Pope Francis went to Abu Dhabi this week to meet the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, which is good and pleasant. No doubt the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church had much to discuss with the world’s highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought, and such fraternal fellowship will bear fruit in the global pursuit of love, justice and peace. Together they signed: ‘A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together‘, which is good and pleasant. Blessed are the peacemakers.
But there is a section of this document which is raising a few eyebrows:
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..
Now some find this quite unremarkable; nothing more than a reiteration of what is well-known; that God has given mankind free will to exercise in accordance with the desire of our flesh or the capacity of our conscience to conform to the precepts of divine revelation, or not. The plurality of human skin colour, ethnicity and sex is manifestly a work of God in creation. But the plurality of language was God’s judgment at Babel, wasn’t it? One language and one speech was what God willed (Gen 11:10), so why would He also will the confounding of comprehension with linguistic diversity? But then, Pope Francis says, God willed the diversity of religions. And that is not so unremarkable; indeed, it is really quite curious, not to say momentous.
The Bishop of Rome is not merely saying that God permits the diversity of religions, but that He wills it; He wills the consequences of free will. This means that the God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ – ‘the way, the truth and the life‘ – also willed (not merely permitted) Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Guru Nanak, Zoroaster and Sun Myung Moon – other ways, multiple truths and different lives. Man has free will to choose which path to follow from the plurality of religions he wishes, because, according to Pope Francis, God willed the diversity of spiritual truth; He willed spiritual confusion.
Ah, but… “This statement must be read in the proper context and perspective,” says Dr Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. “In sensitive inter-religious contexts, it is fitting for the Holy See to acknowledge that despite serious theological disagreements, Catholics and Muslims have much in common, such as a common belief that human beings are ‘willed by God in his wisdom.’”
Professor Pecknold continues: “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.”
So the existence of many false religions is evil, but their diversity is good because it evidences the human search for truth? Is that what Pope Francis is clearly saying, or is it really not so clear what he is clearly saying at all? The context of the document is manifestly that of authoritative Christian-Muslim dialogue: is Professor Pecknold saying Islam is a false religion? If Islam isn’t a false religion, what are the “many false religions” to which he says the Pope is clearly referring? If the multiplicity of many false (and true?) religions is evil, why does Pope Francis say God wills it?
Professor Pecknold concludes: “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.”
Is that any clearer? Because the document doesn’t mention God’s permissive will or foreknowledge of religious diversity, but distinctly talks about His will for such plurality: it is not just God’s allowing, but His approving. Spiritual division, according to Pope Francis, originates from God’s perfect goodness and moral perfection.
Of course Christianity has much in common with Islam: both stem from Judaism and share the Abrahamic doctrine of God, and there is no doubt that people of faith have much to learn from one another. But Pope Francis isn’t engaged here in an exposition of comparative religion: he is saying that God willed Islam into being; ergo God raised up Mohammed to be a prophet, so Westminster Abbey wasn’t so wrong when they named him in the succession of prophets. His Holiness does not mention ‘false’, as Professor Pecknold infers, but conveys a distinct sense (though it is rather more than a sense) of religious universalism, moral relativism and truth pluralism.
Extrapolating further, if God willed religious diversity, He must also will the means of reifying that diversity; ergo, the Catholic-Orthodox schism of 1054 and the Reformation of the 15th-16th centuries were willed by God.
If that isn’t the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (and it isn’t), does the Pope of Rome not err in the teaching of faith and morals? The Catechism states:
843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”
844 In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:
“Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.”
845 To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is “the world reconciled.” She is that bark which “in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world.” According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood.
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
So there is goodness and truth to be found in other religions, and this goodness and truth may lead to the fullness of revelation in the gospel, but there is no mention that God has specifically willed this partial blindness to light and truth. Yes, God permits it, but the Pope insists that He also wills it.
A loving parent may watch as their obdurate child burns his hand on a fire because he refused to be told time and again that it would hurt, but what kind of parent wills such pain? The Prodigal Son’s father permitted his youngest boy the freedom to rebel and depart from his heart and home of love, but he didn’t will his son to eat with pigs, did he?
What is disconcerting about the document to which Pope Francis has put his name is that if the pluralism and the diversity of religions are willed by God in His wisdom, then salvation is to be found outside the Church, for why would God will that which damns his children to hell? Moreover, the Church is not uniform in its dogma or semper eadem in its faith and morals; it is variable in its theology and adaptable in its ecclesiology. If God willed the pluralism and diversity of religions, a fortiori He willed the pluralism and diversity of the Church: He willed Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Anglicanism. God willed the Church of England into establishment: He willed its Holy Orders, which are thereby not so “absolutely null and utterly void”.
Quite then what the point is of praying ‘That they all may be one‘ (Jn 17:21) is unknown, for if God willed Christian diversity, to pray for unity would seem to be against His will. Or has Pope Francis simply got this very badly wrong?