Getting it right: On religious differences and God’s will
The interfaith statement of the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, signed by Pope Francis, affirms once again that religious differences are God’s will (Interfaith statement affirms tolerance and pluralism). Francis had already asserted this claim in the document Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, jointly signed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in February of 2019: “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.”
But there is only an attenuated sense in which this is true of religions, and it is an assertion which no Catholic can accept apart from this attenuated form. In other words, we know that nothing whatsoever can happen outside the will of God. Everything that happens is encompassed in either God’s active or God’s permissive will. We should already be familiar with references to God’s will that do not distinguish between these two aspects, because ancient Jewish culture did not generally make the distinction and the Old Testament is full of examples (e.g., God is reported to have hardened Pharoah’s heart). No departure from the good (or admixture of good and evil) that we encounter in this world can happen unless it is permitted by God. In that sense, everything is encompassed in God’s will.
However, this does not mean that God desires error and sin apart from their role in teaching us to choose the good, and so we have a legitimate need for discernment. Happily, some other things that can help us to discern are just as certain. For example, God permits all kinds of natural, moral and spiritual evils (and many things in which good and evil are mixed) because (a) This is necessary for the exercise of free will in creatures, without which there can be no capacity for love; (b) The best plan for the eternal happiness of God’s intellective creatures is a plan that involves exposure to evil, redemption from evil, and turning away from evil and toward the good in love.
So, yes, God has permitted the rise of all kinds of religions through the human ability to apprehend the existence of God and seek to worship God. This apprehension and effort at worship are often confused and polluted (sometimes diabolically) but they are an essential aspect of human existence in God’s plan, which culminates in His ultimate self-revelation, through Jesus Christ, as the one and only God.
Now, having revealed Himself partially to His chosen people, the Jews, while leaving other peoples largely in spiritual darkness, God in the fullness of time completed that self-revelation in Christ not only for the Jews but for all the peoples of the world. For this reason, after providing the ultimate proof through His Resurrection, Christ commanded his disciples to go out to to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching all that He had commanded (Mt 28:18-20).
Moreover, we must never forget the distinction he made between those who acknowledge Him and those who deny Him (Mt 10:32-34), which was such an important factor in my commentary last week, Peace or a sword? Is the whole truth always out of season?. That essay was written, as I indicated in the text, partly with the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in mind.
The problem before us, therefore, is to recognize that while religious differences exist through God’s permissive will, and so various degrees of good can be done through them (along with various degrees of evil, which is always an absence of a due good), it is nonetheless God’s active will that each person should hear and accept the Gospel. Thus St. Paul wrote to Timothy that we should pray for all because “God our Savior…desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4).
Indeed, Paul goes on to explain clearly and precisely that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5-6). It is God our Father’s eternally active will that every person, of no matter what religion He has permitted to exist, should come to the knowledge of the truth that is Jesus Christ—the way, the truth, and the life.
This is how we must understand even the humanly weak religious statements by which we are either encouraged or assaulted in our irenic times. It is obvious that in more exclusionary and warlike times, many different over-emphases and confusions can also arise. But how I yearn to be blessed, once again, with a pope who has both the gift and the will, at each opportunity, to teach rightly, clearly and well!
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Posted by: Retired01 -
Sep. 17, 2022 3:05 PM ET USA
Thank you Dr. Mirus for such a clear and beautiful explanation of our religious differences and God's will. It is really not so hard to teach rightly, clearly and well. Thanks again!
Posted by: grateful1 -
Sep. 16, 2022 7:31 PM ET USA
Your analysis is of course correct,Jeff. It is painful that Francis either cannot comprehend it or rejects it.
Posted by: BlaiseA -
Sep. 16, 2022 5:48 PM ET USA
Sadly, the rest of the 'world' does not know this distinction between God's 'allowing' and his directly WILLING. Pray for the Pope....