Five observations on Francis’ recent interview about France, Europe, and Islam

The Pope, in a recent interview with the French newspaper "La Croix" compares Islam’s inherent drive for conquest to Christ’s Great Commission.

Another week, another papal interview. This time it is with the French newspaper La Croix. The main focus is the state of affairs in France and Europe, with remarks on Islam, religious freedom, and related matters. As usual, some of the Holy Father’s remarks are a bit surprising. (Part of me would rather not even write about them, if only because doing so seems more and more like a lose-lose proposition. Oh well.) Although a relatively short interview, there is much that could be said. But I will just note a few things:

1) Francis is apparently uncomfortable with talk of the Christians roots of Europe, saying that there “are so many [roots]” and adding: “In this sense, when I hear talk of the Christian roots of Europe, I sometimes dread the tone, which can seem triumphalist or even vengeful. It then takes on colonialist overtones. John Paul II, however, spoke about it in a tranquil manner.” Trumphalist? Even vengeful?

Why no reference to Benedict XVI? Perhaps it was just an oversight. But I have to wonder, because Ratzinger/Benedict wrote and spoke very often about the Christian roots of Europe. Books that come immediately to mind include Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (2006), Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2007), and Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (2008). The latter two contain writings penned years before the date of publication in collections. Anyhow, Ratzinger thought and wrote very deeply about Europe: its origins, roots, meaning, culture, and future. He was, of course, not triumphalist in the least; rather, he wrote as both a scholar and a pastor.

So, in Church, Ecumenism, and Politics he noted that “Europe, as a word and as a geographical and intellectual-spiritual concept, is a concept of the Greeks. … If [Europe] were to forget its Greek heritage, it could no longer be Europe.” He notes that part of the Greek heritage is an understanding of democracy that is founded on good law and “what is intrinsically right”, not on mere majority rule. He then notes that “Christianity … is a synthesis brought about in Jesus Christ between Israel’s faith and the Greek mind. … Europe is based on this synthesis.” There is much more, but he notes that Europe must avoid a radicalization that results from embracing an “autonomous reason which no longer recognizes anything but itself and has therefore gone blind”, destroying the very foundations of its nature and existence. The only antidote to such self-destructive movements is “holding fast to the foundations of reason in reverence for God and for the fundamental moral values that come from the Christian faith.”

In the essay “Europe: Its Spiritual Foundation: Yesterday, Today and in the Future”, which was written in 2004 is contained in the first two books above, Ratzinger makes this important point:

Here in the West there is a strange form of self-hate we can only consider pathological. Yes, in a rather praiseworthy manner, the West does strive to be open in full to the comprehension of external values, but it no longer loves itself. All it sees in its own history is what is disgraceful and destructive, while it no longer seems able to perceive what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new, critical and humble acceptance of itself; but only if it really wishes to survive. The multi-culturalism now being encouraged and fostered with such passion comes across at times as mostly an abandonment and denial of what is one’s own, a sort of flight from self.

Multi-culturalism, however, cannot subsist without shared constants, without points of reference based on one’s own values. Part thereof involves reaching out with respect to elements sacred for others, but we may do this only if the Sacred One, God, is not extraneous to us.

Is this triumphalist or vengeful? Does it take on “colonialist overtones”? I think it would be absurd to say so. And I’m not saying Francis is definitely saying so; rather, it’s (once again) not really clear what Francis is saying in this regard.

Francis is clearly keyed into “colonialism”, although he doesn’t provide examples or specifics. He emphasizes that “Christianity’s duty to Europe is one of service” (making mention of Erich Przywara), saying, “Christianity’s contribution to a culture is that of Christ in the washing of the feet. In other words, service and the gift of life. It must not become a colonial enterprise.” Note here that Francis is not speaking of Europe’s exportation of gender ideology and such to Third World countries, but to Christianity within Europe. And that, really, is why it is so puzzling.

2) Asked about migrants, Francis notes that there are limits to what Europe can do, but says “the deeper question is why there are so many migrants now.” His answers include: wars in the Middle East and Africa and the underdevelopment of the African continent. So, why are there wars in those places?

“If there are wars,” Francis states, “it is because there exist arms manufacturers – which can be justified for defensive purposes – and above all arms traffickers.” But this is simply punting the ball down the road as it doesn’t answer the logical question: why so many arms manufacturers and traffickers? Who are they and why are they apparently thriving? Who are their customers? The manufacturing and trafficking of arms, drugs, and related things can only exist if there is a demand. So, why the demand? Who is using arms in the Middle East? For what ends? Those questions are not asked or answered. Instead, Francis moves on to one of his favorite topics: “a world economic system that has descended into the idolatry of money. The great majority of humanity’s wealth has fallen into the hands of a minority of the population.” Is he saying, then, that greed is what drives, say, terrorists and Islamic radicals?

Granted, greed and lust for power have always been key motives for war and conquest; that was as true in the ancient world as it is today. But why such an explosion of migrants and refugees in recent years? Why have Iraq and Syria (among others) gone from having a significant number of Christians to now being almost devoid of any Christian presence?

These questions aren’t raised or addressed. Instead, Francis bluntly states: “A completely free market does not work.” How, exactly, does this relate to the crisis of refugees? Has the “completely free market” somehow been responsible, for instance, for the meteoric rise and apparent success of ISIS? And, really, does a “completely free market” really exist? After all, Europe and the U.S. hardly suffer for lack of regulations and oversight when it comes to economic matters. Where is this market? “In other words,” Francis counters, “[what is needed is] a social market economy.” Full stop. The implication, it appears, is that governments aren’t doing enough to control, guide, and manage the economy, which is then, in some sort of mysterious manner, causing upheavals in many parts of the Middle East. 

3) Even more perplexing, I think, is Francis’ continual presentation of the West as a constant aggressor or unfeeling tyrant who lords it over migrants, who are not only helpless (and, surely, many of them are to a large degree) but completely free of any sort of responsibility for how they acclimate themselves to a new country and culture. “Coming back to the migrant issue,” Francis says, “the worst form of welcome is to ‘ghettoize’them.”

On the contrary, it’s necessary to integrate them. In Brussels, the terrorists were Belgians, children of migrants, but they grew up in a ghetto. In London, the new mayor (Editor: Sadiq Khan, the son of Muslim Pakistanis) took his oath of office in a cathedral and will undoubtedly meet the queen. This illustrates the need for Europe to rediscover its capacity to integrate.

In other words, Europe’s refusal to integrate certain migrants is responsible for acts of terrorism; the implication is that they really didn’t have much of a choice. As a friend noted: “Jews often either chose, were encouraged or were forced to live in ghettos in many places in Europe for centuries.  They never became terrorists.  Christians were often forced to live in ghettos in Muslim lands. They never became terrorists.  Immigrants from all kinds of Christian countries lived in impoverished ghetto situations in the big cities of the USA a hundred years ago and they never became terrorists.” Could it be something else altogether? Could it be that the situation is not only more complicated, but far more daunting than merely trying to be nicer to strangers? It is strange, I think, how Francis apparently views certain groups—divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, migrants, Muslims, poor people around the world—as having almost no discernible free will and almost completely no control over the choices (even for ill) that they have to make.

Interestingly, Francis makes reference to how Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) handled matters with some barbarians “who were subsequently integrated.” It should be pointed out that while Gregory was hardly coercive toward the barbarians, his goal and purpose was to have the barbarians become Christian. Is that the goal for the Church in France and Europe? Dare Christians seek the conversion of Muslims and other non-Christians? Or would that be considered triumphalist and colonialist in nature? And, yes, it’s a serious question.

4) Here is the most controversial section of the interview:

– The fear of accepting migrants is partly based on a fear of Islam. In your view, is the fear that this religion sparks in Europe justified?

Pope Francis: Today, I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.

I find it refreshing that Francis admits that “the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam” because he has previously insisted that true Islam has nothing to do with violence. But, in fact, many people in the West are fearful of Islam, in part because they recognize that while the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the vast majority of terrorists claim to be truly Muslim and—this is essential—there is no basis on which their claim can be denied. Secondly, the “well, Christians do bad stuff too!” argument is not only facile, it is insulting. Of course Christians have done bad things. But saying that the Great Commission—”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20)—is equivalent to jihad  and the consistent record of violent and coercive expansion by Islam is simply ludicrous. No, it is not the same idea of conquest, and that sort of evasive equivalence is a disservice to the historical record and to the truth about Christianity.

Unfortunately, Francis has often taken this sort of straw man approach to this topic, as when he said in November 2014, “And I sincerely believe that we cannot say all Muslims are terrorists, just as we cannot say that all Christians are fundamentalists – we also have fundamentalists among us, all religions have these small groups.” That is equally facile, because no serious person is making such expansive claims; rather, the issue is the inherent vision and logic of a particular religion, combined with the means by which it regulates itself and interprets its doctrines, combined with the structures by which it controls and directs its actions. That said, I think he is correct in noting the implications of trying to plant some sort of democratic structure in certain countries; it simply doesn’t work and it often has very bad consequences. But that still is separate from the inner dynamism and goals of Islam, which is not only fractures, but quite theologically schizophrenic and disfunctional..

5) Finally, Francis says, “States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of History.” My initial response is: “And non-confessional states end well?” Let’s be honest: the end of any nation is almost always bad; nations rise and fall for a variety of reasons, but the falls are rarely pleasant or enjoyable. The Soviet Union is a good case in point. On the other hand, this insistence that confessional states are simply bad is dubious, to put it mildly. The Byzantine Empire lasted for—wait for it—a thousand years, and it was, on the whole, an impressive and great culture. (Of course, no one knows anything about it, so it’s a moot point, right?) Oh, and it was conquered by, yes, Muslims. And as a recent and important book explains, the Andalusian Paradise was not, in fact, paradise. And, please, can we stop invoking “History” and the “grain of History”? It’s both lazy and meaningless; history is what men have done, using their free will, for good or ill. Invoking vaguely Hegelian concepts only confuses matters.

Francis is right, of course, to defend religious freedom; he says many good things. But, at the end of day, those who wish to understand the place, purpose, and possible future of Europe will be better served in seeking out the writings of Joseph Ratzinger.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.