The Language of Agreement

Papering over differences serves not unity but confusion


Faith The Papacy

Recently someone asked me, “what would be the first thing you would do if you were suddenly elected Pope?”  Although it was only a thought experiment, coming up with a single, first act was difficult.  The weight of spiritually fathering billions of people must be both daunting and crushing.  Ultimately I could not fix on a single answer.  But this line of thinking did lead me to discover what is, figuratively speaking, the last thing I would do: sign any sort of joint declaration with a leader of another religion.  Unfortunately, a day or two later the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together was released by the Vatican.  This joint declaration was signed by the Holy Father and Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque.  The document signals a commitment on the part of the two men to leading those under their guidance toward getting along with one another.

To be clear, it isn’t the commitment to get along that I find objectionable.  To commit to not killing each other is a good thing.  So too is the commitment to work together to make the world a more hospitable place.  The problem is when the commitment is written down and couched in the “language of agreement,” that is, where there is a laundry list of points of intersection in the beliefs of the two sides.

I realize what I’m saying is antithetical to the spirit of dialogue that has marked the Church in the last half-century.  To focus on what two parties agree on as a starting point is a good thing.  The problem is that to do this, especially with Islam, the document must be peppered with ambiguity.  Just because two parties use common terms doesn’t mean they agree.  But in order to give the appearance of agreement, things must be couched in the most ambiguous way possible.  Once precision in terms is exercised, we find the convergence of agreement is less than it appears and that the two parties are simply agreeing to disagree.

While it is fresh on our mind, let’s use the document referenced above as an example.  In it there are three ambiguous terms that one might say are integral to its entire theme: faith, God, and fraternity.

While the document refers to faith seven times, it is never used in the Catholic sense of the word.  Faith here seems to refer simply to intellectual belief in God as the creator of “the universe, creatures and all human beings.”  Cardinal Ratzinger cautioned about failing to make the distinction between belief and faith (Dominus Iesus, 7) and trying to naturalize the supernatural.  Faith for a Catholic is theological and always has salvific strings attached to it.  It is the belief that God “exists and that he rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).  Just because both sides use the same term doesn’t mean they should use it when they come together.

Equating faith with belief also leads to the second ambiguous term: God.  Putting aside the contentious question of whether we even worship the same God, we must admit that despite both being monotheistic religions, Islam and Catholicism have vastly different conceptions of God.  These two conceptions can never be reconciled nor can we find common ground by merely calling God Creator.  “Every spirit,” St. John says, “that denies Jesus is not from God but the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).  One might even say that these different conceptions of God are the source of the division.  To paper over this difference and try to act like it is a source of unity serves only confusion (and people who like “Coexist” bumper stickers).

Finally, there is the ambiguity of fraternity.  The Fall of Mankind (a doctrine that Muslims do not believe in) forever ruptured fraternity because man was left at odds with God.  Any strictly human attempts at creating fraternity ultimately fail, as the French Revolution shows us.  Instead God had a plan for restoring fraternity and that plan is manifest in the Catholic Church.  In other words, unity can be found only within the visible bounds of the Catholic Church because God willed it that way.  To say that God willed “pluralism and a diversity of religions” is a lie that ultimately damages unity.  Here too, Catholics and Muslims have a very different understanding of fraternity.  For Catholics true fraternity comes about only when God is Father through the Spirit of adoption given to men at baptism.  For Islam fraternity comes about when a man becomes Muslim.

Joint statements like this are a bad idea because they don’t create any real unity despite all the verbal gymnastics that go into them.  More importantly, they do harm to the true Faith by watering it down and papering over real differences.  Unfortunately, this recent document was not the first and won’t be the last; unless, that is, I really do become Pope one day.


Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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