Pope Francis (right) talks with Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience at the Vatican, on May 23, 2016 (AFP Photo/Max Rossi)
Reuters reported Tuesday that “Pope Francis hopes to mend ties with Muslims on his trip to Egypt on Friday but faces criticism from church conservatives for meeting Islamic religious leaders after a spate of deadly attacks against Christians.”
He has to mend ties? After Palm Sunday jihad massacres at two churches in Egypt, shouldn’t it be Egyptian Muslims who are reaching out to him to mend ties?
“A main reason for the trip,” Reuters explains, “is to try to strengthen relations with the 1,000-year-old Azhar center that were cut by the Muslim side in 2011 over what it said were repeated insults of Islam by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict.”
What did Benedict say? Andrea Gagliarducci of the Catholic News Agency explains that after a jihad terrorist murdered 23 Christians in a church in Alexandria 2011, Benedict decried “terrorism” and the “strategy of violence” against Christians, and called for the Christians of the Middle East to be protected.
Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Ahmed al-Tayeb, whom Pope Francis welcomed to the Vatican in May 2016, was furious. He railed at Benedict for his “interference” in Egypt’s affairs and warned of a “negative political reaction” to the Pope’s remarks. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced the Pope’s “repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.”
Benedict stood his ground, and that was that. But in September 2013, al-Azhar announced that Pope Francis had sent a personal message to al-Tayeb. In it, according to al-Azhar, Francis declared his respect for Islam and his desire to achieve “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.” At the same time, Al Tayyeb met with the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, Mgr. Jean-Paul Gobel, and told him in no uncertain terms that speaking about Islam in a negative manner was a “red line” that must not be crossed.
So Pope Benedict condemned a jihad attack, one that al-Azhar also condemned, and yet al-Azhar suspended dialogue because of the Pope’s condemnation. Then Pope Francis wrote to the Grand Imam of al-Azhar affirming his respect for Islam, and the Grand Imam warned him that criticizing Islam was a “red line” that he must not cross. And he hasn’t, and won’t. But all those who think that it’s marvelous that the Pope is “respectful” and refuses to “poke them in the eye” should remember: Benedict’s supposed insults to Islam were denunciations of jihad attacks on Christians. Pope Francis won’t be so indelicate. In contrast to Benedict, Francis energetically defends Islam, and leaves the persecuted Christians twisting in the wind, so he is acceptable to al-Azhar.
The worst part about this is the fact that because this man is Pope, all too many Catholics, including some in positions of high authority, treat him as if he were a divine oracle, his every utterance to be revered, respected, studied, and followed. Because of the statement of the Second Vatican Council that “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra,” and “must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will,” Catholic leaders and publications tend to think that they must adhere to anything the Pope says about anything.
This leads them into impossible positions. When Pope Benedict XVI appeared to criticize the aspects of Islam that incite and justify violence, they allowed for criticism of Islam. When Francis showed himself to be an Islamic apologist, they became Islamic apologists. All too many Catholic leaders and institutions, in other words, are more interested in being papists than in being truthful. They would rather show loyalty to the Pope, no matter how damaging his utterances, than stand for the truth on their own against the Pope.
The contradiction is clear, and absolute. If the Catholic Church has become one of Islam’s loudest boosters, then those who are aware of the nature and magnitude of the jihad threat, rooted in Islamic texts and teachings, have to make some decisions about where they stand.
“Leave them; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14)