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and the words of the apostles according to whom there is no other name (i.e. Jesus Christ) by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12), Pope Francis’ statement that “we are all children of God” was puzzling and perplexing to say the least.

“Pray for Me”

A new and surprising instance of the Pope’s inter-faith theology came more recently. While meeting a delegation of Muslim leaders from Great Britain (April 5th, 2017), and after praising the value of listening to one another as “brothers and sisters”, Francis ended his brief speech by saying: “When we listen and talk to each other, we are already on the path. I thank you for taking this path and ask almighty and merciful God to bless you. And I ask you to pray for me.” The official text of the Pope’s greeting is in Italian and was published in the daily Vatican bulletin.

“Pray for me”. The audience of this prayer request was a group of Muslim leaders, worshippers of Allah, bound to the authority of the Koran, denying the Triune nature of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, following a work-based religion. The Pope went beyond diplomatic politeness or even the cordial, inter-religious tone of the conversation. He addressed these Muslims by asking for their prayers, using language that is ordinarily used among fellow Christians.

Massive Implications

The theological implications of this prayer request are massive. Let’s briefly point to some of the most obvious ones. “Pray for me” is an expression of deep fellowship among fellow believers. Pope Francis often asks people to pray for him, but the general context in which this request normally takes place is when he gathers with those who share his faith. This time it happened in the context of an inter-religious meeting. This request shows that when the Pope talked about all religious people being “children of God” he did not simply mean members of the human family. He meant those belonging to the same spiritual family, all part of the same people of God. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. are all “children of God” to him. Biblically speaking, however, does the “children of God” include all religious people, in spite of their beliefs and allegiances?

“Pray for me” also implies that when Muslims pray they pray to the same God of the Bible. This is the conviction held by the Pope from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), according to which Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day” (Lumen Gentium, 16). With his request, however, the Pope goes even further, inferring that the God of the Bible is not only worshipped by Muslims, but He even responds to their petitions as if they were His children. Does not the Scripture teach that our confidence in prayer lies in Jesus being the High Priest and in whose name we can boldly approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)?

Asking Muslims to pray for you goes way beyond the good intention of cultivating friendly and peaceful relationships. It is a theological statement that impinges on basic biblical doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and salvation in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, the very biblical Gospel is at stake. The Pope’s dismaying request has significantly distorted it.

86. Redefining Fraternity. At What Cost?

August 11th, 2014

“Where is your brother?” asked God to Cain (Genesis 4:9). This standing question challenges all people not to harm one’s brother. The assumption though is that the identity of the brother is clear enough. Therefore the issue is: who is my brother? The Bible has two answers to this question: brothers and sisters are those who belong to the same family group. Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55-56), i.e. people who were part of his inner family circle. According to Scripture brothers and sisters are also those who do the will of the Father who is in heaven (Matthew 12:50), i.e. people who belong to the same spiritual family that has God as Father, Jesus as Lord and Savior and the Spirit as guarantee. On the one hand there is the natural family (or people group) and on the other there is the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

What about the rest? The Bible says that all other people are “neighbors”, people who are around us, near or far, but who live where we live and share part of our journey. “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) is the other standing question for all people. Neighbors are all those who are next to us and we are called to love them as ourselves (Matthew 22:39).

Towards a Genuine Fraternity Between Christians and Muslims?

The Bible draws a distinction between natural or spiritual brotherhood and general neighborhood, though the Vatican no longer recognizes such a distinction. In a message sent to Muslims at the end of  Ramadan and significantly entitled “Towards a genuine fraternity between Christians and Muslims” (June 24th, 2014), the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue reaffirmed the idea that Christians and Muslims are “brothers and sisters”. The message itself traces the origin and the official endorsement of this language from John Paul II to Francis:

Pope Francis … called you  “our brothers and sisters” (Angelus, 11 August 2013). We all can recognize the full significance of these words. In fact, Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters in the one human family, created by the One God. Let us recall what Pope John Paul II said to Muslim religious leaders in 1982: “All of us, Christians and Muslims, live under the sun of the one merciful God. We both believe in one God who is the creator of man. We acclaim God’s sovereignty and we defend man’s dignity as God’s servant. We adore God and profess total submission to him. Thus, in a true sense, we can call one another brothers and sisters in faith in the one God.” (Kaduna, Nigeria, 14 February 1982).

What is happening here is the blunt re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters. First, while being “in Christ” becomes only one way of being brothers and sisters, fraternity is extended to all those who live “under the sun”, i.e. “the one human family”. Secondly, as far as Muslims are concerned, fraternity is further consolidated by the shared belief in “one God” whom is adored by both Christians and Muslims. The result is that they are truly “brothers and sisters in faith in the one God”.

An Unwarranted Stretch

The re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters is an attempt to blur what the Bible expects us to distinguish. Neighbors become brothers and sisters. Our common humanity takes over the spiritual connotation of being “in Christ” as the basis for the shared fraternity. What are the implications of such a stretch? Here are two main ones.

First, Popes John Paul II and Francis are taking the responsibility to reconstruct Biblical language forsaking its own meaning and reshaping it at the service of the Roman Catholic view of the Church representing the whole of humanity, Muslims and all others included. The assumption is that the finality of Scripture is undermined, the clear meaning of Scripture is questioned and the living tradition of the Church is thought of being entitled to “actualize” Scripture by way of changing its plain message.

Second, there is a whole set of crucial issues related to this re-definition. What does “genuine fraternity” mean in theological and soteriological terms? It seems to mean that the Biblical God and the Muslim Allah are the same God who accepts worship indifferently, both in the Christian way and in the Muslim way. After all, we are all “brothers and sisters” under Him. Moreover, it seems to imply that, as brothers and sisters “in faith in the one God”, Christians and Muslims will ultimately be saved as Christians and Muslims. The universality of salvation is clearly envisaged, if not openly stated. This message is a further extension of the very “catholic” theology stemmed from Vatican II which shifted the locus of salvation from the profession of the faith in Jesus Christ to the shared humanity of all created beings. However it remains to be seen whether or not this is biblical at all.

Beside these serious biblical flaws, you don’t need this re-defined fraternity to love Muslims and to seek to live in peace with them, as the Vatican message wants everybody to do. There is no reason to distort the plain words of Scripture: a biblically defined neighborhood is more than sufficient to promote civic engagement and peaceful co-existence with all men and women.