The question of whether God wills the diversity and plurality of religions is once again a hot topic among those who are determined to worry that Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church off a cliff. The latest iteration of the controversy is due to the text of the declaration that was signed by the pope along with a majority of the delegates who attended the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan last week. Apparently, the text that was initially published on September 15 was subsequently changed. Some of the pope’s most outspoken critics took note of this fact.

LifeSiteNews explained that when it was initially published, the declaration had language saying that God “wills” religious diversity. This was changed at some point to say that “Religious diversity is permitted by God.” Some of the pope’s critics are attempting to determine whether he signed the “original” version or the revised declaration, because of the supposed heresy in the document’s earlier form.

A new old “controversy”

The aim of LifeSiteNews and like-minded outlets is clearly to revive the controversy surrounding the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb in 2019. That document states, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom.”

Was the change to last week’s Final Declaration made due to the accidental release of an earlier draft? Or was it because Francis (or one of the other signatories) requested the change to avoid causing confusion? The answer is largely irrelevant from a Catholic perspective. Both documents are valid and entirely orthodox, as Pope Francis made clear in his General Audience earlier today when he said, “The Congress discussed and approved the Final Declaration, which stands in continuity with the one signed in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 on human fraternity.”

In fact, item 13 in the Final Declaration affirms the earlier document, stating, “We recognize the importance and value of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together between the Holy See and Al-Azhar Al-Sharif (adopted by the UN General Assembly in resolution A/RES/75/200 of December 21, 2020), and the Makkah Declaration (adopted in Mecca in May 2019), which call for peace, dialogue, mutual understanding and mutual respect among believers for the common good” (emphasis in original).

The 2019 document’s critics claimed it was confusing, misleading, or potentially heretical. (In fact, that document was cited as the basis for one of Pope Francis’s alleged “heresies” in a 2019 open letter signed by the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols and others.) Among those who thought it was confusing was Catholic University of America theology professor Chad Pecknold, who told Catholic News Agency in 2019 that the statement was “puzzling, and potentially problematic.” However, Pecknold conceded that the statement could be construed as orthodox in the sense that “a diversity of religions can be spoken about as permissively willed by God without denying the supernatural good of one true religion.”

What Pecknold meant by “permissive will” simply means “God allowed it to happen.” It does not mean that God desires the pluralism and diversity of religions. It’s meant in the same way as we might answer questions about “when bad things happen to good people.” It’s what people mean when they say a death, disaster, or moral atrocity was God’s will. The idea behind God’s permissive will is that he merely allows sin and evil to happen so that he may bring about a greater good. God’s active or positive will for our lives, on the other hand, is associated with those things that God wants us to do, such as following the commandments, conversion, repentance, justice, or acts of virtue.

Several of Pope Francis’s less strident opponents hopped on the bandwagon to support Pecknold’s narrow explanation that the document was only referring to God’s “permissive” will in relation to religious pluralism and diversity. Pointing to a superficial reading of the pope’s general audience address of April 3, 2019, during which he spoke about his trip to Morocco, many totally dismissed any suggestion that God’s active or positive will has anything to do with religious pluralism or diversity. Strengthening this claim was Kazakhstan’s Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who said in March of that year that Pope Francis told him in an ad limina meeting that he acknowledges the “permissive will” interpretation.

Permissive Will, Positive Will, or Both?

I would argue that limiting the pope’s teaching on religious pluralism within the parameters of God’s permissive will is overly simplistic. To reduce harmonious and respectful relationships between people and groups of different religions to something that is merely tolerated by God suggests that God’s active will is absent in the vast majority of the individual moments and decisions that make up human existence. This is because the Church teaches that all of us, even non-Christians, can choose to follow God’s positive will in our daily lives. As Pope Francis pointed out in Fratelli Tutti: “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (no. 74). God’s constant and active work in the life of each and every person cannot be ignored, and this is emphasized in the very first paragraph of the Church’s Catechism when it says, “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man.”

It is notable that in the aforementioned April 3 audience Pope Francis did not apply “God’s voluntas permissiva” to the matter of religious pluralism and diversity. He applied it to the question, “Why does God allow many religions?” This is an important distinction. Francis attributed the existence of many religions, of which only one contains the fullness of truth, to the permissive will of God. This certainly makes sense. The Church teaches that God’s positive will is that all will be united with him in the Catholic faith, not that all religions are equally true. It is a definitively held doctrine of the Catholic faith that “all men are called to belong to the new people of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled” (Lumen Gentium 13).

That said, we cannot ignore that the Church also teaches, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [non-Catholic] 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). This “ray of truth” found in other religions reflects God’s active will. And within the precepts of many religions is a shared spirit of cooperation, tolerance, and respect for human dignity. It is the “true and holy” elements of many religions that provide opportunities for people of different religions to live in peace and fraternity with each other. A society that embraces religious pluralism and diversity is one that is built with these shared values.

When we are faced with the reality and complexity of our global society, we are all (Christians and non-Christians alike) presented with opportunities to do what God positively wills for us and the world. We must take an honest look around us and consider what we can do in light of the challenges presented by a world filled with people who adhere to a multitude of religions. And I think such an assessment will lead us to “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (Amoris Laetitia 303). In other words, until that day we are all united as one, God is asking us to work towards a just society that protects and honors religious diversity. God wants us to approach those of other religions with fraternity, not hostility.

This is not indifferentism

In order to understand how the relevant principles work together, we must acknowledge some important distinctions. First, we should note that the declaration does not say “God wills all religions,” nor does it say “all religions are of equal value.” It also does not relativize the differences between religions. It doesn’t say, “My religion is right for me, your religion is right for you.” The signatories of the document, recognizing the present reality – that we live in a world made up of people who subscribe to a multitude of different religious beliefs – are in agreement that God would have us live in a world of religious pluralism and diversity while disapproving of religious intolerance and conflict.

It is in this sense that I think it is reasonable to say that God positively wills all of us to embrace religious diversity and pluralism. This is at the foundation of Pope Francis’s message of fraternity. Because when we look at the alternatives – religious wars and violence, persecution and intolerance, conversion by imposition, religious discrimination – we see the inevitable rejection of fundamental principles of the faith. Even with the most extreme differences in religious belief, it is better that we decry violence and coercion so that we may address our disagreements in peace and with respect for each other as human beings.

As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared in Dignitatis Humanae, “in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society” (no.15).

Many traditionalists, unfortunately, believe that the developments in the Church’s teachings about our dealings with non-Catholics have discouraged evangelization. They are dismayed that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, noted “with joy” that religious freedom is enshrined as “a civil right in most constitutions, and it is solemnly recognized in international documents” (DH 15). They disapprove of the way, in the same paragraph, the Council fathers called on Catholics – and all people – “to consider how greatly necessary religious freedom is.”

Notably, this document is the one to which the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) most strongly objects, and it presents the largest doctrinal hurdle to welcoming the Society back into full communion with the Catholic Church. A sentence from a treatise against Dignitatis Humanae posted on their official website in 2018 sums up their assessment of the Church’s recognition of religious liberty as a fundamental human right: “When the light of the true religion enlightens the minds that govern public life, freedom to reject it is simply freedom to damn oneself.” In the same treatise, they condemn Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 statement for the World Day of Peace, in which he describes as “an essential good” that:

Each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith, in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances. There should be no obstacles should he or she eventually wish to belong to another religion or profess none at all” (no. 5).

The SSPX treatise describes these words as “simply an application of the false principles expressed in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, that does not mention the rights of the true religion.” Such criticism of the conciliar teaching on religious liberty is not limited to the SSPX, however. As retired theology professor Larry Chapp has noted, “even within those elements of the traditionalist movement that did not officially break with Rome, there continues to be a steady stream of criticism directed at this document and its teaching on religious freedom.”

What about evangelization?

Some of Pope Francis’s critics seem to believe that his embrace of religious diversity and pluralism is a rejection of our mandate to make disciples of all nations (cf. Mt 28:19). Nothing could be further from the truth. Pope Francis would be the first to affirm our call as Christians to be missionaries. In a globalized society, the challenges we face in sharing the Gospel are different than in past centuries, however. In the last century, our call to evangelize others remains as strong as ever, but it has been renewed in light of changing circumstances.

In light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, can we describe “the pluralism and the diversity of religions” as merely the result of God’s “permissive will”? Benedict, in his 2011 message, argues that religious freedom is fundamental to both world peace and an authentic understanding of the human person:

Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood. To deny or arbitrarily restrict this freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person; to eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person; it is to stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family.

For this reason, I implore all men and women of good will to renew their commitment to building a world where all are free to profess their religion or faith, and to express their love of God with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their mind (cf. Mt 22:37).

Evangelization today largely requires that we be “familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance” (Evangelii Gaudium 24). Pope St. John XXIII, in his Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis, spoke of what he perceived as his “urgent duty to call our children together in order to give the Church the possibility to contribute more effectively to the solutions of the problems of the modern age.”

Pope St. Paul VI recognized that the activity of the Church and our duty to proclaim the Gospel to all people is not limited to sharing Christological doctrines and the tenets of the Creed with non-Catholics in hope that they become Catholic. In his great exhortation on the New Evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul reminded us of our obligation to proclaim the social Gospel and “The Church … has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization” (EN 30).

He explains that “the Church is becoming ever more conscious of the proper manner and strictly evangelical means that she possesses in order to collaborate in the liberation of many” (EN 38). Rather than being caught up in political strategies or ideologically-directed tactics, the Church encourages those missionaries whose missionary work is a response to “the inspiration of faith, the motivation of fraternal love, a social teaching which the true Christian cannot ignore and which he must make the foundation of his wisdom and of his experience in order to translate it concretely into forms of action, participation and commitment” (EN 38).

In Ut Unum Sint, Pope St. John Paul II taught, “The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love” (UUS 6). To work towards the unity desired by God, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council urged us “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” (Nostra Aetate 3). Clearly, we cannot achieve the unity God desires all at once. And it will be impossible to unify all humanity together in the kingdom of God first unless we Christians truly respect and honor the dignity of non-Christians. The history of our relationships with those of other religions is scarred by conflict and discrimination on both sides of the division. Continuing in this way will only foster hostility. We must choose a different course.

Image: Vatican News

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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