Some thoughts on the Pope’s remarks returning from Krakow

The return flight interview from Poland followed the usual pattern that popes have now accustomed us to in such occasions. The Pope invites questions and reflects leisurely on the experience of the visit.

“It’s like a fruitcake, there’s a little bit of everything; there are violent people in these religions. One thing is true; I believe that in almost all religions there always a small fundamentalist group.” — Pope Francis, Interview, Return from Krakow, July 31, 2016 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, August 5, 2016.)


My print copy of the Holy Father’s comments on his return from World Youth Day in Poland arrived on August 8, the Feast of St. Dominic. On the front page of this issue is a headline that reads “A Jesuit among the Friars”. It recounts that on August 4, Pope Francis met with the General Chapter of the Dominican Fathers, then in the afternoon flew to Assisi to meet with Franciscans. The print that goes with the account is from Benozzo Gozzoli (1452), a famous painting of the meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic. No Jesuit was present yet at this initial meeting between the two friars. It was not only because Jesuits are not friars. It is just that they had not yet been dreamed up by St. Ignatius at the time. It is always a delight to be with Dominicans and Franciscans. At their too infrequent meetings, all three go home thanking God for his particular vocation. This is what the “common good” is about.

The return flight interview from Poland followed the usual pattern that popes have now accustomed us to in such occasions. The Pope invites questions and reflects leisurely on the experience of the visit. The Pope, on this return trip, first thanked Fr. Fedrico Lombardi for his long service as Press Secretary. This would be his last official trip. The Pope also thanked a certain Mauro who was likewise retiring. He had worked for 37 years as handler of the baggage on these trips—no doubt a major logistics problem. The Pope even promised then a cake later on.

The first question the Pope was asked came from a Polish reporter. It was one of those “How did you like the Poles?” questions. Francis liked them just fine. He recalled that his father worked with some Polish people in Argentina. “They were good people.”

The next question, also from a Pole, wanted to know how the Pope prepared for a visit with young people. “I enjoy talking with young people.” They do sometimes say “ridiculous things” but so do old folks like himself and those not so old. “We need to listen to them, to speak with them, because we learn from them and they need to learn from us.” Evidently, history is made this way. Whether an older generation has anything in particular to pass down that the young do not already know—the old issue of wisdom–was a question not broached. Francis does not seem to be bothered by the concern of Plato about teachers and fathers who have nothing to teach their sons so they end up imitating them.

An Italian reporter wanted to know what the Pope thought of ominous events in Turkey. “We would like to ask you: why have you not intervened yourself, why haven’t you spoken about this? Are you afraid that there would be repressions on the Christian minorities in Turkey?” Pope Francis handled this delicate question gingerly. The Pope said that he did speak frankly of Turkey on occasion. He was not sure what was going on in Turkey at present. He was studying the matter. “It is true that we always want to avoid harm to the Catholic communities…but not at the price of truth. Prudence is an issue. “When I have had something to say about Turkey, I have said it.” In Armenia, the Pope did talk of the Turkish slaughter of over a million Armenians around the end of the Great War.


An American journalist asked about accusations against Cardinal Pell in Australia. Francis replied that these reports have been “confusing”. The “Who am I to judge?” theme comes out this way: “We cannot judge until the justice system passes judgement.” Francis did not want to pass judgement on the Cardinal Pell case “prematurely”. Doubt exists. The law “favors the accused”. We have to wait for the justice system to do its job and not pass judgement in the media, because this is not helpful.” Francis does not like “justice by gossip”. Francis’ final comment on the topic is this: “See what the justice system decides. Once it has spoken, then I will speak.” It is a relief to know that the Holy Father will make some judgements. In this interview, at least, there is no indication one way or another about whether the Pope thinks good Cardinal Pell is innocent or not. This is itself, I presume, a judgement of prudence. Evidently, we will find out what the Pope really thinks only after the court decision in Australia. If  the court judges him  guilty, the Pope surely will have to make a judgement about whether it was right or not.

A Latin American journalist asked the Pope first about his fall at a liturgical service and about Venezuela. Of the fall, he said he was lucky and landed all right and is doing fine. Venezuela, however, is a delicate question. Many think that the Pope has been too cozy with dictators like the Castro brothers, the man in Bolivia, and other similar rather shady political figures. His relation to Peron and other Argentine rulers is often discussed, even if he has a good record against some of them.

Pope Francis had received a request for an audience from Venezuelan President Maduro, but it had to be cancelled due to the President’s earache. Some talk of the Vatican mediating the situation in Venezuela was heard. The Pope is rather reticent here: “There is presently some thought…but I am not sure, and I cannot confirm this. I am not sure whether someone in the group of mediators…or perhaps also from the governments—but I am not sure—wants representatives from the Holy See.”


The final major question that received much world-wide attention was what the Pope said about Islam. In the Interview on the trip to Krakow, the Pope had made these widely cited remarks, which are not exactly out of von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, or even Aquinas “on war”: “When I speak of war, I speak of real war, not of a war of religions.” In the Pope’s view, “war is for interests” or “for money”, the “resources of nature”, or “for the domination of peoples”. Violence and conflict cannot be framed as religious issues.  “All Religions want peace, while ‘others want war.’” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, July 29, 2016). Evidently, war can be caused by anything but religion. This unusual view seems to be an a priori position, not one based on experience. If it is a war, it cannot be caused by religion. Therefore, something else is the cause. Thus, one might conclude that the famous “Wars of Religion” (1562-98) were improperly named. The spread of Islam by the sword was not caused by religion.

While the Pope was in Krakow, the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel at Mass took place in France. The Pope is asked by a reporter why he refuses to use the word “Islamic” but only the abstract “terrorists” when speaking of these frequent incidents of killings in Europe. Francis explains that he does not speak of “Islamic violence” because he reads in the newspaper in Italy that a man, a “baptized Catholic”, has killed his girlfriend. The reasoning goes like this: “If I spoke about Islamic violence, I would have to speak of Catholic violence.” In the Pope’s mind, there is equivalence between cutting the throat of a Priest at Mass and the killing of a girlfriend. “Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent.” It is all “like a fruitcake”. There are violent people in all religions. Some fundamental difference seems to exist between the Muslim who kills others because he is carrying out his religion’s commands and the “baptized Catholic” who kills his girlfriend in spite of what the Commandment teaches.

What then is the problem? “I believe that, in almost all religions, there is always a small fundamentalist group.” Fundamentalisms somehow gets “to the point of killing.” At this point, the Pope seems distracted. “One can kill with the tongue.” He cites St. James. We can “kill” not just with a “knife.” This is an analogy wherein the vert “to kill” does not mean exactly the same thing. Evidently, we now have also equivalence between killing with a knife and killing with the tongue. I am not sure just what this does to the Fifth Commandment. “Bless me Father for I have killed a man with my tongue,” would be a bit misleading.  It is an unusual way to speak of “killing” in this context. Slander and calumny have long been considered serious sins in their own right. They are not really murders, however much damage to reputations they may do.

The Pope then returned to the spirit of the remarks that he made on the way to Krakow. “ I believe that it is not right to identify Islam with violence. It is not right and it is not true.” If we recall the Regensburg Address, it was precisely this accusation that the Emperor made.  Islam was a source of violence as its Holy Book specifically taught. Pope Francis recalls a long talk with the Grand Imam. He told the Pope that Islam was “looking for peace, for encounter”. Of course, in the normal understanding of a Muslim, peace arrives only after everyone else is legally and morally submissive to Allah. Before that event, everyone outside of Islam is in a state of war against it. In some African nations, the Pope tells us that Muslims and Christians get along. But on a world scale, this is unusual.

The problem is, Pope Francis tells us, the “little fundamentalist groups”. But it is not just them. It is like killing with the tongue. Young Europeans are left without ideals or jobs. As a result they turn to drugs and alcohol, and, as a result, they “enlist in these fundamentalist groups.” Finally, Francis does admit that ISIS (i.e., the “so-called” ISIS, a small group) “acknowledges itself to be violent.” They do slit the throats of Egyptians (they are not identified as Coptic Christians) on the Libyan coast.” What about it? Not to worry. “This is a little fundamentalist group called ISIS.” This small group does seem to have a world-wide reach.

One might say, I suppose, that the Twelve Apostles, the College of Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, or the House of Commons can be described as a “little fundamentalist group”. In any case, “You cannot say—I believe it is false and unjust—that Islam is terrorist. Terrorism is everywhere. Think of tribal terrorism in some African countries.” The Sudan or Nigeria are not mentioned. The first principle is that religion can have nothing to do with terrorism unless taken up by a few fanatics recruited because of drugs, alcohol, and lack of jobs.

The explanation of war, fundamentalism, and terrorism continues: “Terrorism—I do not know if I should say it because it is a bit risky—increases whenever there is no other option, when the global economy is centered on the god of money and not on the human person.” So in the end, it all comes back to economics. Religion has nothing to do with it. It does not evidently get at the heart of things.  “This is already a first form of terrorism. You drive out the marvel of creation, man and woman, and you put money in their place. This is the basic act of terrorism against all humanity. We should think about it.” Whew!

With such reflections, Pope Francis does give us “something to think about.” It is, to be sure, “risky” business. At least some of the things worth thinking about are these:  Is there no recorded history of terrorism caused by Islamic expansion since the sixth century? (See Mike Konrad, The American Thinker, May 31, 2014). Is nothing said in the Qur’an suggesting that violence is approved by Allah? Is a crime of passion against one’s religion equivalent to an act of violence in the name of one’s religion? Is it true that “fundamentalism”, whatever it is, is the cause of the danger? Are all wars solely caused by “interests”, “money”, “desire for natural resource”, and “expansion”? Is terrorism really caused by the world economy? Are the actual terrorists poor? Do they say they are motivated by economic motives? It is, indeed, well to think of these things. Indeed, it is probably more “risky” not to think about them.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).