By now many commentators have discussed the Abu Dhabi document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Iman of Al-Azhar on February 4th, 2019. Some are celebrating the document as “an important step forward in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims and a powerful sign of peace and hope for the future of humanity,” and hold onto hopes that it represents the two faiths joining forces against secular materialism. Others have been appalled by several highly suspicious passages (as, it must be said, tends to be par for the course with Pope Francis) and remain skeptical that Christianity and Islam can ever be allies.

For my own part, having read the document in full, what I am most struck by is just how flaccid and intellectually empty it is. Broad, sweeping statements about the nature of all religions, about the motivations of thousands of men long dead, and the causes of poverty, war, and terrorism are tossed out carelessly left and right, while vague and equivocal terms such as ‘extremism,’ ‘fanaticism,’ ‘intolerance’ are used freely without once being defined (for instance, would a fanatically devoted Christian like St. Francis of Assisi be guilty of ‘fanaticism’ by this standard? If not, then what separates his ‘fanaticism’ from the kind condemned here?).

Most importantly, in an over-two-thousand-word document on religion signed by the Holy Father, the word ‘Truth’ appears precisely once, and only to claim that violence and ‘extremism’ have “nothing to do with the truth of religion” (of which religion is not stated, nor are we told what the phrase “the truth of religion” means in this context). We will come back to that issue.

All in all, the document is an embarrassment to the Church that not so long ago was headed by intellectual giants like St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is nothing at all ‘powerful’ or ‘meaningful’ about it: it has all the substance of a Miss America speech, and the concluding aspiration that it would become “the object of research and reflection” in universities made me wince.

But leaving the numerous inadequacies of the document itself aside, there is the question of greater unity between Catholics and Muslims, and of the two faiths presenting a united front against the forces of materialism.

The trouble is that, even if we assume that is a possible or desirable outcome, the sad fact is that this document chooses perhaps the worst possible way to go about it.

What is by now the most famous passage of the document reads as follows:

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, color, 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; [emph. added]

As others have pointed out, the statement that God wills a ‘diversity of religions’ is either heretical (if referring to His active will, as it would assert that God wills false belief) or pointless (if referring to His permissive will, as the same could be said of literally everything that ever happens). Nor does the effort to claim that “in context” it is referring to man’s search for God through various religions change the matter (if that is what is meant, why not just say that?). But that isn’t why I brought it up. I bring it up to point out that this statement completely undermines the ostensible purpose of this document.

To say that God wills diversity of religions, if it means anything at all, is to deny the actual content of both Christianity and Islam; that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him, as well as that there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet. If God wills plurality of faith, then either God wills false belief (which is unacceptable to Christians, though not, as I understand it, to Muslims) or no one faith is actually true, only useful. Far from making a united front against atheism, both sides are here conceding to atheism the idea that religious truths are either unknowable or do not matter.

In other words, viewed logically, the strategy here is basically to raise Christianity and Islam against atheism by denying both.

Nor does this call for unity and peace amount to anything substantive. Not long after the above passage, the document states that, “Dialogue, understanding and the widespread promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity.”

The trouble is, talk about tolerance, acceptance, and ‘living together peacefully’ doesn’t actually solve anything because it declines the question of what the conflict is actually about. It amounts to simply telling people as a bald-faced assertion that whatever point of contention they have with each other should not lead to conflict, with the ‘acceptance’ and ‘living together peacefully’ points implying that this refers not only to violence but to any kind of contention or disagreement. But that implies that peace and cohesion are to be regarded as more important than any potential points of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Which in turn means that the call for ‘tolerance, acceptance, and living together’ only works for people who already value peace over the points at issue. And, to be clear, the points at issue here are the nature of God and reality and the salvation of souls.

I hope I don’t have to explain why the Pope cannot be telling Christians that they are to value peace and cohesion over their faith, or why this is extremely dubious grounds on which to try to launch a religious renewal.

I am not, of course, saying that there ought to be violence between Christians and Muslims. The point is that the two sides are in fact in conflict. We can and should call for that conflict to be restrained and to be fought with words and ideas rather than weapons (though history gives us little reason to hope for that), but we cannot simply deny that it exists without denying the real content of both religions. Again, this amounts to these two religious leaders trying to promote peace and oppose materialism by saying that religious differences ultimately do not matter. Whether that was their intent or not, that is the actual meaning of their words.

All this, I believe, is an excellent representation of the central problem with the Church (and the world) today: that we so desperately try to avoid the question of truth. Because once you make truth your aim, sooner or later you will either have to correct someone else or refuse to go along with something you know is wrong, and conflict of one form or another will result. So, in the desperate hope of buying peace, we don’t look for what is true or consider ideas logically to their conclusions; we merely repeat the same shallow platitudes that sound good and which seem to promise the least friction and conflict in the hopes that this time people will actually follow them.

But that is never going to happen, for the simple fact that the vast majority of people desire Truth and Righteousness much more than they desire peace. This means that those who claim to offer it always win over those who do not: those who will not say, “this is true” will always fall to those who will.

For a long time now, the various stripes of atheists, progressives, and materialists have been claiming (in actions, if not words) that their view of the world is true, while the Church (again in actions, if not words) has largely been saying her teachings are merely useful. This document is only one more example of that; it all-but denies that either Christianity or Islam has anything to offer but moral advice promising greater economic equality, freedom, peaceful co-existence, and environmental care. Which, again, is no different than what a sympathetic atheist would say, meaning that this is perhaps the worst possible strategy for opposing materialism.

If the Church is to have a renewal, it will be when she stops trying to avoid conflict: when she stops trying to compromise with her enemies and fearlessly proclaims the Gospel, as is her purpose. It will be when she begins to act once again as if she valued Truth more than mere peace, and when her leaders start acting again as if they actually believed what the Church teaches.

In other words, when she stops producing empty nonsense like this.

Photo: AFP