Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue

Religious Thinkers Engage with Recent Papal Initiatives

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Harold Kasimow, Alan Race
Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     348 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue: Religious Thinkers Engage with Recent Papal Initiatives, edited by Harold Kasimow and Alan Race, is an impressive project that brings together thirteen thinkers from various religious and humanist traditions in response to Pope Francis’ pronouncements on interreligious dialogue. A major aim of this volume is to “bring the reflections on interreligious collaboration, dialogue, and theology to the foreground and so fill a gap in the general critical analysis of the pope’s pronouncements … [to show that] far from being marginal to the pope’s outlook, they form an integral part of his overall approach to Christian mission when this is interpreted in its broadest sense” (2).

Equally impressive to the contributors’ chapters—which are invaluable resources on their own—are the opening forward by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Part 1 (“In His Own Words), which is a substantial, seventy-seven-page chapter that details Francis’ own proclamations on interreligious dialogue. Skorka’s “Forward,” which reflects on his brotherly friendship with Francis, not only deeply humanizes the pontiff but also recounts his devotion to constructive interreligious engagement on an intimate and relation level. The value of collecting all of the significant proclamations from Francis on interreligious dialogue into a single document is most certainly a welcome resource for students and scholars, especially those rooted in the Catholic tradition or at Catholic institutions. 

Part 2, “Seven Traditions Respond,” forms the bulk of the volume with 12 responses from Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Secular Humanist perspectives.

Edward Kessler and Debbie Young-Somers offer Jewish responses. Kessler importantly reminds us that although “giant strides” have been made in Christian-Jewish relations, “not all is rosy,” nor will we ever reach a point at which we can sit back and say, “the work is done.” Rather, Francis needs to remain ever vigilant to avoid “falling back into old tropes” (e.g., harsh criticism and caricature of the Pharisees in the Gospels and anti-Semitism), and “the pitfalls of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In her chapter, “On Donkey Drivers, Interreligious Dialogue, and Shared Tasks,” Young-Somers confesses that Francis is “a pope I want to agree with.” Introducing her favorite midrash on dialogue, Young-Somers raises the image of two donkey drivers who hated each other but eventually developed mutual affection through an instance of one helping the other in a time of need, and then celebrating over food and drink at the nearby inn. Such a model of dialogue, Young-Somers argues, parallels Francis’ approach in seeking a “common task to complete; work together; hearts and minds are slowly drawn toward friendship; share food and drink together.” Referencing Laudato Si, she locates a fruitful common task in a dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet, and urges that, in such a common task as this, “may we find ourselves, like the donkey drivers, embedded in a new dialogue of trust and understanding, and a healing, principally of the world but also of our fragile human relationships.” 

Helen Egnell and Stephen Roberts extend the non-Catholic Christian responses. Egnell, a Swedish Lutheran priest, in “tongue-in-cheek” fashion, asks whether Francis is an “anonymous feminist,” referring to the outdated theological concept of “anonymous Christianity” (e.g., Karl Rahner). Egnell, seeing in the Pontiff several traits central to feminist Christian approaches to religious plurality—communication, mercy, relationality, shared worship and ritual, change and progress, identity, dialogue—she challenges him: if he is serious in his claim that women “contribute to a better understanding of the challenges typical of a multicultural reality” to listen to women “as they explain the reality of multiple and hybrid religious belonging and be willing to ponder its impact on interreligious dialogue,” a call all-too-pressing across the so-called “Western” or Abrahamic traditions. Roberts, an Anglican practical theologian, asks “[i]s the Pope Catholic?”, and presents “a tale of two popes.” Far from questioning Francis’ Catholic identity, Roberts shows that “there are different ways of being Catholic and Pope Francis’ openness to the theological significance of grassroots, ordinary, popular Catholicism has the potential to lead in a very different direction from the rooted openness of the mainstream approach of the post-Vatican II magisterium that in most respects he embodies.”

Amineh A. Hoti and Ataullah Siddiqui provide Muslim responses. In reflecting on our contemporary global leaders, especially in a time of increased anti-religious sentiment in the Western world, Hoti reflects on Francis as the one leader who “stands out” and embodies “the Abrahamic ideals of compassion and love of neighbor.” Siddiqui follows with a positive assessment of Francis while also recognizing that there is room for growth. In particular, acknowledging that the Prophet Muhammad has remained unnamed in Vatican II documents, Siddiqui points out that “a clear statement from the Church to dissociate itself from its past remarks on the prophet has been strongly requested,” and perhaps later on down the road a “theological relocation” of Muhammad might be possible after “substantial trust has been built between the two communities.”

Jeffery D. Long and Anantanand Rambachan advance Hindu responses. Long, in the context of providing a broad overview of Hindu responses to Francis, expresses his own Hindu response as one of “cautious hope,” in reference to the hope he has in the Pontiff’s potential to break with the past by rethinking the traditional concept of proselytizing in “favor of something more akin to Gandhi’s vision of Christians sharing the gospel by living it.” In similar fashion, Rambachan suggests that Hindus’ generally welcome the Pope’s call for dialogue and engagement, and identifies the potential to come together around central common goods, such as ecological care for the earth—our shared home. 

Dharam Singh and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh offer Sikh perspectives. The former highlights several points in common between the Pope and Sikhism—liberating the world from disharmony, oppression, and violence—while the latter, in a rich comparative fashion, reflects on Francis and Guru Nanak as “synonymous phenomena” in an effort to “achieve a stronger profile of each.” Seeking common ground, Dennis Hirota dwells on values from Shinran, the medieval Japanese Buddhist monk, as they dovetail (and differ) with those relating to Francis’ teachings on dialogue, self, and defusing violence. Shoshana Ronen gives voice from a Secular-Humanist perspective by drawing attention to the many ways that the Pope demonstrates “a great deal in common” with Humanism, as she understands it. In particular, drawing on Laudato Si and Evangelii Gaudium, she expresses confidence that secular humanists and Francis can reach common ground on “many subjects including social justice, ecology and climate change, economic inequality, immigration and refugees, the death penalty, and sexual identity.” 

Leo D. Lefebure, Roman Catholic priest and well-known theologian, concludes the volume with an appropriate “reflection and final assessment” of the preceding non-Catholic responses. He concludes that although Francis’ “interreligious activities face formidable obstacles and tensions,” his emphasis on mercy will remain ever important in responding to interreligious encounter and developing friendships; for Francis “finds in mercy a point of encounter with all other religious traditions as well as with secular humanists.”

To be sure, Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue has earned a place on any short list of resources dealing with Francis’ engagement with various traditions and cultures. The chapters are rich, diverse, and accessible. They are appropriate for students, scholars, and lay reading groups seeking to understand Francis’ vision of cultivating a culture of [interreligious] encounter. Time will indicate whether a second volume will be needed, with a necessary expansion of responses to the Pontiff. Such a second volume most certainly ought to include responses from those noticeably absent in this one: indigenous traditions, multiple and hybrid identities, Eastern Orthodox Christianities, and perhaps even a more diverse range of Catholic voice as well. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hans Gustafson is Director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Harold Kasimow is George Drake Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Grinnell College.

Alan Race is an Anglican priest-theologian. He is currently Chair of the World Congress of Faiths, and Editor of its journal Interreligious Insight.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.