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Pope Francis and Interreligious Encounter: To Build Universal Fraternity and Social Friendship

By: Peter Phan

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and the Catholic Church

Pope Francis devotes the last chapter of his encyclical On Fraternity and Social Friendship (Fratelli Tutti, FT) to the interreligious encounter titled “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” In these reflections on the interreligious encounter, I will first highlight the novelty of Francis’s approach to interreligious dialogue as encounter. Next, I examine the role of interreligious encounter in promoting universal fraternity and social friendship. I will end by pointing out the steps still to be taken to make interreligious dialogue a genuine encounter.

Interreligious Dialogue as Encounter

The starting point of contemporary Catholic theology and practice of interreligious dialogue is Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christians Religions (Nostra Aetate, NA), which marked a volte-face in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward other religions. Though the shortest of all Vatican II’s 16 documents, NA improbably became the Magna Carta of the church’s relations with non-Christian religions and exercised outsized impact on the church’s subsequent theology of religions and practice of interreligious dialogue.

The volte-face in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward other religions, from condemnation to dialogue, is encapsulated in NA, n. 2: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.” Because all religions respect the dignity of the human person as the child of God, interreligious dialogue can “contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society” (FT n. 271). The goal of interreligious dialogue is, Pope Francis says, quoting the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, “to establish friendship, peace and fraternity, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love” (FT n. 271).

The ultimate foundation for achieving universal fraternity and social friendship, according to Francis, is “openness to the Father of all” and the acceptance of the equality of all humans as children of God (FT, n. 272). As for the foremost obstacle to achieving universal fraternity and social friendship, Francis quotes Pope John Paul II’s statement that “the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendental dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate—no individual, group, class, nation or state” (FT n. 273). Francis states explicitly: “Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgment of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere” (FT n. 106).

Only with this acknowledgment of the transcendental dignity of all human persons serving as the ultimate foundation for universal fraternity and social friendship can a fruitful dialogue among religions take place. What is peculiar in Francis’s approach to dialogue is his understanding of dialogue as encounter. Dialogue is too often envisaged as a conversation, at times disputation, mostly among religious officials and theological experts representing various religions understood as a complex of doctrines.

In contrast, Francis sees dialogue not as an exchange among religious systems but as an encounter among concrete believers who are committed not only to the search for the truth but also, and ultimately, to the transformation of the world into a just, peaceful, and loving society. In this encounter, believers of different religions are engaged in “envisaging and engendering an open world,” as the title of FT’s third chapter puts it. An “open world” is one in which we move beyond ourselves, our families, groups, and “associates,” that is, partners joined together to pursue particular interests, to meet others in love, a love that is “ever more open” until we acquire “a heart open to the whole world,” as the title of FT’s fourth chapter expresses it. This love, while universal, must be realized in local encounters, or, as Francis puts it, love must have both a “local flavor” (FT n. 143) and a “universal horizon” (FT n. 146).

Clearly, for Francis, interreligious dialogue does not exist by itself and must not be carried out in isolation from other forms of dialogue, especially in economic, political, social, and cultural matters. As encounter among religious people, interreligious dialogue is but one of the many dialogues that must be performed together so that humans can relate to one another in “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the French Revolution’s motto, that Francis does not hesitate to adopt (FT n. 103-104).

Interreligious Encounter to Promote Universal Fraternity and Social Friendship

The role of interreligious encounter in promoting universal fraternity and social friendship is based on the public character of Christianity as a religion: “The Church, while respecting the autonomy of political life, does not restrict her mission to the private sphere” (FT n. 276). Elsewhere Francis observes, “a healthy religious pluralism, which genuinely respects differences and values as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques” (Evangelii Gaudium [EG] n. 255).

Furthermore, in this interreligious encounter, it seems that for Francis, as the religions engage in building universal fraternity and social friendship, their doctrinal differences, while still remaining, do not function as borders that separate believers of different faiths, or at least do not matter much in the end. This seems to be implied in Francis’s inspiring commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27) in Fratelli Tutti. Francis examines the role of the victim, the robbers, the religious authorities (the priest and the Levite), the innkeeper, and the Samaritan with their different social stations, religious status, and practical attitudes. In particular, he notes the contempt that Jews at the time of Jesus had for the Samaritans, whom they considered religiously impure, as well as the contrasting attitudes of the religious people—the priest and the Levite—and the allegedly impure Samaritan toward the victim.

In Francis’s interpretation of the parable, the differences that really matter are not religious affiliation and doctrinal differences but the attitude toward the victim. Francis writes:

The distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to care and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels, and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth (FT n. 70).

It is not far-fetched to include under the “distinctions, labels, and masks” the religious names that identify the followers of various religions: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, etc. In the building up of universal fraternity and social friendship, religions may inspire and motivate their followers to undertake this task and provide models for doing so, such as Jesus and the Buddha, for their respective followers, but the success of such an undertaking is not guaranteed by the religions themselves. Indeed, Francis remarks: “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (FT n. 74).

There is one area that religions can work together to achieve, namely, the reduction of violence. Pope Francis is well aware that religions can be instrumentalized to support “forms of contempt, hatred, xenophobia, or negation of others.” However, he warns that “violence has no basis in our fundamental religious convictions, but only in their distortion” (FT n. 282). Religious leaders, says Francis, are called to be true “people of dialogue,” “to cooperate in building peace not as intermediaries but as authentic mediators” (FT n. 284), the former acting to gain some advantage for themselves whereas the latter acting only to establish peace.

It is highly appropriate that Pope Francis ends his reflections on the role of interreligious dialogue in building universal fraternity and social friendship by reaffirming the statement titled “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which he and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, signed in February 2019 in Abu Dhabi (FT n. 285). Francis said that in promoting universal fraternity he was inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, and Charles de Foucauld (FT n. 286).

Interreligious Dialogue and the “Culture of Encounter”: The Way Ahead

The expression “culture of encounter” and the image of “polyhedron” are Pope Francis’s signature phrases. By “culture of encounter” Pope Francis means that “we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (FT n. 216). The culture of encounter aims to create a many-faceted polyhedron, which “can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations, Each of us can learn something from others” (FT n. 215).

In terms of interreligious dialogue, the culture of encounter requires that all religions renounce competition and practice collaboration. As the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences puts it, dialogue is not just an activity but a “new way of being church” more open to non-Christians. Pope Francis often asserts that thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, non-Christians have “various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs” (EG n. 254).

Of course the matter of ultimate religious truth remains relevant. But as noted above, Pope Francis’s commentary on the parable of the Samaritan seems to say that doctrinal issues, among which there is of course the claim of religious supremacy, do not matter at the end in interreligious dialogue. “The moment of truth,” “when all our distinctions, labels, and masks fall away” (FT n. 70), is whether we practice our universal fraternity and social friendship to love and serve our neighbors, especially the last and the least and the lost, and the Earth itself (Laudato Si). In no way am I suggesting that for Pope Francis the truth of Christianity is a matter of indifference. On the contrary, Francis constantly affirms it. However, it is only in the culture of encounter characterized by universal fraternity and social friendship that religious truths can be shown to be true and meaningful. Only in orthopraxis can orthodoxy be vindicated.