Alt-right Catholic media outlets are once again condemning Pope Francis, this time for what is supposedly a false portrayal of his namesake saint in the new encyclical, Fratelli tutti. In doing so, they overlook that Francis is following the same path as his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whom they very much favor.
The pope uses a historical event—the 1219 encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil—as the foundation for an encyclical advocating “social friendship,” a transcendent love directed toward overcoming societal barriers that are the source of much human misery. The historical record shows that the saint traveled to Egypt in the midst of the Fifth Crusade and, during a break in the fighting, went to the sultan’s camp to preach to him. He was received warmly.
Pope Francis starts with that incident because it exemplifies the saint’s model of “openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, color or religion.” This is what we need if we are to clear away “dark clouds over a closed world”—not the vilification of Muslims and other groups, which draws huge numbers of viewers to alt-right Catholic websites.
Benedict likewise saw hope in St. Francis’s meeting with the sultan, and framed the encounter in a similar way. In a general audience held on January 27, 2010, he said:
I would like to highlight this episode in St Francis’s life, which is very timely. In an age when there was a conflict underway between Christianity and Islam, Francis, intentionally armed only with his faith and personal humility, traveled the path of dialogue effectively. The chronicles tell us that he was given a benevolent welcome and a cordial reception by the Muslim sultan. It provides a model which should inspire today’s relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote a sincere dialogue, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding.
He referenced a section of the Vatican II document Nostra aetate, which declared the Church’s esteem for Muslims and called for better Christian-Muslim relations: “Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”