Humanizing The Religious Other: Pope Francis Takes A Step Forward

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 19, 2013 — 11 Comments

During his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, did something unprecedented. The Pontiff met with a representative of the Candomblé faith, the first time a Catholic Pope has ever done so.

Babalawo Ivanir dos Santos and Pope Francis.

Babalawo Ivanir dos Santos and Pope Francis.

“At odds since colonial times, Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions have embarked on a process of mutual acceptance. Pope Francis added words and gestures to this reconciliation of two groups that share a common interest: confronting the growth of evangelical and neo-Pentecostal churches. The photo of Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian, went around the world. Ivanir dos Santos, a “babalawo” or priest of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, was also received by the pope in the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro as part of the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and other creeds and cultures during his Jul. 22-28 visit to Brazil. ‘For the first time, a representative of candomblé was received by a pope. This is unprecedented,’ dos Santos, a member of Brazil’s Committee Against Religious Intolerance (CCIR), told IPS.”

Pope Francis went even farther, he embraced the secular state as a vehicle for religious tolerance.

“Peaceful coexistence between different religions is favoured by the laicity of the state, which, without assuming any one confessional stance, respects and values the presence of the religious factor in society.”

This is a major tonal shift from the papacy of Benedict XVI, who avoided meeting with “non-institutional” (ie Santeria/Lukumi) faiths in Cuba, wouldn’t deign to a meeting with Vodun leaders in its birthplace, and was openly critical of Franciscan interfaith efforts when they included African traditional faiths, buying into Catholic hardliner anti-interfaith propaganda. Further, he had a combative relationship with what he called “aggressive” secularism. So these moves, even if largely cosmetic, resonate strongly to non-Christians watching to see how Francis sets the tone for his church.

Pope Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian.

Pope Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian.

“Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option, and the key to developing a just and fair society as a leader is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue”Pope Francis

For non-Christians, it also has the effect of humanizing the religious “other.” If the Pope embraces reconciliation with Candomblé, with real, human, interface between leaders, why shouldn’t Catholics also embrace practitioners of Vodou? Or indigenous African religions? Or modern Paganism, for that matter? Indeed, the Pope’s new attitude is needed more now than ever before. We live in a world where human beings, fueled by religious beliefs, are persecuting and killing one another in increasingly disturbing incidents. What better time for a Pope to emphatically embrace an interfaith mission? A mission that had been blunted during the Papacy of Benedict, but now, hopefully, will bear new fruit.


Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Nice move. Let me know when he reverses his archbishop’s Santa Muerte opposition.

  • Antonella Ercolani

    would be nice if it were sincere but knowing him like a lot of things he has done before and after he got to be Pope, it stinks of marketing plot…

  • Franklin Evans

    Something is better than nothing, and infinitely better than the reverse. We need to be poised to widen the slightest openings in doors, and whatever the Pope’s motivations might be — I’ve got my due share of cynicism to offer — progress becomes just a little bit more likely.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    It’s an important step forward, but let’s look for a moment from the Vatican point of view. There are divisions in Paganism that make less difference to Pagans than to Christians. Candomble, Santeria and other Latin American Paganisms are syncretisms between Catholicism and other rraditions. Wicca, Heathenry and other North American Paganisms are wholesale rejections of Christianity in all its forms. Francis might reasonably regard the former as strayed sheep and the latter as beyond his embrace. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Keep your powder dry.


    In my humble opinion we should not care about papacy. This pope appears to befriend and show much respect to dissenters, but next one can act in opposite way… And both of them would be “infallible in matters of faith”… by tenet…

    Funny fact: Pope Francis uttered an opinion that dissenters may enter (their Catholic) heaven, if they live honest lifes and don’t cause any harm to others. Vatican, however, quickly denied that something like this was possible.

    So why should I care about what pope does/tells? Not even Vatican or most of Catholics do…

  • cernowain greenman

    The Pope is showing a lot of openness and that is always a good sign. But I have noticed that many Popes start out on a positive note but their later actions do not always follow. He may be the Pope, but he has a very big ship to steer with a lot of hands on deck that have differing opinions on what the ship’s course should be.

  • Robert

    While his armies are proselytizing across the globe the Pope is indulging in gimmicks to attract more people to insanity.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Gotta talk to the Godless to convert them, I guess.

  • thesilverspiral

    Hollow words, hollow thoughts. Know that no matter what he says, he will still always think that anyone who does not practice his particular brand of Christianity is a doomed and lost soul. It looks pretty and nice for the world to see, a friendlier, more open version of Catholicism, but know that he still is quietly praying for their “salvation.”

  • TadhgMor

    I’ll take it. There is a theory in international law concerning the acceptance of norms. In the beginning, regimes take on cosmetic changes designed primarily for image purposes. But over time, in most cases, those norms end up becoming internalized and then accepted, despite beginning mostly as a cosmetic change.

    It’s possible that the same could happen here. If the norm becomes respectful dialogue between two faiths, then many Catholics could internalize such behavior, leading to better interactions for us. It won’t stop them trying to convert us, but at least it might get us up to “legitimate competitor” level, rather than as something lesser.

    Of course, they might not as well. But I can be hopeful.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    …Catholic hardliner anti-interfaith propaganda…

    Of course, ironically, those Catholic hardliners are not fully living out the dictates of Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate; a conciliar document is the highest-ranked articulation of proper belief and practice in the Catholic church, and it has some very specific things to say on why certain other religions should be respected, and that everyone deserves respect no matter what religion they profess.

    In many respects, because it only recognizes a few religions, it isn’t enough; and, the way in which it interprets the Holy Spirit working through other religions can also be seen as rather condescending and disrespectful toward the theological integrity of other religions. However, it is better than nothing, and it does make the hardliners you mention less “orthodox” than they think they are.