Yesterday Pope Francis, during his historic first-ever visit of a Roman pontiff to the Arabian peninsula, again made big news by signing a joint statement on “Human Fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. He’s sort of like the Sunni Muslim pope, if you keep in mind that Islam isn’t a centralized religion and so has no pope. This is the most significant document on Catholic-Muslim relations since Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate. 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.
It’s a great summary of many of the principles of Catholic social teaching. One can read the entire document in under half an hour, so I won’t summarize it. I will only observe that, along with social ills such as war, religious extremism, and poverty, the pope and grand imam warn the world about the deleterious effect of individualism and materialism on human happiness. They suggest that the “transcendental values” of Christianity and Islam are able to provide the spiritual foundation that humanity needs to resist being swallowed up by materialism, nihilism, disillusionment, and “narrow-minded economic interests.” Some progressives believe that secularism is the path to prosperity and that religions are backwards superstitious that cause only oppression and sorrow. While the pope and grand imam are clear about how both their religions have been abused to justify violence and evil, they reject secular utopianism. In fact, some forms of radicalized secularism threaten to erase all traditional identities and sacrifice them on the altar of a globalized, technocratic economy. One of the explicit goals of the document is “to reawaken religious awareness among young people.”
One line that stands out is “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.” Right off the bat, I’d point out that Francis already spoke positively of religious pluralism in Evangelii Gaudium (about which more below): “A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such…” (EG 255). Because religious-partisan lines are hardened, the opponents of Francis have already seized upon this one line in the new document as yet another example of his “heresies.” It is left to pro-Francis partisans (such as myself) to explain and defend him.
An alternative approach for some Catholics is to “interpret” what he said so as to bring it into line with their anti-modernist neoscholastic theology. Thus the following remarks of Chad Pecknold, an outspoken traditionalist theologian at CUA:
The idea that God wills the diversity of color, sex, race and language is easily understood, but some may find it puzzling to hear the Vicar of Christ talk about God willing the diversity of religions.
It is puzzling, and potentially problematic, but in the context of the document, the Holy Father is clearly referring not to the evil of many false religions, but positively refers to the diversity of religions only in the sense that they are evidence of our natural desire to know God.
God wills that all men come to know Him through the free choice of their will, and so it follows that a diversity of religions can be spoken about as permissively willed by God without denying the supernatural good of one true religion.
Pecknold tries to force the document’s round words to fit through the square hole of neoscholastic categories (so to speak). He claims that God did not “actively” will to have other “false” religions exist; he only “actively” willed ancient Israelite religion and then Christianity. He allows (“passively” wills) other religions to exist. Anyone who understands theology will understand that everything that ever happens, including horrible evils like genocide, is at least “passively” willed by God. After all, unless God allows something to happen, it won’t. This is the scholastic interpretation of Job’s words in the Old Testament: “We accept good things from God; should we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10)
In this sense, it is undeniable that God has allowed religious diversity, but to traditionalists this is not something to be celebrated, any more than we would celebrate God’s allowance of murder. It saddens me that, in the midst of the pope’s praiseworthy attempt to promote peace between Christians and Muslims, Pecknold took the opportunity, upon being contacted by a Catholic journalist, to call Islam a “false religion.” This mindset is totally out of keeping with both the spirit and words of Nostrae Aetate (and the inter-religious efforts and words of the Roman pontiffs):
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for those ways of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, though differing in many ways from its own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women. (Nostra Aetate 2)
If Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are “false religions,” why does the Church “hold in high regard” (sincera cum observantia considerat; literally, “looks at carefully with genuine reverence”) the many elements within them that “reflect a ray” of divine truth? Obviously Christians can’t agree with other religions on some very important things, but that does not mean that those religions are therefore empty of truth, goodness, and beauty, to be condemned wholesale as just “false.” Nostra Aetate makes this clear. Search Vatican II and the recent popes for any talk of “false religions,” and you will come up empty. Traditionalists are trying hard to resurrect this regrettable way of thinking that the Catholic magisterium has sought to bury.
Francis and the Grand Imam do not mean what Pecknold claims, for the affirmation of God having willed religious diversity is said in the very same list with ethnic, national, and linguistic diversity, which are manifestly part of God’s positively-willed wise design for the human race. Francis means exactly what he said: the division of human beings into various religions, including Christianity and Islam, is also part of God’s wise design. If Francis meant what Pecknold claimed, the statement would be wildly misleading, virtually meaning the opposite of what its words seem to say.
Now that I have debunked that misreading, how shall we interpret the pope’s words and defend him from false charges of heresy? One could (and should) consult the works of Catholic theologians who have pondered this topic. They have long argued that religious diversity is a positive good. For example, there is the late Fr. Jacques Dupuis (who ran afoul of Ratzinger and John Paul II, though he agreed to the doctrinal points about the uniqueness of Christ they asked him to affirm). He is the author of, among others, the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. I suspect that Francis may be at least somewhat familiar with his fellow Jesuit’s works and theology. For the sake of this post, though, I will consult Francis’s own teachings in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
In section 254 of EG, Francis takes up and even advances Vatican II’s teachings on other religions. Here is the full paragraph:
Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God,” and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.” But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.
The first sentence reaffirms what the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium says about the universal availability of salvation to people of all religions or none (#16). Francis goes farther, though, by saying that, in a way similiar to how God distributes grace through the sacraments, the grace that non-Christians receive from God also “tends to produce sign and rites.” One thinks, perhaps, of Muslims praying five times a day. These religious rituals help people “journey towards God.” If this is so, these rituals must be more than simply human, since humans cannot by their own effort, without grace, come to God. And, indeed, Francis says that these rituals have actually been “raised up” by God’s Spirit into “channels” of “liberat[ion].” The rituals do not necessarily bring people into full communion with God in the way the Church’s sacraments do, but they at least free them from atheism and individualism by joining them to a religious community in search of the divine. Not only that, the religions possess “pratical wisdom,” which, again, is not merely human. The wisdom in the world religions has been brought forth by the Holy Spirit! Francis goes yet farther: this wisdom “can help us [Christians] better to live our own beliefs.” Christians can benefit from studying other religions; the wisdom contained in them helps us to adhere more closely to Christian values. I think that many Christians who have honestly studied other religions could testify to the truth of this statement, as could members of other religions, including some of my own students, who find value in their own way by studying the Bible.
The teachings of Francis on non-Christian religions are rooted in what Vatican II taught (particularly Nostra Aetate). In fact, the pope said as much during the in-flight press conference (full text):
From the Catholic point of view, the document does not pull away one millimeter from Vatican II, which is even cited a few times. The document was made in the spirit of Vatican II.
But the new document goes farther than Nostra Aetate does, or at least makes explicit what was merely implicit in it. It is a further development, though a small one, as the pope also said:
It is a step forward. But, step forward that comes after 50 years, from the Council, that must be developed. The historians say that a council takes 100 years to take root in the Church. We are halfway.
Despite the commotion this document has made, what it says about religions is actually less noteworthy than what is in Evangelii Gaudium. I don’t think many people noticed section 254 when it came out because they were too busy arguing about other sections of EG!
Pope Francis’s teachings in both documents remind me of a famous (and authentic) quotation of St. (Mother) Teresa. When asked whether or not she proselytized those to whom she ministered, she replied, “Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do” (source). The whole tenor of the new document suggests this sort of approach: mutual respect and cooperation among Muslims and Christians to build a more just, more peaceful, more humane world. A world that is in closer conformity to the values of the kingdom of God (e.g., humility, compassion, faith, obedience to God), as taught in the Bible. With Islamophobia on the rise in the West, this message is badly needed. May it not fall on deaf ears.
This kind of talk, which was already authentic Catholic teaching through NA and EG, is frequently dismissed and ridiculed, even by Catholics. They call it “syncretism” and say it’s trying to make a “one-world religion.” Such baseless anxiety often devolves into pseudo-apocalyptic nonsense. This right-wing trope could not be farther from the truth. The idea of merging all religions into a “one-world religion” may have been featured in a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery (“New Eden“), but in the real world it has never been more than a silly, utopian pipe-dream and conservative nightmare. There is no reason to worry about this; it will never happen and has nothing to do with anything this or any pope (or theologian) has ever said. Nor does the pope imply that Christianity and Islam are “the same,” another tired trope repeated in uninformed popular discourse. No two religions are “the same,” let alone all of them. Duh.
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!