On Sunday, Pope Francis responded to questions from reporters about why he won’t call out Islamic violence or reference Islamic terrorism when responding to terrorist attacks like the one that took the life of French priest Jacques Hamel last week. The pope denied any associations between Islam and violence and said “If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence.” By speaking this way, he does a disservice to his followers, and world leaders, who would look to him for the confidence and moral backing to call out Islamic terrorism and face it head-on.
According to Pope Francis, every religion has the potential for violence, including Catholicism. This, of course, is true, because every single human person has the potential to do wrong, as Catholicism itself teaches. So we’ve seen violence play out in the history of the Catholic Church. But that doesn’t mean that today some religions’ adherents don’t encourage it more than others, or have a greater potential for violence. Context and culture matters.
The Islamist ideology and doctrine terrorists follow today wasn’t created out of thin air in the past few years or decades. It has roots in an early interpretation of Islam dating from the first centuries after Mohammed’s revelations. In the world of Islamic jurisprudence, it’s just as legitimate as other interpretations of the faith. But as far as I know, there is no early church interpretation of Christianity still popular today that promotes violence like Wahhabism or Salafism does.
Islam Has Ties to Violence, Plain and Simple
The pope also described reading about murders Catholics have perpetrated. Therefore, in his convoluted reasoning, Francis surmises he couldn’t possibly draw a distinction between Catholic violence and Islamic violence. But what the pope misses, either intentionally or through naïveté, is the crucial difference between committing a crime and happening to belong to a given religion, and committing a crime in the name of that religion. No one is claiming that every murder, assault, and robbery a Muslim perpetrates is an example of Islamic radicalism. But, as Europe is discovering, a significant minority of Muslims commit violence explicitly in the name of Islam.
Pope Francis apparently can’t see the difference between crimes that share a single motivation and those that don’t. According to French officials, there are approximately 11,000 suspected Islamists in France who are on what they call their “Fiche S” list. This means there are thousands of people in France alone who might be willing to kill, not randomly, but in the name of Islam.
Islamic terrorism is more threatening than the unconnected crimes Christians might commit because it’s based on shared beliefs. This also makes it more preventable. We know what radical Islamists believe, and in many cases we know who teaches them, where they’re radicalized, and how they coordinate. It all revolves around a certain interpretation of their religion. But if we ignore those signs, as Pope Francis does, we will be at a loss to stop them.
The pontiff makes a similar mistake as President Obama, who loves to remind his staff that more people die in America from slipping in their tub every year than die from Islamic terrorists. But there isn’t an explicit sect of bathtubs plotting against bathers, hoping to extinguish them from the earth. Intentionality matters. It matters because it makes the violence more menacing—and more likely to spread.
Pope Francis told the media, “It’s not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true.” Perhaps it’s not fair to equate Islam with violence, but it’s deeply dishonest for him to say that Islam has nothing at all to do with violence, especially since we see weekly evidence to the contrary, not just in the West but in Muslim countries throughout the Middle East.
While moderate Muslims can ignore or interpret differently the sura of the Quran some use to support jihad, they can’t deny that these exist. Islam’s founding texts, unlike Christianity’s, do in fact encourage violence. Moreover, Islam was founded by a man who, in addition to being a religious leader, was also a political and military leader who in his lifetime conquered vast territories in the name of Islam. Naturally, some of his followers today want to take the same approach.
Pope Frances Weirdly Undercuts Religious Motivations
But rather than discuss Islamic terrorism, Pope Francis points to “the god of money” as the “first terrorism.” He thinks capitalism is the root of all the evils in the world. If that’s the case, should Western countries ignore the religious ideology that inspires Islamic terrorists? Should we ignore ISIS strongholds in Libya, or the cells of Islamist terrorists spread throughout Europe?
Money and greed certainly do cause problems, but to equate it to terrorism downplays the horrors of terrorist attacks that tear apart families and nations. It also suggests a materialist interpretation of sin that doesn’t square with Christian teaching, which locates the source of our sin in our broken souls, not in material goods around us.
The pope thinks the real problem is income inequality, that if these young men just had jobs they wouldn’t join ISIS. This denies the very words and confessed motivations of the terrorists themselves, and is a particularly odd position for a religious leader to take. One would think that the pope, of all people, would understand the power of religious convictions, however misguided. But by ignoring these things, he joins a chorus of liberals in the West who can’t believe anyone would be so moved by their faith that they would give their life for it.
He also denies the traditional power of religion to influence all people, including the poor, to restrain their passions by refusing to excuse or explain away evil choices. Stealing or murdering is wrong, no matter how little money you have. Francis’s church and faith have always taught this.
Pope Francis claims to “know how they think,” referring to Muslims—quite a feat for any man. But here, he makes the common mistake of looking at Islam as a monolithic religion. This logical fallacy forces a false choice between saying that Islam as a whole either is or isn’t violent. No one can make either claim, given that there are millions of Muslims in the world who neither practice violence nor endorse it. And of course there are millions who do.
The leader of the Catholic Church shouldn’t defame or insult other religions in general or without cause. However, we should expect Francis to defend his own religion where appropriate, and to distinguish it from a religion that has a chronic problem with violence.
Pope Francis’ comments about Islamic terrorism are harmful because, even in this modern age, he is supposed to be a voice of moral authority, even for non-Catholics. If he isn’t willing to call out Islamism, then what hope do we have of progressive leaders in the West doing so?