The Jesuit pope made the call during a speech at the Jesuit-run theology university in Naples. It follows his outreach this year to the Muslim world with the signing of a joint statement with the imam of Cairo's Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning, establishing the relationship between Catholics and Muslims as brothers, with a common mission to promote peace.
In his speech, Francis said dialogue and partnership with the Muslim world is necessary "to build a peaceful existence, even when there are the troublesome episodes by fanatic enemies of dialogue." Catholic theology students must learn the culture, language and way of thinking of Jews and Muslims "to better understand and live out our relationship," he said.
After the theologically doctrinaire papacies of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has stressed instead the need to "walk together" with interfaith partners, often joking that theologians should ruminate on a deserted island while religious leaders press ahead with dialogue on the ground. He has also called for a more pastoral, merciful and conscience-driven approach to sticky theological problems, such as Communion for the civilly remarried.
"Theological freedom is necessary," Francis said Friday. "Without the possibility of trying new paths, you don't create anything new." Speaking off the cuff, Francis, though, made a distinction between the necessary freedom required for theological study and the need for theological precision in preaching to the faithful.
He called for a revision of the way theology is taught so that it focuses on welcome, dialogue and flexibility. In addition, lay people should be encouraged to take up theological studies, especially women, he said.