It’s not just two opinions that two Popes express on Islam

Comparing the current Pope with his predecessor, it’s hard not to notice that they hold rather different views on most things.

That’s no wonder, for, the trivial gap in their ages notwithstanding, they come from two different worlds.

In answer to the popular rhetorical question, both Popes are Catholic, which would suggest a certain common ground not just in religion qua religion, but also in its relationship with the modern world.

A century ago this would have been true. Yet after 11 October, 1962, when the Second Vatican Council (commonly known as Vatican II) opened, this assumption can no longer be made with confidence.

Vatican II, which many orthodox Catholics regard as heretical, represented an historical watershed between tradition and modernity. Ostensibly seeking an accommodation with the modern world, it in effect spelled surrender to it – or so conservative Catholics believe.

That created a rift between the orthodox and liberal interpreters of Christian doctrine, and this hasn’t healed in the intervening 52 years. Nor will it ever heal, for the two groups represent what Benedict XVI would doubtless describe as a fundamentally different Weltanschauung.

At the time, Joseph Ratzinger, as he then was, held rather liberal views. Nonetheless he leavened his guarded endorsement of Vatican II with some biting criticism. One could detect that his heart wasn’t in it, which he subsequently proved by evolving staunchly conservative views.

If Benedict XVI is typologically and philosophically pre-Vatican II, Pope Francis is the flesh of its flesh and the blood of its blood. His views rest on a firmly held belief that Christianity should embrace the modern world in all its diversity.

This is a perilous position, for there’s a kiss of death implicit in that embrace, and it’s not modernity that’s likely to find itself on the losing end.

We see this on the example of the Anglican Church, which has got into such a tight clinch with modern secularism that it has had most life squeezed out of it. The Catholics can easily go the same way if they aren’t careful.

The two Popes’ views on Islam thus reflect not just two different opinions, and not merely two different philosophies, but two different worlds. Benedict XVI fights, or used to fight, rearguard action against the more perverse aspects of modernity, while Pope Francis is in the vanguard of the opposing force.

In 2006 Benedict XVI made a speech in which he suggested that Islam innately espoused violence. The world, modern world, was aghast.

Such statements can no longer be evaluated on merit. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false. What matters is that they go against the ethos with which Vatican II tried to reconcile Christianity.

That made the Pope’s judgement objectionable regardless of any intrinsic merit. As an indication of how the clash between the two worlds was going, Benedict XVI was made to issue a public apology.

Bowling for the world in which he lives, Pope Francis expressed a different view eight years later: “You just can’t say that, just as you can’t say that all Christians are fundamentalists. We have our share of them [but no more].”

That’s God’s own truth, though I for one would be tempted to point out the slight differences.

Such as, for example, that Christian fundamentalists communicate their beliefs by preaching the Gospel to all and sundry, while Muslim fundamentalists express theirs by murdering those who disagree, eating human flesh, castrating women and flying airliners into tall buildings.

“All religions have those little groups,” continued the Pope, somewhat counterintuitively. “They [Muslims] say: ‘No, we are not this, the Koran is a book of peace, it is a prophetic book of peace’.”

His Holiness has an institutional remit to decree what is and what isn’t true Catholicism. As far as I know, this doesn’t extend to making similar comments on other religions. Nor should it, on this evidence.

There are 107 verses in the Koran explicitly calling for killing Jews, Christians and other infidels, along with Islamic apostates (I’ve quoted some of them in the past).

Yet, it could be argued that religious doctrine is made up not only of scriptural texts but also of their theological interpretation over the centuries.

Waving aside for the time being the empiricists’ arguments that, if Islam is indeed a religion of peace, its adherents don’t always act in that spirit, do let’s have a look at how various schools of Islamic thought, from the Middle Ages to our time, see the problem.

Shafi’i school issued a manual of Islamic law that was certified in 1991 by the academic mullahs as a definitive guide to Sunni orthodoxy. The manual speaks of making war “upon Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians… until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.”

Hanafi school expands on this thought: “If the infidels, upon receiving the call, neither consent to it nor pay the tax, it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance and to make war upon them…; the Prophet, moreover, commands us to do so.”

Maliki school had its views on the subject explained by the prominent historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406): “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and [the duty to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force [so as] to gain power over other nations.”

Hanbali school found its mouthpiece in the jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328): “Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore, according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”

At this point we should indeed wheel in the empirical evidence showing that all these pronouncements aren’t just empty theorising: the Muslims manifestly practise what their clerics and theologians preach.

The modern ethos wouldn’t allow Pope Francis to seek an explanation for widespread Muslim terrorism in Islam – as a pontiff but still a modern man, he has to believe that, though Catholic Christianity is true, other religions are true too, in their own way.

What the modern ethos actively encourages him to do is seek the root of all evil, and specifically the Muslim variety, in economic causes, so eloquently described by Marx.

Ending poverty, declared His Holiness, is crucial because it gives rise to “the recruitment of terrorists.”

Alas, with all due respect to the man occupying St Peter’s throne, this view doesn’t easily stand up to the available facts.

These show that jihadists represent a demographic cross-section. They are as likely to come from extremely wealthy backgrounds (Osama bin Laden) as from solidly middle-class (British recruits) or impoverished ones.

Thank goodness His Holiness spoke not ex cathedra but aboard his plane, where papal infallibility didn’t apply. Otherwise conservative Catholics would be in a real pickle.


My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, is available from Amazon and the more discerning bookshops. However, my publisher would rather you ordered it from  or, in the USA,


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