Friday 4 February 2022 marks the third anniversary of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. This declaration is a joint statement signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Alzar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, urging believers and non-believers around the world to work for a more fraternal world of peace, justice, goodness, and brotherhood.
The document was hailed as a historic milestone in the relations between Christianity and Islam. Its existence meant that Pope Francis became the first pontiff to ever step foot in the Arabian peninsula. It also resulted in the largest Mass to ever have taken place in the United Arab Emirates.
The document is not a creedal statement. It is not designed to engage with the many differences that separate Christians and Muslims from one another.
From the outset, it explains itself to be, after ‘honest and serious thought’, a ‘joint declaration of good and heartfelt aspirations.’
It is a ‘guide’, a framework with which future generations might ‘advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters.’
As such, it is not a magisterial document in any way. Its purpose is to model the path of dialogue and collaboration that Francis has been advocating since the beginning of his time as Peter's successor.
The theme of human fraternity has been consistent throughout Francis’ pontificate, highlighted further with the publication of his encyclical Fratelli Tutti.
What the idea of fraternity stresses is that human conflict is essentially sibling rivalry. In sharing a common human nature, we share a common ancestry, a common family. Beneath the myriad of things that divide us, there is an underlying reality that we often forget: the reality that we are family. That they, too, have been created in the image and likeness of God, and nothing can erase that dignity.
For anyone who has read Francis in any great depth, this idea of fraternity is not especially ideological. Francis tends to spurn ideology as a corruption of faith. Instead, as we see in his reflection on the Good Samaritan in Fratelli Tutti, his idea of fraternity is rooted in the reality of human suffering.
In the face of it, he wrote,
we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity’ (§68).
To recognise the dignity of another, to treat them fraternally, is to love them in their suffering.
One of the chief complaints of the Abu Dhabi statement is the existence of religious violence. The document strongly condemns the use of religion for violent ends.
Whilst acknowledging the many advancements humanity has made in terms of science and technology, there has also been a ‘moral deterioration,’ they say. A 'weakening of spiritual values’ that leads to ‘frustration, isolation and desperation, leading many to fall either into a vortex of atheistic, agnostic, or religious extremism, or into blind and fanatic extremism.’
Together they write that God ‘does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.’
They also condemn ‘materialistic philosophies that deify the human person’ and supplant ‘transcendental principles’ with ‘worldly and material values.’ This is one of the deepest causes of the ailments we suffer from today.
In this vein, and in the cause of unity between the East and the West, the statement acknowledges that the West can learn from the East remedies for the sickness of materialism; the East, likewise, can discover in the West freedom from ‘weakness, division, conflict and scientific, technical and cultural decline.’
In this process of learning together, the East and the West can be a model of the path of dialogue and mutual enrichment.
The document also highlights something that is ‘one of the most threatening evils of our era.’ That is this: the political, cultural and societal attack on the institution of the family.
The statement makes plain, deeply in accord with Catholic theology, that the family is ‘the nucleus of society and humanity’ and is essential for the ‘moral formation and domestic security’ of children.
Anything that infringes upon the rights of children must be firmly denounced, they state.
Alongside stressing the value of human rights, the document pays special attention to the plight of women around the world. Any barriers that infringe upon the exercise of their rights as women, as humans, must be removed. This includes their rights to education, employment, and the exercise of their political rights. Greater efforts also need to be made, they say, to ‘protect women from sexual exploitation and from being treated as merchandise or objects of pleasure or financial gain.’
Some controversy surrounded the statement, with critics taking aim at this line:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom . . .’
The accusation was that Pope Francis had signed a heterodox document, since God does not actively will the existence of false religions – He only permits them. To say that God actively willed them would be to say that God actively wills error, and that is contrary to His nature.
‘It is puzzling, and potentially problematic,’ theologian Chad Pecknold told CNA back in 2019, ‘but in the context of the document, the Holy Father is clearly referring not to the evil of many false religions, but positively refers to the diversity of religions only in the sense that they are evidence of our natural desire to know God . . .
A diversity of religions can be spoken about as permissively willed by God without denying the supernatural good of the one, true religion.’
When confronted by auxiliary bishop of Kazakhstan, Athanasius Schneider, over the issue, Pope Francis confirmed this interpretation.
‘You can say the phrase in question,’ the pontiff explained, ‘means the permissive will of God.’ Francis acknowledged that the statement could be interpreted erroneously.
During the press conference on the flight back from Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis spoke of the ‘one single great danger in this moment: destruction, war and hatred between us.’
He said that ‘if we believers are not capable of giving each other a hand, embracing each other and even praying, our faith will be defeated.’
He also spoke about the plight of Christians in the face of ISIS, about their ‘daily bread’ of violence. The document serves as a sign of hope in the region, a call for aggressors to lay down their arms and see in the face of their fellow human beings a brother and sister, someone created in the very image and likeness of God.
Ultimately, though, this call is for everyone:
We call upon intellectuals, philosophers, religious figures, artists, media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world, to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of salvation for all, and to promote them everywhere.'
Melbourne Catholic27 February 2024
Justin McLellan (CNS)26 February 2024