On February 5 Pope Francis celebrated Mass in front of 130,000 people in an open-air sports stadium in the small emirate of Abu Dhabi. The scene was rich with symbolism. Catholics in Abu Dhabi (and throughout the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen) are mostly guest workers from all over the world and thus represent the beautiful diversity of the church. Catholic believers from more than a hundred countries, along with Muslims and others, were in attendance at the Mass, which was likely the first public celebration of Christian liturgy in the Arabian peninsula since late antiquity.
Francis’s public Mass was also an opportunity to highlight the gradual but real advances in religious freedom in the United Arab Emirates, where a Christian population of over a million believers worships in forty churches. In some ways, Christianity is thriving in the UAE, especially when compared with the tragic decline of Christianity in nearby countries with historic Christian populations such as Iraq and Syria. The demonstration of religious freedom in the UAE (albeit a limited freedom—there is still no right to evangelize publicly or to baptize Muslims there) also sent a message to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where any non-Islamic religious gathering is theoretically forbidden and no churches are to be found. For all these reasons, the press coverage of the pope’s visit to the UAE was decidedly positive. Controversy, however, would follow.
The day before the Mass, Pope Francis met with a delegation of Muslim leaders led by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, who had traveled from Cairo to meet with him (the UAE has already commemorated this meeting with a stamp featuring the two religious leaders). Together with el-Tayeb, who is eager to advance the reputation of al-Azhar as an institution that speaks for the Sunni Islamic world, Pope Francis signed “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” That very day the pope tweeted: “The Document on Human Fraternity, which I signed today in Abu Dhabi with my brother the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, invites all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together.”
Almost immediately Catholic observers noticed the following line in the document: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” This statement was evidently meant to advance an argument about religious freedom, as the next line reads: “This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.” This element of the document serves as a response to the growing Salafi movement within Sunni Islam, which generally opposes religious freedom, insisting that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can and should be compelled or pressured in different ways—to follow Islam “properly” in the case of Muslims, or to convert to Islam in the case of non-Muslims. And yet this statement was largely ignored by Muslim observers (which may say something about the actual influence of Ahmed el-Tayeb). It was Catholics who responded.
On February 8, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan (a majority-Muslim country), released a document titled “The Gift of Filial Adoption, the Christian Faith: the only valid and the only God-willed religion,” the subtitle clearly alluding to the assertion in the Document on Human Fraternity that the diversity of religions is “willed by God.” Toward the end of “The Gift of Filial Adoption,” Bishop Schneider argues that the apostles and other martyrs would have spared themselves their terrible deaths if they had believed that “the pagan religion and its worship is a way, which as well corresponds to the will of God.”
On that same day, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith between 2012 and 2017, released a document called a “Manifesto of Faith,” which, as he explains in the opening lines, was intended as a response to “growing confusion” about the faith. Müller does not explicitly address the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Francis and el-Tayeb, but his “manifesto” does appear to respond to it indirectly. Unlike Schneider, Müller bases his argument on Christ’s establishment of the church for the purpose of the salvation of souls (a theme of the magisterial document Dominus Iesus): “Today, many Christians are no longer even aware of the basic teachings of the Faith, so there is a growing danger of missing the path to eternal life.” While Müller does not refer to Islam explicitly, he does write that “We are to resist the relapse into ancient heresies with clear resolve, which saw in Jesus Christ only a good person, brother and friend, prophet and moralist” [italics mine]. At the heart of Islamic teaching on Christ is the rejection of his divinity and the affirmation of his prophethood. Müller insists that proper faith, the faith that saves, involves the confession that Christ is “first and foremost the Word that was with God, and is God, the Son of the Father.” Müller, who later refers to the “dreadful possibility” of eternal condemnation, insists that one must not “keep silent” about the truths of the faith by which humans are saved.
Other Catholic observers have looked for more sympathetic ways to understand the Document on Human Fraternity. The popular Catholic blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf writes, “We must seek a way to understand this without it sounding like heresy,” and goes on to note that God has both an “active” will and a “permissive” will (for example, he permitted Adam and Eve to sin although he foresaw that sin). Perhaps the plurality of religions is something that falls under the latter category. Chad C. Pecknold of the Catholic University of America presents another possibility in an interview with the Catholic News Agency—namely, that the diversity of religions is “evidence of our natural desire to know God” and might, for this reason and to this extent, be willed by God. The Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra aetate speaks of a “perception” of a hidden power common to humanity and adds that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions.
One thing is missing from this discussion. In our efforts to understand the Human Fraternity document, and the turn of phrase regarding religious pluralism in particular, it is essential to keep in mind that, unlike Nostra aetate (or Dominus Iesus, or any other magisterial document), it was jointly written with non-Christians. Indeed it is critical to recognize that this phrase reflects two passages of the Qur’an.