Francis and non-Catholic religions

What was Francis’ relationship with non-Catholic and non-Christian religions.

Having established that Francis was firmly Catholic, let’s look at his relationship with non-Catholic and non-Christian religions of his time. I believe this is important since the Church of our times remains committed to a more open relationship with non-Catholic religions since the Second Vatican Council and her documents (e.g. Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et Spes, Ad Gentes, and Lumen Gentium). Further, our own Secular Franciscan Rule says:

As the Father sees in every person the features of his Son, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, so the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ. A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on an equal basis with all people, especially with the lowly for whom they shall strive to create conditions of life worthy of people redeemed by Christ. (SFO Rule 13)

In this, St. Francis can be an example for us, as he is often held up as a model of dialogue, ecumenism, and universal brotherhood; he is viewed as a gentle soul always open to dialogue and desiring to talk with heretics, Saracens, and robbers.

However, sometimes when we look at Francis in these areas, we often come across two extremes: the side that genuinely wishes to foster world peace and mutual understanding among different peoples and religions look to Francis for inspiration and consider him practically the patron of dialogue and ecumenism. On the other side of the spectrum, there is a tendency to be suspect of many of these contemporary attitudes; they view them with suspicion and are ready to cry “religious syncretism and New Ageism.” They will reject notions that Francis sought “universal brotherhood and oneness,” and instead believe that Francis held to the traditional teaching, nulla salus extra ecclesiam (there is no salvation outside the Church).

So first, let’s look at Francis’s own writings to see what he really believed. Then we will consider the spirit of Francis in modern times.

Francis wrote:

Therefore, all those who saw the Lord Jesus according to his humanity and did not see and believe according to the Spirit and the Godhead that He is the true Son of God were condemned. And now in the same way, all those who see the Sacrament of the Body of Christ, which is sanctified by the words of the Lord upon the altar at the hands of the priest in the form of bread and wine, and who do not see and believe according to the Spirit and the Godhead that it is truly the most holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are condemned. (Admonitions 1)


In regards to this writing on the Eucharist, it is most likely a tract against the heretics who did not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Francis compares those who lived among Christ and did not believe in his divinity (i.e., the Jews) to those of his day who did not believe in the Eucharist (i.e., the heretics). In both cases, he states that they were condemned for their non-belief.


He also wrote:


All those men and women who are not [living] in penance and do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; [who] practice vice and sin and follow [the ways of] wicked concupiscence and the desires of the flesh [who] do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and bodily serve the world by the desires of the flesh, the anxieties of the world and the cares of this life: such people are held fast by the devil, whose children they are and whose words they perform. (The first version of the Letter to the Faithful, chap 2)


In this writing, too, we see Francis’s attitudes towards those who are not living the authentic Christian life in terms of seeking penance (conversion), receiving Eucharist, who are living sinful lives, who break their vows, who give in to bodily temptations, or who are preoccupied with the cares of the world. He says that these people are actually serving the devil.

In another letter to the ministers, in speaking about the Eucharist Francis reiterates that, “no one can be saved unless he receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1st Letter to the Custodians, 2).

Now let’s look at another writing where he deals specifically with the way the friars should interact with non-believers. Here we can enter into the mind of Francis. I printed it in its entirety here:


1. The Lord says: Behold, I am sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves. 2. Therefore, be prudent as serpents and simple as doves (Mt 10:16). 3. Therefore, any brother who, by divine inspiration, desires to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers should go with the permission of his minister and servant. 4. And the minister should give [these brothers] permission and not oppose them, if he shall see that they are fit to be sent; for he shall be bound to give an account to the Lord (cf. Lk 16:2) if he has proceeded without discretion in this or in other matters. 5. As for the brothers who go, they can live spiritually among [the Saracens and nonbelievers] in two ways. 6. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake (1 Pet 2:13) and to acknowledge that they are Christians. 7. Another way is to proclaim the word of God when they see that it pleases the Lord, so that they believe in the all-powerful God—Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator of all, in the Son Who is the Redeemer and Savior, and that they be baptized and become Christians; because whoever has not been born again of water and the Holy Spirit cannot enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Jn 3:5). 8. They can say to [the Saracens] and to others these and other things which will have pleased the Lord, for the Lord says in the Gospel: Everyone who acknowledges me before men I will also acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven (Mt 10:32). 9. And: Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in His majesty and that of the Father and the angels (Lk 9:26). 10. And all the brothers, wherever they may be, should remember that they gave themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. 11. And for love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible, because the Lord says: Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (cf. Lk 9:24) in eternal life (Mt 25:46). 12. Blessed are those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Mt 5:10). 13. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you (Jn 15:20). 14. And: If they persecute you in one city, flee to another (cf. Mt 10:23). 15. Blessed are you (Mt 5:11) when people shall hate you (Lk 6:22) and malign (Mt 5:11) and persecute you and drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as evil (Lk 6:22) and utter every kind of slander against you because of me (Mt 5:11). 16. Rejoice on that day and be glad (Lk 6:23) because your reward is very great in heaven (cf. Mt 5:12). 17. And I say to you, my friends, do not be frightened by these things (Lk 12:4) 18. and do not fear those who kill the body (Mt 10:28) and after that can do no more (Lk 12:4). 19. Take care not to be disturbed (Mt 24:6). 20. For through your patience, you will possess your souls (Lk 21:19); 21. and whoever perseveres to the end will be saved (Mt 10:22; 24:13). (The Earlier Rule of 1221, Chap. XVI)


On the surface, these writings may seem harsh and suggest that Francis was strict and unyielding when it comes to matters and practice of the faith. They seem to contrast with the gentle, peace-loving Francis that has so often been portrayed in contemporary books and movies – the ecumenical man who loves everyone equally, who believes in universal brotherhood. However, first of all it is important to read Francis’s writings in their entirety. We cannot get a full understanding of the man by taking bits and pieces of his writings here or there as if to prove a point. The entire corpus of writings should be read. In fact, I would encourage anyone to do just that.

So, let us look a little deeper. First, we should remember that Francis was strongly influenced by the culture and Church teachings of his time, in particular the Fourth Lateran Council. The Council was called in 1215 by Pope Innocent III to clarify Church teachings in response to the heresies and to contend with the issue of the Holy Land. The first canon was a creed (Firmiter credimus) against the Cathars and Waldensians, in which transubstantiation was held up. Other canons addressed included: the Eucharist and the care of churches; procedures and penalties against the heretics and their protectors were spelled out – the language used against them was harsh and condemnatory; papal primacy since antiquity was proclaimed; vices among the clergy were admonished; morals among the faithful were held up. It should also be noted that a military campaign, or a Crusade, against the Cathars in southern France was called by Pope Innocent III over the course of twenty years from 1209-1229. This was the last resort after diplomacy, theological teachings and corrections, excommunications, and counter-preachings had failed to stem the growth of Catharism. But perhaps most of all, the Fourth Lateran Council was used substantially to promote the Fifth Crusade, which took place from 1215-21. Religious war against the Saracens to reclaim Christian places in the Holy Land had been intermittent since the first Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095; thus, it was being preached from the highest places in Christendom. In fact, since the first Crusade, indulgences were granted to the Crusaders who fought to free the Holy Land.

So given the historical context in which Francis lived – an era of great conflict between Christianity and Islam – it is a wonder that Francis’s writings were not harsher than they actually were. Despite all the rhetoric and clamoring in favor of war, Francis was set apart: we do not have any writings of St. Francis himself supporting armed Crusades or violence against non-believers in any of his writings. And there were plenty of religious friars, priests, and nuns who did support such violence and bloodshed. Instead of seeking to kill the Cathars, Francis sought to witness to them. Instead of seeking to fight and kill the Saracens, Francis desired to preach to them.

Let’s look in greater detail at what happened in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade. Together with Brother Pacifico, Francis courageously walked across the battle lines in Damietta, Egypt armed only with his tunic and cross hoping to meet with the Sultan, Malek al-Kamil. According to the 13th-century traditional sources, Francis sought to convert the Sultan to Christianity fully expecting, even joyfully hoping for, martyrdom. This traditional account is enshrined in one of the frescoes in the upper basilica of St. Francis, recounted by St. Bonaventure and depicted by Giotto. In it, Francis seeks martyrdom and challenges the Sultan’s imams to a trial by fire; the one whose religion is true would be unharmed. In the fresco, the imams turn away cowering, while Francis stands with conviction and resolution; and although the Sultan did not convert, he was so impressed by Francis’s humility and faith. Yet, what actually transpired is now the subject of debate. There are some contemporary scholars who believe that Francis was merely hoping to dialogue with the sultan and that his encounter with Islam influenced him.

Personally, I believe that it is silly and even disingenuous to interpret Francis of the 13th century through the lens of modern-day, liberal ecumenism. When Francis converted to the life of a penitent and signed his tunic with a cross, he became a “cross bearer,” a type of crusader. In fact, the crusaders wore a cross on their armor. And even though Francis had renounced the desire to become a knight, now he had become a warrior without arms or armor. He saw himself and his friars as fighting a spiritual crusade with the weapons of the word and cross. We will never know exactly what was spoken between Francis and the sultan.

Nonetheless, it is true is that he went peacefully in an attempt to preach to him and in hopes of stopping the fighting. I believe that Francis would not have supported violence or the Crusades whether toward the Saracens or the Cathars. His experience in war and his renunciation of arms make that clear. It is clear is that Francis chose peace and dialogue in an era of violence and hatred. Certainly, his faith and meekness impressed the Sultan and most likely led him to turn over the administration and control of the Christian holy sites in his territory to the friars. Surely, all can agree that Francis’s peaceful demeanor are what led to him being received in audience with the Sultan in the first place. Today in Assisi, in the hall of relics at the basilica of St. Francis, you can still see the gifts from the caliph to Francis: a piece of ivory horn in addition to a prayer mat. And in Holy Land, there have been Franciscan friars ever since. All the major Christian shrines today in Israel and surrounding areas in the Holy Land — from Judea to the Galilee — are all administered by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The friars have three functions: maintain the shrines, offer hospitality to pilgrims, and work with local Catholics.

So if Francis did not condone violence against the Saracens, how did he approach them? In his only writing that mentions the Saracens (quoted above), Francis proposed two approaches in dealing with them: 1. not arguing, but instead being subject to them; and 2: proclaiming the word of God when appropriate. I think “being subject to them” is pertinent. We have spent a great deal talking about the “Great Chain of Being” so ingrained in the culture of the high Middle Ages. Francis wished to be “minor” or “lesser” to everyone – priests, nobility, wealthy people; here, he states his desire to place himself under even the Saracens. We see in this Jesus meekly and humbly going to the cross to die without wishing to fight.

Next, we see Francis emphasizing that it is important to proclaim Christianity when appropriate – always in a way that is nonviolent, open, and honest. He models the Scripture: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15-f).


Question: How do you relate to those who are not Catholic? Do you feel like we, as Catholics, possess all the truth and that others are outside of it? Or do you seek to witness like Francis in imitation of Christ in all humility, subjection to the other, with “gentleness and reverence”?


So how does Francis’s experience relate to us today? Instead of seeking to imitate his actions or beliefs exactly, we instead look to him to find inspiration to make his story relevant to us today. As Francis was a man seeking to allow the Church to form him and his beliefs, we do the same today. Today, we have a number of documents written before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council that guide us in our relations with other non-Catholic Christians as well as non-Christians.


Pope John Paul II instructs in dialogue:


It should be repeated that, on the part of the Church and her members, dialogue, whatever form it takes (and these forms can be and are very diverse, since the very concept of dialogue has an analogical value) can never begin from an attitude of indifference to the truth. On the contrary, it must begin from a presentation of the truth, offered in a calm way, with respect for the intelligence and consciences of others. The dialogue of reconciliation can never replace or attenuate the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel, the precise goal of which is conversion from sin and communion with Christ and the Church. It must be at the service of the transmission and realization of that truth through the means left by Christ to the Church for the pastoral activity of reconciliation, namely catechesis and penance.(Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 25.)


So when engaging in dialogue, the foundation should always begin with the presentation of the truth of the Gospel. Yet, it is obvious that clearly one does not have to be Catholic in order to love, sacrifice of oneself, believe, hope, do heroic things, etc. Further, our Biblical tradition informs us that all people are created good in the image of God regardless of one’s particular (or lack of) belief, nationality, creed, etc. All are good and in the image of God.

Further, when we dialogue with others, we are witnessing to the truth not just of our faith, but to one of the characteristics of God, which is that of being in relationship with others. Just as God exists three in one and there is relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity, so do we need to be in relationship with other people. We do this in our communities and fraternity, with our spouses and families, in prayer groups and spiritual direction, in fellowship with those in our parish. Community is an important aspect of being human and it is life-giving. When we isolate, we become sick mentally and spiritually. So to be in dialogue with others, including non-believers, is to participate more fully not just in our humanity, but also in the divinity of God.

Therefore, dialogue does involve an aspect of seeking the truth of the other person. And we do not have to feel that by accepting the truth of another person, even if he/she is outside the Church, somehow violates the beliefs of our own truths. Because, as Catholics, we believe that all goodness, truth, flows from God. When others “outside the Church” participate in such things, they are actually participating in the truth of God, possibly without knowing it. As we are all created in his image, we reflect God. Therefore, we can reflect God, believe in God, participate in his truth even, without even being aware of it.

So there is a struggle between proclaiming and truly believing our faith while at the same time recognizing the truth within others’ faith. How do we admit that there are others outside our faith (extra ecclesiam) who hold to some degree of truth (which can even be instructive to us) without seeming to downplay our own faith? More pointedly, when we dialogue, do we do so in order to observe the truth of others or to communicate our own truth? And if that happens, how do we avoid falling into a form of relativism or concluding that ultimately there are no ultimate truths? Or, on the other hand, how do we dialogue while avoiding triumphalism, isolationism, or imperialism?

Let’s look at some other documents, including Dominus Iesus, the much disliked and criticized document that was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith led by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. These can help us in these questions.


It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. Bearing in mind this article of faith, theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God’s salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation. In this undertaking, theological research has a vast field of work under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.  The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source.” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 62). The content of this participated mediation should be explored more deeply, but must remain always consistent with the principle of Christ’s unique mediation: “Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.”(John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, 5). Hence, those solutions that propose a salvific action of God beyond the unique mediation of Christ would be contrary to Christian and Catholic faith.


This is from Lumen Gentium from Vatican II:

For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. (Lumen Gentium, 62)


So here we have some good guidance as to how to dialogue. These two documents are dealing with salvation and redemption and how one is saved. Our Catholic teaches us that salvation “is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.” Yet, the question becomes, how do those “outside the faith” relate to this mystery?

Lumen Gentium, in Chapter II when dealing with the People of God, also added guidance when it stated that various Christian communities are linked to the Church; i.e. Orthodox and Protestant, but even non-Christian religions such as Jews, Muslims, and even “people who strive to live a good life.”


15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. … . 16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126) But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.



Dialogue can help us relate to others better. And how does this translate into reality? Our new Pope Francis, recently said at a daily Mass that the culture of encounter is the foundation of peace. “Doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions, and creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace: this is what Pope said at Mass this morning at the Domus Santae Martae, a few weeks ago.


The Gospel that day spoke about the disciples who prevented a person from outside their group from doing good. “They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”:

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”

“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil”:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

“Doing good” the Pope explained, is not a matter of faith: “It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always.”

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