Fratelli Tutti in Denver (5)– Religion and Peace

This is the final section in a five-part series of commentaries about the significance of Pope Francis’ new encyclical for our human city (or town or neighborhood). As inevitable with a final chapter, it is way too long since I am trying to get everything in before ending. Apologies.

I also want to note that the encyclical is now available at bookstores in $12+ paperback editions as well as free online.

Finally, while I pause once or twice to raise critical questions about what the pope is saying, what I have written in all five of these posts is essentially laudatory and supportive of the Francis’ ideas. Yet he himself, with his continual emphasis on dialogue as a crucial form of social friendship, invites us into a critical discussion about those ideas.


Following his challenging second-chapter meditation on the Good Samaritan (see previous post below), Francis develops his letter with a series of chapters on major dimensions of our present world. He talks politics and economics, immigration and borders, dialogue and diplomacy, but these standard categories of analysis are woven into chapters united by Francis’ own social imagination and writing style.

Take, for example, the 15 well developed paragraphs on “War and the Death Penalty” at the end of the seventh chapter. They have so far received the most media attention discussion because they involve relatively recent changes in Catholic Social Teaching. Yet the preceding 30 hefty paragraphs in the chapter titled “Paths to Renewed Encounter” provide a larger framework discussing the inevitability of conflict, the architecture of peace, the need for both memory and forgiveness… before getting to final sections on war and the death penalty.

However well and persuasively argue Francis’ discussion of war and the death penalty, they are enriched immensely by the preceding parts of the chapter.

So, yes, you gotta’ read the whole damn thing, as I regularly told students who’d much rather be enjoying one of Denver’s watering holes.

And when you finally get to Francis’ strong reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s clear and recent rejection of the death penalty – and his equally strong questioning of the whole idea of a just or morally justified war – you will run across challenging “zingers” like the following:

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.” (par. 261)

All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, leg al or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom.” (par. 268)


This rejection of moral justifications of violence the leads directly to the Pope’s final chapter on religion with its forceful critique of all religious justifications for jihad or crusade or retribution. Yet the broader focus of the chapter is less on the topic of religion and violence than on the immense resources religion does and could have in healing our world by sowing seeds of social friendship.

In the end, the discussion of this final chapter leads to a magnificent inter-faith appeal and then to a prayer to be shared by all monotheists (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) and finally to a concluding ecumenical prayer to be shared by all Christians

Before moving to the important discussion about religion and violence and to that concluding interfaith appeal, let me focus on the Pope’s evocation of the beauty of our interreligious world rather than its fragmentation.

I note the special emphasis both on migration and on Islam which has been present in this writing since the beginning and comes again to the fore in its final chapter. It also occurs to me that, while this dual focus on migration and religion is directed to the entire world, the Pope’s tone and framing of things still seems (to me) primarily European, Middle Eastern, and African. It calls for “Christian” Europe to be open to cultural and economic enrichment from Arab and African Muslim immigrants, and calls Muslims to live up to their faith in God and peacemaking – Salaam Alaikum — as they increasingly live with Christians in Europe and with Christians as minorities in their homelands.

I’ve already suggested that there are not that many Muslim Americans in Denver, though their numbers increase and their younger generation is making its impact felt. Indeed, a young Muslim woman whom I have met at interfaith gatherings was just elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. So too in many other parts of the US. Thus what Francis has to say about relations with Muslims is quite relevant to our North American reality.

Even more, his broader focus on migration and minorities is immensely relevant to Denver.

A good friend with some Spanish goes regularly to the Immigration jail here and develops a relationship with just one guy until that man’s status is decided. Just trying to be a friend to someone in the ditch, to help him on his way.

My Presbyterian wife is involved in a dual effort — both to get more churches in the Presbytery of Denver involved in work to help and advocate for immigrants – and to reach out to other church and religious groups to form a broader coalition of help and advocacy for immigrants.

It would be a real step towards social friendship if, after the election mess settles back to “ordinary” culture warfare, the major visible church leaders here – bishops and senior pastors, senior rabbis and senior imams, along with representatives from other faiths, might kneel or stand together (in LoDo outside Union station, for instance) to beg our people to open their hearts to migrants as well as to refugees. That would indeed manifest the beauty and the power of religious pluralism in Denver.

In this final chapter, the pope again tells us that he was accompanied in spirit as he wrote this letter by one of the world’s major Muslim leaders, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, whom he had met in Abu Dhabi and with whom he signed a joint declaration calling all to religious and social peace. Francis shares the appeal for peace in that text by citing the it at the end of his letter (as I will do at the end of this post).

At the end of his letter, Francis also notes notes other religious sources of inspiration for his writing. St. Francis is, of course, the most significant among them. But the pope also notes inspiration provided by “brothers and sisters who are not Catholics.” He mentions “Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.” All more evidence of the beauty of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation which is the chapter’s basic theme.

Yet lest I glorify this pope too much. For he does have his limits. I note with others that he fails to mention any of the great women leaders and saints, from different faiths, who have so beautifully and greatly contributed to social peace and who continue to do so. And yes, I am bothered by his failure to name any of those he refers to as “sisters.” His failure, for instance, to note and quote the likes of Dorothy Day or Sojourner Truth, Simone Weil or Etty Hillesum, as major religious voices for peace


The entire chapter can be read as a extended discussion of the relationship of religion and violence – a topic on the mind and in the imaginations of so many these days. Yet it is by stressing the real and very important role of religion in overcoming violence and working for a renewal of trust – by stressing the many goods which religion brings to public life – that this chapter frames its discussion of violence.

What, for Francis, are some of those religious goods? Here are several drawn from the larger picture of religion presented in this final chapter.

First, he argues that without a shared human belief in God or other “supreme and transcendental principles” – beliefs maintained or embodied in the world’s great religions – violence grows and rules. Without such an “ultimate foundation,” war and violence are the inevitable outcome.

He thus turns the secularist argument on its head – the argument that finds the source of violence and warfare in religious absolutism and dogmatism – by arguing that it is the absence of any shared human sense of ultimacy that opens the gateway to violence.

“It is wrong [Francis argues] when the only voices to be heard in public debate are those of the powerful and ‘experts’. Room needs to be made for reflections born of religious traditions that are the repository of centuries of experience and wisdom. For ‘religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power [to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart]’.”

Secondly, Francis emphasizes that central to Christian identity are both religious freedom and openness to other faiths. For it is the strength of our roots in the Gospel which leads us to join with the other in service to those swept to the waysides of our world. And it is the freedom we seek in other lands to practice our faith which must lead us to accept and honor the religious freedom of those come recently into our homelands. And to work with them for peace.

Finally, Francis directly addresses the violence perpetrated by terrorists in the name of God. Clearly they are wrong, blasphemous, criminal. Yet once again, rather than focus on condemnation, Francis makes a long, thoughtful appeal to terrorist groups and individuals – appealing to them to see that, whatever the legitimacy of their grievances, the authentic beauty of their faith rejects what they are doing in its name.

So I again mount my rhetorical pulpit and ask Denver church/religious folk to find ways within their understandings and practices to work for post-election peace. To take up the long road ahead to enable the divided sides of our people to listen more and excommunicate less.

And I further note that, as part of that long road, we religious folk also need to listen better to each other.

For, at least as I see my city, Catholics and Jews remain cautiously friendly — each divided within its membership and leadership about interfaith interests and collaboration, and more fundamentally divided around controversial issues like immigration and economic justice, Middle East Peace and women’s liberation.

And it’s much the same between Catholics and other Christians. Catholics are deeply divided between so called “conservatives” and “liberals” as much as Protestants are divided between “mainstream” and “evangelical” or “fundamentalist.”

I don’t have much sense of group elations between Muslims or Hindus and Christians and Jews – the former being so far only small actors on the local scene.

Yet there seems to be a kind of “underground” relationship between Christians and Buddhists, at least liberal Christians, that is focused around contemplative practice and its contribution to social justice and peace.

As noted, Francis concludes his discussion of religion and social peace by ending with a long citation of the appeal he co-wrote with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

I also place it here, at the end of my text, with the hope that you might imagine your city or neighborhood as you read. Like the rest of the encyclical, this appeal is quite repetitious and best read slowly, even repeatedly.

“In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace;

“In the name of innocent human life that God has forbidden to kill, affirming that whoever kills a person is like one who kills the whole of humanity, and that whoever saves a person is like one who saves the whole of humanity;

“In the name of the poor, the destitute, the marginalized and those most in need, whom God has commanded us to help as a duty required of all persons, especially the wealthy and those of means;

“In the name of orphans, widows, refugees and those exiled from their homes and their countries; in the name of all victims of wars, persecution and injustice; in the name of the weak, those who live in fear, prisoners of war and those tortured in any part of the world, without distinction;

“In the name of peoples who have lost their security, peace and the possibility of living together, becoming victims of destruction, calamity and war;

“In the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

“In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women;

“In the name of freedom, that God has given to all human beings, creating them free and setting them apart by this gift;

“In the name of justice and mercy, the foundations of prosperity and the cornerstone of faith;

“In the name of all persons of goodwill present in every part of the world;

“In the name of God and of everything stated thus far, [we] declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”.

And let the people say “Amen.”

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