“In man’s present situation, the dialogue of religions is a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities. This dialogue of religions has various dimensions (…) Even if the fundamental choices themselves are not under discussion, the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. Thus this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered. If both sides set out from a hermeneutic of justice and peace, the fundamental difference will not disappear, but a deeper closeness will emerge nevertheless.”

— Pope Benedict XVI
Address on the occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia
December 21, 2012

The Debate

During his official trip to the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis signed a joint declaration with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, one of the leading authorities in the Muslim Sunni world. This document lays the groundwork for a new stage of cooperation between Islam and Catholicism for a more fraternal and peaceful future.

This declaration, however, was strongly condemned by the usual papal critics, due to this isolated snippet (emphasis mine):

The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings”

— Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together

Many claimed this statement is heterodox, claiming it affirms the idea that God willed other religions (“false religions“) in addition to the Catholic faith. Wild conspiracy theories began to emerge on social media, shamelessly making claims about the pope being a freemason bent on creating a syncretic One World Religion. And this quote was quickly added to the usual litany of criticisms that is hurled against the Pope whenever he speaks or acts.

Completely overlooked by these critics was that the publication of this document meant that a leading Islamic authority had just agreed to strive for religious pluralism, at a time when so many fellow Christians struggle in the face of religious persecution in many Muslim countries. Just as when they discuss Chinese Catholics and deals between the Vatican and China, it seems that the ongoing human rights violations our brethren face everyday must yield to the concerns of armchair theologians in the West.

Also obfuscated were the document’s many assertions on the need for a joint religious front against our societal moral decay, abortion, euthanasia, and the infringement on the rights of families. It has become commonplace for those in some sectors to criticize the Pope for not addressing these topics, all the while ignoring his various (and orthodox) declarations on them.

Ignored as well was the fact that Pope Francis was the first pope to officially visit the Muslim-majority Arabian Peninsula, or how his visit allowed for the largest Catholic Mass in the history of the United Arab Emirates.

This does not happen in a vacuum. Virtually every official papal act by Pope Francis has been attacked from the same sectors of the Church that are now criticizing the Abu Dhabi declaration. These critics view all of his actions and teachings through a hermeneutic of suspicion, so it’s no wonder that they would find something to complain about during this trip. This time they fixated on one sentence, which (to them) trumps every good the Pope has achieved.

Of course, given the Pope’s teaching office and his duties as Vicar of Christ, he should not sign a declaration with heterodox statements in it, lest souls be led astray from the true faith that brings them to salvation. The ends do not justify the means — we agree on that. Still, the attacks through the media that these critics have been launching for years — with their obvious bias against Francis and eagerness to unearth anything to censure him day-in and day-out — should make us wary of accepting their criticisms at face value. We must first check whether their claims conform with reality (and they often don’t). And here again, their concerns are misplaced. In fact, the pope’s declaration is solidly orthodox.

The Aftermath

During the in-flight press conference following this historic visit, Pope Francis addressed the critics’ concerns, since the debate had already exploded at the time. Francis clarified that the document “does not pull away one millimeter from Vatican II.” This is typical of Pope Francis: when he acknowledges a development (describing it as “a step forward that comes after 50 years, from the Council, that must be developed”), he assures us that each development (as he did with Amoris Laetitia and the revision to the teaching on the death penalty in the Catechism) is in continuity with Tradition.

While many papal critics simply dismiss this continuity as impossible, some apologists have taken up the task of trying to find an accurate interpretative lens through which they could read this declaration in continuity with Catholic doctrine.

One of the justifications that gained more traction came from theologian Chad Pecknold, who made a distinction between God’s active will and permissive will. God actively willed Christianity (namely Catholicism), but he only tolerates, on account of man’s freedom, the existence of other religions. Since everything that happens comes about through God’s will, we call this tolerance of evils “God’s permissive will.

However, it has been correctly pointed out that the wording of the Joint Declaration does not seem to lend itself to such interpretation. When one reads it, it seems more forceful than claiming that God merely tolerates this pluralism of religions.

In this line of reasoning, theologian Adam Rasmussen has published an article on our website, arguing that God may actively will a plurality of religions, since all religions contain elements of truth in them (according to the Second Vatican Council and Evangelii Gaudium), and God, in His infinite wisdom, may have willed to use those elements to help people from many different settings and backgrounds to journey towards Him.

Very recently, however, LifeSiteNews published an interview from Bishop Athanasius Schneider in which he affirms that he asked for clarifications during his ad limina visit to Rome. Reportedly, the Pope has answered to Bp. Schneider’s questions by saying “that the diversity of religions is only the permissive will of God. He [the Pope] stressed this and told us: you can say this, too, that the diversity of religions is the permissive will of God.” I will deal with this clarification later on in the article.

However, as interesting as this debate is, I would like to draw attention to two details that categorically move the whole discussion into a completely different level. I really think that there is no need to discuss if and how God wills multiple religions, since I do not believe the document says that God wills multiple religions per se.

The Telos of the Document

As Adam Rasmussen says in his article (my emphasis): “Rather than being a doctrinal statement about what Catholics and Muslims believe, it takes Christians’ and Muslims’ shared belief in the one true God and Creator as a starting-point for a shared effort to promote a culture of dialogue, mutual understanding, social justice, human rights, and peace (…) This document on Human Fraternity wisely avoids all discussion of creedal doctrine. Nevertheless, Christians and Muslims (as well as other religions) hold many common values and beliefs, such as, for example, that God made the universe and that he commands us to protect the poor and marginalized. This is what the document is about, and it is beautiful. Read it!

Adam is right. The document is not about the doctrines of Muslims and Christians. It is not meant to establish if any of the two religions is true or not. So, all the talk about “false religions” is moot, since the word “false” necessarily entails a judgment over something’s truthfulness.

Rather, the Document on Human Fraternity (as its title suggests) was meant to lay a path of cooperation between Muslims and Christians for “world peace” and “living together” with “human fraternity.” Any mention to “teachings” in this declaration serves this purpose. Any doctrinal statement present in this text is meant to highlight the common teachings in both religions that may help further this goal… and nothing else.

What specific goal does the polemic sentence have in mind? To answer this, we should look not only at the context of the full document, but also to the context of the whole paragraph where the sentence lies. Here is the full quote:

“Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept”

It seems like the snippet is subordinated to the topic of freedom. Namely freedom of belief and freedom to be different. And it is also meant to condemn the imposition of particular cultures (namely religion) on people, in violation of their freedom.

In other words, the Joint Declaration:

  1. is not doctrinal, neither makes pronouncements on the truthfulness of any religion
  2. is more practical than theoretical, aiming to build cooperation between Muslims and Catholics and
  3. the paragraph in question deals with freedom as one of the aims of this interreligious cooperation;

In summary: The polemic sentence is meant to justify ways for Muslims and Catholics to collaborate so that everyone may enjoy basic freedom. So, we should read this sentence in accordance with its telos. Branching the discussion into theological debates that do not directly serve this telos is legitimate, but I sincerely believe that, if we want to interpret its true meaning, we should stick closer to the stated purpose of the text.

And here is where the second detail kicks in.

Pluralism versus Plurality

I noticed one crucial fact in all of the discussions about this polemic I’ve come across: everyone (both critics and apologists) is talking about “plurality” of religions. If you browse social media, you’ll see that this is the actual word that people are using: “plurality.” However, if you search the word “plurality” in the document, you will yield no results.

Rather, the word that has been employed has been “pluralism.” It may look like it’s the same thing, but it’s not.

Plurality of religions means that there are many religions. But pluralism usually refers to a philosophy whereby many different religions coexist peacefully within the confines of a single society.

Given what I said about the telos of the document, I believe that this interpretation is more accurate. The signing parties want to build a future together, where their religions can coexist and defend freedom of belief for everyone. In short, a pluralistic society and a pluralistic world.

It is interesting that people are discussing the declaration by criticizing or defending a word that does not feature in the text at all. I wonder how many people are aware of this unconscious faux-pas. No one seems to be using the word “pluralism” when debating… and that is astonishing for me.

The next word (“diversity“) can have a double meaning. On the one hand, diversity of religions may mean the existence of various religions (“plurality“.) But on the other hand, diversity of religions may also mean a diverse society in terms of religion (“pluralism“.) Given what I said before, I think the word “diversity” should be read in its proper context and, therefore, read as coming in tow with the same reasoning as the word “pluralism.”

A third interpretation…

It may very well be that God merely tolerates (“passively wills“) other religions on account of His respect for human freedom, as a kind of necessary evil. It may very well be that God wills other religions to exist so that their elements of goodness and truth may help people from other cultures find Him and, therefore, prevent the rise of widespread atheism. It may even very well be that these two interpretations are both true and not mutually exclusive.

Whatever it may be, one thing is for sure: many religions do exist today. It’s a reality we have to come to terms with. Since we, as people who live in reality and not in an abstract fantasy world, acknowledge that there exists a plurality of religions and that a worldwide full conversion to Catholicism is highly unlikely… what should we do? And, most importantly, what does God will us to do?

Isn’t it obvious that God wills us to come together as one human family to fight against the evils in our midst? If there are people whose God-given freedom is being attacked, doesn’t God will that everyone, even those from other religions, will stand up to their defense? Wouldn’t God will us to coexist in peace and harmony with people of other religions, as brothers and sisters?

In short, is it really heterodox to think that, in this current setting, God wills that everyone’s freedom of belief be respected, i.e. pluralism? Since many religions do exist, doesn’t He will a society with diversity of religions in it instead of one where people are persecuted to enforce one single religion against their consciences? And that God not only passively wills this (tolerates it,) but actively, sincerely wills us to act in this manner?

Is it really farfetched to proclaim that God wills a pluralism and diversity of religions in the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim countries? Or that  the USA’s First Amendment, preventing the Government from acts that infringe on religious freedom or from establishing a State religion, is something that pleases God? Isn’t that what we have been striving for all these years? Are Catholics really going to resist this significant victory on account of theological minutiae… or, worst of all, on account of their concerted mediatic attack on the Vicar of Christ, so as not to lose their influence on the Catholic Church’s affairs?

External validation

How do we know if an interpretation of the document is accurate or not? Fortunately there are external elements that may guide us into the truth of the matter. One of them is the Pope’s clarification as reported by Bp. Schneider and published by LifeSiteNews. However, I do not think this clarification is as conclusive as it was made out to be.

First of all, LifeSiteNews is not a credible news source, but has constantly been in the first line of the media war against Pope Francis, always spinning his words and acts in the worst way possible. Bp. Schneider also, is one of Pope Francis’ most prominent critics, and has publicly contradicted his disciplinary practice regarding Eucharist for divorced and remarried couples as stated by the magisterial document Amoris Laetita.

In this sense, we should note that we do not have access to the direct words of the Pope (and therefore, to all the content and nuances of the Pope’s clarification,) but only know what Bp. Schneider has chosen to relay according to his interpretation of what transpired. Since the “permissive will” interpretation is the only one deemed orthodox by a certain sector of the Church that Bp. Schneider and LifeSiteNews represent, we should factor in the possibility of bias in how this meeting has been conveyed.

From my reading of the events as described in the interview, it seems like Bp. Schneider kept pressing on this issue during the ad limina visit, while Pope Francis “answered in a more general way about principles of the Catholic Faith, but in the given circumstances we were not able to go into detail on the specific issues.” Given the bishop’s insistence, Pope Francis kept conceding various orthodox points, namely that “you can say that the phrase in question on the diversity of religions means the permissive will of God.” But “you can say” does not exclude recourse to other possible interpretations, especially if these are found to be more orthodox and less problematic.

I have no problem in acknowledging the “permissive will” interpretation and vouching for its orthodoxy. I just think that it has less explanatory power than the interpretation I put forth, since it makes the wording of the document awkward. As Bp. Schneider himself admits, if that’s the correct interpretation, then the polemic sentence lists in an indiscriminate way elements of diversity that are permissively willed by God (diversity of religions) and others that are actively willed (eg. diversity of sexes).

I’m sure LifeSiteNews would have no problem with this since part of the narrative advanced by this site is that every papal teaching they disagree with is confusing (which explains the triumphalistic title of the piece, that Bp. Schneider “wins a clarification“). But since I know from personal experience that this narrative is incorrect, and since it is highly likely that such a sensitive document would’ve been drafted very carefully, I must strive, if possible, to find interpretations that maintain a better internal cohesiveness of the document.

So, are there other elements of external validation for our interpretations, besides Bp. Schneider’s account? Namely, are there first-hand clarifications issuing from the Pope himself? Yes there are. As I mentioned previously, the Pope has conducted a plane interview during his return. In it he said, and I quote: “the document does not pull away one millimeter from Vatican II.” Granted, he says it’s a development, a step forward… but the fact remains that it does not deviate from Vatican II. More importantly, this sentence holds the interpretative key to know what the document means and what it doesn’t mean: We must go to the Second Vatican Council documents to inform ourselves.

Adam did just this, by understandably going to Nostra Aetate (NA), the Declaration on the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions. And surely enough, as Adam explains, NA focuses on the elements of truth contained in every non-Christian religion, including Islam.

But NA also has this to say (my emphasis):

“The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men

— NA, #2

And specifically about Muslims, it says:

“Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

— NA, #3

Which appears to tie very nicely with my point.

Also, if Adam has invoked the Council document on the relations of the Church with non-Christian religions, I would like to bring to your consideration another Second Vatican Council text… its Declaration on Religious Freedom, since, as I argued before, religious freedom seems to me to be the context of the sentence in question:

“This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society (…) This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”

— Dignitatis Humanae (DH), #1

And later on:

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself”

— DH, #2

This is by no means an exhaustive list. The whole Dignitatis Humanae (DH) deals with the topic of how Catholics should defend religious freedom. I urge all to read it in full.

However, if we refer ourselves to DH to know what the Abu Dhabi declaration means, we can also go to DH to know what it does not mean. And if we read DH in full, we will come across this quote:

“We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men (…) Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ”

— DH, #1

If the Document on Human Fraternity is meant not to “pull away one millimeter from Vatican II“, as the Pope himself said, then it can never be read in a way that undermines the truth of the one Church of Christ. Religious freedom, so the Conciliar text says, leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine. Therefore, the Abu Dhabi Declaration also must leave untouched traditional Catholic doctrine. Thereby rendering all of the pope’s critics’ concerns moot.

And this ends up actually backing Bp. Schneider’s assertion. The Pope was right in conceding that one can indeed say that the diversity of religions is the permissive will of God. The polemic sentence does not change this one bit, so the “permissive will” interpretation is sound. Insofar as the document mentions diversity of religions, it indirectly makes allusion to the permissive will of God that allows such a diversity. However, we are talking on different levels of interpretation here. As I said earlier, the document does not purport to make judgments of value on the truthfulness of other religions (and, therefore, on whether they are willed by God or not.) Such considerations would be extremely inappropriate for a groundbreaking interreligious document such as this. Rather, the document acknowledges that many kinds of diversity exist (both permissively willed or actively willed, depending on the kind of diversity we are pondering) and urges us to find the best way to deal with it, by respecting everyone’s freedom. In fact, in an indirect way, the “permissive will” interpretation acknowledges this, for God only allows other religions because He scrupulously respects Man’s God-willed freedom.

Ergo, we can say that:

  1. God actively wills the existence of Catholicism, as the true religion He instituted
  2. Insofar as Man has free will, God permissively wills the existence of other religions
  3. Insofar as other religions exist, God may actively will that they contain some elements of truth in them that allow Him to bring good out of those religions
  4. Insofar as other religions exist on account of Man’s free will, then God actively wills us not to use coercion to impose what He Himself does not

I think neither of these four assertions contradict each other or the document, but I also believe that the document focuses mainly on the last assertion and that’s how we should read the sentence in question.


The papal visit to the United Arab Emirates was rife with successes that should make every Catholic joyful. Instead, the usual papal critics have tried to shift our attention into focusing in one single sentence from a History-making document, in order to further their campaign to undermine the current Vicar of Christ.

However, a textual interpretation of the document itself, in continuity with the Second Vatican Council documents (as the Pope urges us to do) shows that it is actually a very orthodox statement. And even though the debate has devolved into a very interesting discussion on whether God wills many religions or not, I think this argument is off-topic. The document is meant to ensure that Muslims and Catholics work together to ensure a pluralistic and diverse society, where everyone’s freedom is respected.

In this sense, it is right and proper for a Catholic not to focus on what divides us from our Muslim brethren, but to ally him/herself with all men of good will towards a common goal: pluralism and diversity of religions in each culture and country, so that no one will be forced to adhere to a religion against his/her conscience. God, Who created Man free, certainly wills this.

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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