Discussions ricochet around Pope Francis’s ability to reconcile the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy, theology and practitioners. But for a man of Francis’s scope and skill, this is too narrow an assignment. His real task, for which he is ideally situated, is to prevent the world’s descent into religious war.

Many people want to make our “war on terror” a war on at least a segment of the Muslim religion. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., makes this very clear: “We are in a religious war.” Some think of this war as being waged in revenge for the attacks of 9/11 — to prove, as former deputy undersecretary of defense Lt. Gen. William Boykin once put it, that their God is greater than Islam’s. But there are 1.3 billion followers of Islam scattered around the world, and an ambitious Gallup poll of Muslims in 35 heavily Muslim countries found that the vast majority of them did not approve of the 9/11 attacks. Significantly, those who condemned the attacks based their opposition to violence mainly on religion, while the 7 percent who considered them “completely justified” relied heavily on political arguments. How can we blame the Muslim religion for this horror?

Pope Francis has long recognized the honorable aspects of Islam. When he expressed sympathy for Muslims who defend the Qur’an as “a book of peace” and prayed in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul facing Mecca, he was drawing on long ties with Muslim believers. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he visited the Islamic Center in his city, wrote a greeting in the visitor book using the Muslim prayer-title for God (“I give thanks to God, the Merciful”) and became a friend of the center’s president. He is a man with deep personal connections to other religious leaders, and he is able to discern the varying strands and historical stages of their faiths.

Like Christians and Jews, Muslims have experienced periods of tribal warfare with external enemies and had their differences with internal heretics. Interpreting such complex religious and historical matters is usually done by three distinct groups: (1) fundamentalist readers of the pertinent sacred writings, who can admit nothing but a simple and literal meaning to everything; (2) sophisticated readers, who weigh the importance of particular sections of religious texts against the overall injunction to love; or (3) scholarly readers, who can apply linguistic and historical tools to examine how religious beliefs have evolved over time.

It would be foolish and dangerous to limit our views of Islam to what one group of fundamentalists sees when it looks at another group of fundamentalists. This creates a mirroring effect by which enemies come to resemble each other. Graham summons us to a holy war against Muslims whose supposed crime is that they wage holy wars. Since fundamentalists see only their own and others’ fundamentalism, those who point to a deeper message of peace present on the other side are said to have defected from their own tradition, as when President Obama and Pope Francis recognize the admirable parts of Muslim scripture, history and practice. When Obama noted that our own religious tradition has had violence in its history, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee intoned: “Everything he does is against what Christians stand for. … The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.”

The pope has advantages in this area that the president does not. Huckabee was pandering to those who have always considered Obama a Muslim, but even crazy people do not claim that Francis was born in Kenya. And Francis, as a religious leader, is better able to draw spiritual conclusions about Islam. He can unite all believers in the One God — something other popes could not or would not do. When Pope Benedict XVI tried at the University of Regensburg in 2006 to open a dialogue with Muslims, he did it so clumsily that riots and killings resulted. He lacked the experience and personal ties that Francis has developed with Muslims.

All popes must be diplomats, since Catholics exist in many different cultures and nations. But past popes had less room to maneuver than Francis does.

Pope Pius XII had to deal with fascists, who were racist nationalists; his relations had to be uneasy (and he was criticized for having any dealings with them at all). Pope John Paul II had to deal with communists, who were official atheists. But Islam, in its true teaching, is neither racist nor atheistic. Francis can condemn the violent minority of Muslims (in the Islamic State, for instance) while cultivating the sophisticated and scholarly Muslims he knows well.

As Francis said in his most important papal statement so far, “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” The ability to recognize the better angels of another religion is very useful for recruiting help and alliances with the holy majority of that religion. Those who dismiss large numbers of Muslim believers as “Islamofascists” make enemies of people who would prefer to be our friends.

All modern popes have called for peace in the world. But Francis has a special chance to use religious office to prevent religious war. Any war for religion conflicts with the peaceful traditions of Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Mormons and others. Francis has earned a special credibility in reminding us of that important truth. At the United Nations in 1965, Pope Paul VI cried out, “No more war, war never again.” Pope Francis’s deepest message may turn out to be “No holy war, not ever.”


Garry Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian. His book “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis” is being published this month. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.