This was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 5.
The film The Two Popes, by writer Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles, sensitively and accurately captures the essential humanity of two very different popes: the cerebral and Eurocentric Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, and the instinctual globalist Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires and soon-to-be Pope Francis, Benedict’s successor.
Of course, effective drama depends on conflict, and reportage thrives on easily encapsulated polarities. All the more welcome, then, to see that Mr. McCarten and Mr. Meirelles eschew caricature and instead create a portrait of fully fleshed individuals of unlike backgrounds and divergent views, but with a shared faith and a genuine affection for each other.
Benedict, in his prior position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rarely spoke of other religious traditions and harbored some serious theological misgivings about ever-expanding doctrinal horizons when it came to ecumenical and interfaith agreements. As a priest and as a bishop, he had a very limited pastoral experience, spending most of his time as a professor in a German faculty of theology or as the orthodoxy invigilator in Rome.
Francis, by contrast, is a Jesuit with a well-honed predilection for a “culture of encounter” when it comes to the “other.” He spent the majority of his pre-pontifical days in active pastoral ministry.
Nowhere is the difference between the two popes more evident than in their approaches to Islam. Early in his papacy, in September 2006, Benedict gave his controversial University of Regensburg address, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” a dense work not given to soundbites or immediate comprehension by those outside the world of theological discourse (an audience Benedict did not have in mind).
By quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, who spoke disparagingly of Mohammed, Benedict generated a media and political storm that saw formal denunciations by various world figures. Outraged Muslim spiritual leaders demanded a recantation, and protests and even violence occurred in some countries, leaving the Pope reeling, his curia in disarray and the Vatican press office scrambling to provide explanations.
Although Benedict made clear that the quotation did not in any way reflect his own view, the damage was done. As far away as Argentina, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was identified as saying that the Regensburg statements “will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.” The Vatican was apoplectic, and by way of appeasement, the Archbishop’s spokesman, Guillermo Marco, took the hit and resigned. But as Francis biographer Paul Vallely makes clear, those in the know have no doubt that Father Marco reflected the views of his boss.
For Pope Francis, relations between the Catholic world and Islam became a spiritual and political priority. In part, this was an effort to continue the strategy of reparation that Benedict, post-Regensburg, had himself initiated. But it was also conceived as a more hands-on, person-to-person undertaking that relegated doctrinal and historical controversies to the side, opting for an encounter of like spirits rather than like minds.
To that end, in 2014, Francis invited both his close rabbi friend, Abraham Skorka, and his close Muslim friend, Omar Abboud, to accompany him to the Holy Land. He personally invited the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to his home in the Vatican to pray for peace. He travelled to countries racked by internecine warfare that played on Muslim-Catholic tribalism, the Philippines and the Balkans, interceding on behalf of peace and mutual understanding. In 2017, he visited Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the premiere seat of Sunni learning, and spent time with the Grand Imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, with whom two years later in Abu Dhabi he would sign the document “On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
Importantly, his first trip as Pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to welcome migrants fleeing Africa – the majority of whom were Muslim – and to advocate on their behalf in a frightened and populist Europe.
He has annually washed the feet of Muslim women on Holy Thursday in imitation of Christ at the Last Supper.
Francis also beatified the Tibhirine Trappist monks who had sought to serve as a conduit between their Muslim neighbors in Algeria and the Catholic faith, not by proselytizing but by reverencing their traditions.
As 2020 begins, with the Middle East still in turmoil, the Islamic State poised for a resurgence and autocratic leaders flourishing in a time of frantic uncertainty, Francis may prove to be a great friend to Islam – like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, a channel of peace and light in a tortured time.
Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.