Pope and Grand Imam: Time to Meet Again?

God does not will us to affirm a contradiction


Faith The Papacy

Given the news cycle, the document Human Fraternity—issued by Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar—has used up its 15 minutes of fame. But let’s ignore that secular cycle.

The Grand Imam speaks on behalf of a major Muslim center of learning. Pope Francis needs no introduction. The document that they have co-signed, however, deserves careful reflection.

Human Fraternity addresses people of goodwill at a time that, in its words, shows signs of “a third world war being fought piecemeal.” In doing so, the document affirms the centrality of the family. “To attack the institution of the family” is “one of the most threatening evils of our era.” It summons Catholics and Muslims alike “to free women from historical and social conditioning that runs contrary to the principles of their faith and dignity.”

Here I’m tempted to continue to itemize the document’s specific points. After all, they led a young activist to exclaim, “It screams the consistent ethics of life.” She had in mind, no doubt, the American Solidarity Party’s theme, “pro-life for the whole of life.”

So why not itemize the points? Because Human Fraternity suggests a dilemma and poses a problem. Indeed, we ignore them only at the cost of weakening the document’s moral force.

Consider, if you will, the dilemma. Early on, the text tells us that “whoever kills a person is like one who kills the whole of humanity,” and “whoever saves a person is like one who saves the whole of humanity.” Does this eloquent judgment seem familiar?

History carries the burden of two of its particularist forms. The Quran at Surah 5:32 reads, “Therefore We ordained for the Children of Israel that he who slays a soul unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading mischief on earth shall be as if he had slain all mankind; and he who saves a life shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.” Note that it is the Jews to whom the injunction is directed.

In the Mishnaic tractate of Sanhedrin we find “Therefore Adam was created singly, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life in Israel is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world and whoever saves a single life in Israel is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” Again, note the limits of the injunction.

Is the universal standard which Human Fraternity proposes now welcome to Muslims and Jews and Christians? Welcome or not, that God creates each person in His own image and likeness leads us to this embracing standard. Yet insofar as we live as if God does not exist, as secularism urges us, the standard itself is little more than a fiction. About this we must be forthright. For Christian realists there is no easy dialogue. We dare not allow Human Fraternity to lose its moral force.

Next comes the problem. Later in the text we read, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom….” As it stands, this is simply a muddle.

Christianity professes that Jesus Christ is God. Islam insists that it is not the case that Jesus Christ is God. Pace pluralism, without these respective yet contradictory claims neither religion would be what it is. God in His wisdom does not will us to affirm a contradiction. Nor should Human Fraternity imply otherwise. Rather, at this juncture the text should introduce the primacy of conscience in the framework of religious freedom.

With respect, Holy Father and Grand Imam, isn’t it time to meet again?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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