What should our attitude toward other religions be, anyway?
My little City Gates item, “And what is Islam, anyway?”, produced surprising reactions. Some emphasized that Islam is a lie from first to last, about which nothing good should ever be said. And some took exception to my perceived criticism of Islam (along with every other religion but one) for not having an authority principle, on the basis that non-Catholics can be saved and so we should always be positive toward other religions.
Given these bizarre extremes, where does one start?
Perhaps it is best to begin by clearing up some basic confusion about salvation. Nobody—but nobody—is saved apart from the salvific work of Jesus Christ. Further, nobody—but nobody—is saved without being joined to Christ, which is the same thing as being joined to the Church (Christ’s mystical body). But there is a distinction between formal and substantial membership in the Church. Not all formal (juridical) members will be saved; yet many who are not formal members will be saved.
God’s salvific will is universal. He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). But not all are brought to realization of the full truth revealed in Christ. The Holy Spirit, however, knows what gifts of truth have been effectively made available to each person in the course of Divine Providence. As St. Paul taught, faith is belief, trust and obedience to whatever the Holy Spirit has written on the heart. Therefore, those who seek wholeheartedly to know the good and do it, taking advantage of whatever they have been given, are substantially joined to Christ and the Church.
This has been referred to in various ways: Baptism of desire, joining to the Church by an unconscious yet intense wish (“desiderio ac voto”, Pius XII), and substantial membership in the Church (John Paul II).
Unfortunately, there are many things which work against not only finding the good (of which God is the source), but also even our wholehearted seeking of the good. There can be psychological impediments, cultural impediments, and impediments arising from our own all too ordinary weaknesses; such impediments may derive from disorders within our personalities, ignorance, error, and the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.
When we are carefully taught the wrong things by our culture (whether a religious or a secular culture), it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond what “everyone” accepts as obvious, and seek instead to know, trust, believe and obey God. Moreover, our weakened human nature needs to be brought to perfection through grace, and our intellects tend to be darkened in the absence of grace. While grace is manifestly available in some measure to all, the complete set of goods which God has provided for our salvation, including every means of grace, is available only within the Church.
The Full Teaching of Vatican II
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on this matter of salvation is the most complete expression of the Church’s Magisterium to date. It is given in Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), number 16. It is necessary to read and take to heart all three portions of this passage, which are given separately below, quoted verbatim. The first indicates the values found in some other forms of religion; the second states the fundamental principle of salvation which I explained above; and the third warns of the supreme importance of overcoming the grave impediments to the salvific will of God in the world:
- Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved.
- Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.
- But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
The Proper Attitude Follows
In light of this, it is clear that our attitude toward other religions ought to be to accept and honor whatever is good in them—as judged against the full Revelation of God in Jesus Christ—while identifying what is evil or erroneous and seeking out of love to bring their adherents into the full light of the Gospel. In fact, the Council’s very brief Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) actually goes on to outline the proper attitude of the Church and, by extension, every Catholic.
That attitude includes three major points, which are quoted below, again verbatim:
- All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth (cf. Acts 17:26), and also because all share a common destiny, namely God.... Men look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence…. The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. (#1-2)
- Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life. (#2)
- Accordingly, following the footsteps of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, the sacred Council earnestly begs the Christian faithful to “conduct themselves well among the Gentiles” (1 Pet. 2:12) and if possible, as far as depends on them, to be at peace with all men (cf. Rom 12:18 ) and in that way to be true sons of the Father who is in heaven (cf. Mt. 5:45). (#5)
While we must keep all of this in mind when we deal with the problems and opportunities posed by other religions, we cannot do everything at once. Therefore, we may commend what is good in another religion in some contexts while focusing on what is deficient or even evil in other contexts. We can, to take the example with which we began, recognize that Islam did not begin with an authentic Revelation while also identifying the truths it contains and the points in which it is superior to the polytheism which preceded it. And on the third hand, so to speak, we might refute the errors in its doctrines which its adherents most generally embrace.
But one thing is clear. When it comes to our attitudes toward other religions and those who profess them, there is no room whatsoever for either complacency or disdain. Neither is compatible with conducting ourselves well among the Gentiles. Both will rob our brothers and sisters of opportunities to come to know Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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