Viewpoint: Does Pope Francis’ Outreach to Non-Catholics Signal Deeper Reform?

Interfaith relations have always been awkward for the Roman Catholic Church. That may change—if the new Pope’s statements are any indication

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Pope Francis during an audience with a diplomatic corps at the Vatican.

When it came to the Roman Catholic Church’s relations with other religions, the now retired Pope Benedict XVI was a bit like that elderly uncle of yours who means well but always seems to say the wrong thing at the table. There was the speech in 2006 when he seemed, fairly or not, to suggest that coerced conversion was one of Islam’s core tenets. Or his rebooting of the sainthood process for Pius XII—the World War II-era Pontiff widely criticized for his perceived silence during the Holocaust—a campaign that further alienated Jews. Of the messes Benedict left his successor to clean up at the Vatican, these were among the messiest, especially in a globalized age when interfaith dialogue is more essential than ever.

Fortunately, newly elected Pope Francis looks willing to roll up his cassock sleeves and start mopping. At a meeting on Friday, March 22, with foreign diplomats accredited to the Vatican, the 76-year-old Argentine, the first Pontiff ever from the western hemisphere, made it clear that an ecumenical revival is high on his agenda. “It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people,” he said—adding surprisingly but emphatically, “I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

The Pope’s remarks came a day after his unusual Vatican meet-and-greet with leaders and representatives from an array of different faiths, whom he had made a point of inviting to his installment mass on Tuesday. Among them was Bartholomew I, the first Eastern Orthodox patriarch to attend a Papal investiture since his Christian church split with Rome in 1053, as well as Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, who heard Francis pledge to promote “friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.”

One shouldn’t underestimate how uncommon that shift in rhetoric and gesture is for the Catholic Church—or how important it potentially is to broader international relations, given the 1.2 billion Catholics the Vatican represents worldwide. Every religion has adherents who think their faith is God’s only true WiFi network. And that impulse can turn intolerantly violent, as the past couple decades have all too often shown us. Certainly no one is accusing the Catholic Church of returning to its Inquisition past. But one of its more troubling tics is an attitude of theological superiority and exclusivity toward other religions, including fellow Christian denominations. And it can be as irksome to people in Miami as it is in Mecca.

Ask the Rev. Albert Cutié, the former Catholic priest who was once a clerical TV star known as “Father Oprah.” Cutié became an Episcopal priest a few years ago after the paparazzi snapped him cuddling on a beach with a woman who is now his wife. But Cutié claims that celibacy wasn’t the only factor. In his 2011 book, Dilemma, he says he began thinking of bolting the Catholic priesthood a decade ago—after his bosses blasted him because a prominent Cuban-American Presbyterian minister, who had been invited to attend a high-profile funeral mass for the Cuban singer Celia Cruz that Cutié was leading, inadvertently received communion, something the church insists non-Catholics may never do. “I had to ask myself,” Cutié writes, “what are you doing in this inflexible…institution?”

Cutié, as well as other Catholics and many Protestants, were astonished at the hierarchy’s fire-and-brimstone reaction to a harmless ecumenical miscue, especially when a genuinely horrific scandal—the priestly sexual abuse crisis—was raging inside the church at the time. But the incident points up, as Cutié notes, how rigid an institution’s self-image vis-à-vis other groups can become after it’s endured for more than two millennia. Even, that is, a half century after the modernizing 1960s church council known as Vatican II, when the Catholic hierarchy was supposed to have dropped its assertion that “error has no rights”—a medieval-style motto that essentially meant all other religions should be outlawed—in favor of more ecumenical outreach.

Few expect Francis—a hardliner on most other church doctrines like opposition to birth control, women priests and gay marriage—to be a historic reformer like Pope John XXIII, who launched Vatican II before he died in 1963. Yet in terms of interfaith efforts, Francis could emulate if not surpass John. As my colleague and Argentina native Andres Oppenheimer reminds us in the Miami Herald this week, Francis was an interfaith pioneer back in Buenos Aires. As an archbishop, he often rubbed elbows with and sometimes prayed with clerics of numerous other religions, even the Evangelical churches that millions of disaffected Latin American Catholics have been turning to in recent decades.

Many conservative Catholics responded as angrily as if he’d, well, given a communion wafer to a Presbyterian. But Francis’ well publicized empathy for the poor had most likely led him and his ministry to a deeper understanding of the fundamentally Christian as well as human precept of walking in other people’s shoes, be they Catholics or Sikhs. And that mindset will be critical in the 21stcentury, when religion is again playing a prominent role in world affairs. How positive a role depends to a large degree on whether believers finally accept the fact that religion isn’t realpolitik. That considering other peaceful and charitable faiths to be as valid as their own isn’t some spiritually milquetoast surrender to relativism—that on the contrary, it’s precisely what a peaceful and charitable faith demands.

At the same time, reform-minded Catholics hope that better interfaith ties will prod their church to broaden its own outlook—to acknowledge that letting doctrine evolve, for example, through humane changes like recognizing divorce doesn’t make Catholicism itself any less valid. That might not happen during Francis’ Papacy. But by reaching his hand out to other faiths, he may well be sowing seeds of reform to be reaped by the next Pope.