On the 4th of February 4th of 2019, Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque both signed a document on Human Fraternity which contains the following statement:
Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept”
Some folks have claimed that this is heretical. Catholic theologian Dr. John Lamont, for example, says that this statement is “a clear, public repudiation of the Catholic faith”. Although not directly saying that Pope Francis intended to repudiate the Catholic faith, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in an article entitled “The Gift of Filial Adoption“, attempts to emphasize that Christianity is the only religion willed by God.
Is the statement from this document necessarily heretical? This article will attempt to say that it is not necessarily heretical. However, that does not mean I am here arguing that Pope Francis intended an orthodox meaning necessarily. I am only here to demonstrate that the words, as stated, can be understood in an orthodox manner. Other theologians have already attempted to interpret it in an orthodox manner. For examples, see Dr. Chad Pecknold and Fr. Zed. Without belittling the statements of these intellectual giants, I intend to bring more evidence to this direction. Understand, however, that I’ve no particular benefit from defending the orthodoxy of the current Pope, nor do I seek that as a goal. In fact, I’ve wanted him to be put under Episcopal trial since the first year of his pontificate in order to be held accountable to the dogmas of the Catholic Church. What Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s recent Manifesto of Faith was great, but it is simply not good enough. With that said, if and when we do criticize the Pope, however, we should be as accurate as the sun is bright, and make sure there is no hole in our traps through which our opponents can escape with the trickery of words. And this is precisely why Pope Francis is so dangerous. He is not the sort of man who could easily be caught in a position like Arius, who made it clear what he was negating (i.e. the deity of Christ). Heretics such as Apollinaris, Eutychios, and Nestorios were great because you could actually discern what they were saying and negating. In our modernistic and psuedo-intellectual hierarchy today, we do not have the benefit of such clarity (see my article dissecting the mentality of Pope Francis)
Let me first begin by setting the stage of this joint document. In the first place, this was not an invitation from the Middle East for Francis to swoop in like the revivalist George Whitefield and begin open-air preaching to the populace on the necessity of conversion to Christ in order to escape the fires of hell. I wish he would do that, but that is clearly outside the intention of both the Pope and his hosts in the Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates . Rather, as the subtitle of the document suggests, the context was for World Peace and Living Together. The very opening begins with “In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters“. It goes on to mention innocent human life, the poor, the destitute, tortured, orphans, widows, refugees, victims of war, persecution, and injustice, etc,etc. It is quite plain that a Catholic Pope and Muslim Imam speaking to this are quite outside the purview of any evangelistic context through which one side is seeking to convert the other. This is very *down to earth*, in other words. It is far more basic to earthly peace than vital to everlasting happiness with God. The title, Human Fraternity, is precisely referenced in one particular line: “In the name of human fraternity that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal“. There you have it. This document is speaking to the equal rights of all human beings that should be respected in order to best live out our time in the midst of religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial differences. Unless the orthodox Catholic wants to insist, contrary to religious liberty, that we should discriminate unbelievers as less-deserving of freedom, there isn’t a whole lot of exhortation to become Christian to be expected from this document. That is not the intention, nor the goal of it. The goal is stated very clearly in the middle of the document:
“In the name of God and of everything stated thus far; Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard” and “call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”
The goal of the document is to reach dialogue, tolerance, peace, cooperation, and understanding. This is not out of the blue, either. It is not news to anyone in the know that there has often been conflict, hostility, persecution, and even massive casualties caused by the friction created between Catholics and Muslims (at least). And for us Catholics, we shouldn’t see this as a horrible thing. As we shall see, this concept has been clearly taught in the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. How should Muslims coexist with Catholics, is the question. This is why the document goes on to speak of the protection of different persons of diverse religions, etc,etc. We aren’t expecting to be told we should suppress one or the other.
Now, I will dedicate the rest of this to the section that everyone keeps talking about. It begins with this:
“Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action”.
It is important that we see that this is the ground of the following comments to come afterwards. Freedom is the right of every person. This is none other than what the Catechism says. In paragraph 2106, the CCC states: