“What is wrong with Pope Francis?”

Participants in the 2016 Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia Winter Conference (that's me in front with beret)

Participants in the 2016 Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia Winter Conference (that’s me in front with beret)

“What Is Wrong With Pope Francis?” That is the question Rod Dreher asks in this article in the American Conservative, sent to me on an email list to which I belong (and which, incidentally, I have often thought of leaving because of the negative experience reading it gives me, but which I persist in because I wish to be a) a part of the conversation, b) know what the conversation is in the first place).

The article is about Pope Francis’ comments on the plane coming back from Krakow:

“If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent,” Pope Francis said, dismissing Islamic State as a “small fundamentalist group” not representative of Islam as a whole.

“In almost all religions there is always a small group of fundamentalists,” even in the Catholic Church, the pope said, though not necessarily physically violent. “One can kill with the tongue as well as the knife.”

A respondent on the email list asks:

Does anyone know who or which group the Pope is referring to as being one of those dreaded “Catholic Fundamentalists”?

Pope Francis, as ever, doesn’t make a very good argument for the point he is trying to make. He does say that there are plenty of violent Catholics, which is true, but most of us will struggle to think of a case of an atrocity carried out by Catholics in the name of the Catholic faith in our living memory (perhaps Northern Ireland??).

But in the current climate it might be a good thing to immerse ourselves deep in history once more (something that Cardinal Newman highly recommended as being of the greatest help to an authentic Catholicism).

When we do that, it will not be hard to find cases of violence carried out in the name of the Catholic faith by Catholics against non-Catholics – violence justified by the fact that the victims are “the enemies of Christ” (either actively fighting against Christians or – on the other end of the spectrum – simply refusing to accept the Christian religion as their own).

Now granted there are many myths and exaggerations in this department. I highly recommend reading Rodney Stark’s new book “Bearing False Witness” as an antidote to such myths.

Nevertheless, there is enough real history to make exaggerated myth unnecessary. As a simple example, I have just been reading a history of the Jewish people by Simon Schama “The Story of the Jews”. One of my colleagues said that Schama is a “bit biased against the Catholic Church” – but reading his book will soon let you know why. Even keeping Stark’s corrective in mind (that Christian persecution of the Jews was neither universal nor continuous throughout history, that it tended to be at times of great social upheaval and where law and order was not properly maintained, that it was never condoned officially by the Church and that in general both Church and Christian state authorities did what they could to curb the violence), the actual documented evidence of the violence of Christian populations against whole Jewish populations makes uncomfortable reading.

I am reading this book currently under the shadow of two experiences: the first is the European atrocities of recent weeks claimed to have been carried out in the name of Islam, and the second is the event from which I have just returned and for which I was personally instrumental in making happen, viz. the overnight two day Winter Conference for the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia (facebook here). We had thirty people, including 10 Jews and 8 Muslims, from various denominations and ethnicities, leaders and lay people, old and young living together for a few days. It was an event which directly asked the question “Why do we do Interreligious dialogue – and what are the rewards and challenges?”.

We were just 30 people – we were not issuing statements or changing the direction of world history. But we at least met together, talked issues through together and got to know one another. That is a start. It is being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (It bothers me to think that maybe some of the people who are most outspoken about Islam do not actually have any real face to face relationships with Muslim people.)

Like all of you, I am saddened and fearful about what it happening in the world today. I certainly do not have a solution. But I do have a sense about what will help and won’t help. Some people (“the Doves”) think it is “not helpful” to speak about the violence in Europe as “Islamic violence” and want to emphasise that Muslims worship the same God as we do and that Islam is a religion of peace. Others (the “Hawks”) believe that it is absolutely imperative that Western leaders identify the current wave of violence as Islamic, and argue that Islam is a pagan religion which is the natural enemy of Christianity.

Whether you believe the Doves or the Hawks, ask yourself:

1) Is what they are saying true? What is their source for this opinion? Do I want it to be true? And if so why? Could I consider that it might NOT be true?

2) Where will asserting this truth lead? What will be gained by pushing your particular line? Will it ultimately lead to an increase in peace and safety for all people? (Remember Jesus’ rather awkward saying “Blessed are the peacemakers”!)

3) Have I had a conversation with a Muslim person about this, or am I just reading/listening to what non-Muslims are saying?

At the JCMA Conference, some Jews told me that they are still uncomfortable entering a church or seeing a crucifix or hearing the name of Jesus or joining with a gathering of Christians all these bring to mind the history of Christian violence against Jews in the past. They have grown up with this history – they “bear the weight of it” as on Jewish person told me. We Christians, on the other hand, are often entirely ignorant of this history. Christian violence against Jews was carried out because of suspicion and fear, often on the basis that they were “Christ-killers” or even more bizarre accusations, such as that they were poisoning the water or crucifying Christian boys at Easter and mixing their blood with their passover matzah or they were stealing hosts to grind them up for demonic rituals. Yes, there were even Christians who claimed that the God that the Jews worship was a “demon”.

Sound familiar? It was only 50 years ago that the Catholic Church clearly and unambiguously rejected all forms of anti-Judaism and all accusations of responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. It frightens me the rhetoric used to support violence by Christians against Jews in the past sounds so similar to the kind of rhetoric I am hearing today against the Muslim communities living in our midst.

We Christians also live under “the weight of history”. One of the historical narratives we have inherited is that Islam was “spread by the sword”. I am not going to argue that issue here, but it is true that Christians and Muslims have, in the past, faced each other with the pointy ends of their swords. Now, I do not swallow the story that the Crusades were an instance of unprovoked or even unjustified violence of Christians against Muslims. But it is undeniable that Crusader violence was carried out in the name of Christ and that the victims were not always those who were guilty of reciprocal violence against Christians, or even posed a threat to the Christian community. Many innocent people were caught up in the violence (as of course always happened in such violent times – let us not be naive). These included Eastern Christians, non-combatant Muslims, and Jews. And most frightening of all are the instances where the argument was made “We don’t have to travel to the Holy Land to kill the enemies of Christ -we have them right here in our midst” – leading to the outbreak of violence against the Jewish populations of the Rhineland and other parts of Europe. If medieval Europe had had similar minority communities of Muslims (as is the case today), you can be certain that they too would have been the target of the same violence, even though they had nothing to do with the conflict in the East.

I could write more on this, but by this stage you are either with me or not.

I just want to say, in defense of Pope Francis, that he is saying what he is saying because

1) He is rightly concerned about what repercussion his words might have in those parts of the world where minority communities of Christians and others are live among majority Muslim populations, and

2) He is concerned that non-Muslims in Europe, America and other “Christian” societies such as our own (who do not face anything like the same degree of threat from Islamism), may begin to turn on the law-abiding, upright and God-fearing Muslim minority communities in our midst.

He is concerned because he knows something about history. Christian violence may not be something we are so familiar with today, but it HAS happened before. It IS a part of our Christian story. Let us pray that together we can write a new and better chapter to the story of the relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims in our world today for the sake of the peace and safety of all.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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4 Responses to “What is wrong with Pope Francis?”

  1. Rachel Naughton says:

    Dear David,
    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Ever the teacher, you explained the framework of fear that Jews in Christian Societies lived within in the past, culminating in the terrible events of WW2. Its a sober reminder that peace makers need to be courageous and vigilant.
    Kind regards,

    Rachel Naughton

  2. Fraser says:

    Thanks, David.

  3. Mark Henderson says:


    I think the pope could speak more forthrightly about Islamic violence while also taking time to address the two concerns you rightly acknowledge at the conclusion of your post. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, for example, has been quite outspoken about recent Muslim violence against Copts in Egypt. I rather suspect the pope has a blind spot here due to his own history and theological formation. Frankly (no pun!), his response to the martyrdom of Fr Hamel was manifestly inadequate.

    Also, regarding instances of organised Christian violence, it is largely historic rather than in the present. The perpetrators if it also cannot claim to be authorised in any sense by our Lord or the New Testament texts. To equate historic instances of Christian violence, then, with present and past Islamic extremism appears to me to be somewhat obtuse.

    • Schütz says:

      Hi, Mark. Of course the “Christian violence” is “historical”. And equally we today can look at it and say that it in no way can be justified as “true Christianity” or what our Lord would have wanted. But at the time that the violence was carried out, they were absolutely convinced that it was “true Christianity” and “Deus vult” – God wills it! I have hope that with time the Muslim violence we are experiencing and witnessing will similarly go the way of the Christian violence of the past, and Muslims themselves will also universally be able to say that violence in the name of Allah is “historical” and that it will be universally recognised that such violence was never the will of Allah.

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