Does God “will” a plurality of religions?

Pope Francis has come under fire for an ambiguous statement that might seem to be undermining the exclusive claims of the Catholic Church. By saying “God willed the diversity of religions” he is blamed for indifferentism–the view that all religions are pretty much the same and “we’re all climbing the same mountain but by different paths” nonsense.

Others who are better theologians than I am have  commented on his statement, and Fr Z’s explanation does it for me.

The fact is we live on a planet with a vast range of different cultures, historical backgrounds, religions, races and tribes. Within that, the Great Commission, Christ the Lord says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

“All nations” means everyone and all their different religions. Therefore we have to confront primitive tribal religions, paganism, sophisticated philosophical systems, the ancient religions of the East–Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism.

Missionaries confront these religions and cultures with respect, but not without criticism. The Catholic method has always been to find what is good about the other culture and religion, salvage it and “baptize” it–that is claim it for the fullness of Catholicism.

To do this successfully one needs to understand the history of religion and see that the religions that pre-date Christianity can be understood as fore runners of the fullness of the gospel. Of course the religion of the Hebrew people is the one that shows this par excellence but the other religions also do. Hinduism and the paganism of the Ancient Middle East have customs and beliefs that hint at the coming of Christ and he fulfills those religions while at the same time correcting their abuses, misunderstandings and partial vision.

I have never had a problem with the explanation of anthropologists and historians of religion who see a progression in religious understanding through the development of human civilization and learning. The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit will in time reveal all things and that we are growing in our understanding of God, but it is also clear that the only lens through which that understanding can continue to develop is the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Religions that post date the incarnation of the Lord like Islam, Protestantism or modern New Age sects are in a different category. The other religions looked forward to Christ. The latter look back to Christ for fulfillment. If the others were partial because Christ had not yet come, the latter are partial because they have departed from part of the fullness of truth found only in the Catholic Church.

I agree with Fr Z. therefore, that God “allows” other religions because they are the natural development from general revelation as humans aspire to know and come to understand God most fully. The Catechism says this:

“Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”325

The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,326 “the first to hear the Word of God.”327 The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”,328 “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”329

840 And when one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah. But one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.

841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”330

842 The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race:

All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city. . .331

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.”332

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.333

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.334

The missionary mandate. “Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men”:339 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and Lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age.”340

850 The origin and purpose of mission. The Lord’s missionary mandate is ultimately grounded in the eternal love of the Most Holy Trinity: “The Church on earth is by her nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, she has as her origin the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”341 The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love.342

851 Missionary motivation. It is from God’s love for all men that the Church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigor of her missionary dynamism, “for the love of Christ urges us on.”343 Indeed, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”;344 that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary.

I don’t have a problem with that.

If you call yourself a Catholic and you do have a problem with that then believe me… you have a problem with much more than that.