Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.
However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.
For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”
The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.
The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.
The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …
But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.
“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.
“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.
So what was the theological news?
That could be found in a “Document on Human Fraternity,” signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, grand imam of an influential Egyptian mosque, Al Azhar.
This is one of those cases in which reporters needed to press for more information about the English translation of the document. Read this passage from the document carefully:
Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept; …
The key phrase: “willed by God in His wisdom.” Look at that statement from a traditional Christian point of view. The God of the Christian Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — “willed” the creation of other world religions, such as Islam.
That will certainly be a shock to traditional Muslims, who fiercely reject any belief that Jesus was the Son of God. Consider this famous inscription inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem:
O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not 'Three' — Cease! (it is) better for you! — God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son.
So the Trinitarian God of Christianity, in “His wisdom” willed the creation of Islam?
Or turn that equation around. The God of Islam “willed” the creation of Trinitarian Christianity?
The Times report does include this angle, way down in the body of the story (whereas this Associated Press story, run at The Washington Post, doesn’t address this issue at all).
Did copy-desk editors grasp the importance of these words? Here is the key Times passage:
The document, a sort of manifesto of peace for two religions whose adherents have spilled each other’s blood for centuries, called upon “all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”
The declaration added that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions” was willed by God, and, “therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected.”
Note that the crucial word “willed” is present, but readers would assume — because of how this complex material is presented by the Times — that this is paraphrased material. It’s crucial that “willed” is in the English translation of the original document.
Yes, I realize that we are talking about theology. However, in this case, that theological statement is big news.
Did editors at the Times copy desk realize the significance of that statement? Will there be a follow-up report, seeking reactions from traditional Christians and Muslims?