On February 4, 2019, there was a joint declaration by Pope Francis and the Muslim Grand Imam Ahmad Mohammad Al-Tayyeb, which caused some concern among the faithful. One passage in particular was emphasized that needs clarification!
The theme to be addressed is important for understanding the announcement of the Gospel, which is part of the Church’s primary mission. Therefore, clarification is needed so that the zeal to proclaim the sacred message to people at all times is not weakened!
The relevant passage in the declaration reads as follows:
“The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colours, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings”.
Without question it is the will of God that there are the sexes of men and women and that different skin colours and various ethnicities are part of the wealth of human life. But the formulation that God wills different religions is so misleading that it is necessary to ask what is meant by this!
Clarification of the formulation
First of all we have to distinguish very subtly between an active will of God, which directly shows His intentions, and a permissive will of God, which can also integrate wrong ways into His plan of salvation! To draw this distinction is essential, otherwise we will get into confusion! God does not want evil, error and many things that do not correspond to His ways! But his omnipotence knows how to deal with them, and we know in faith that even the sneaky attacks of the devil must serve the good!
If we have now made this essential distinction, then we must say that the sentence – as it stands and undifferentiatedly describes the many religions as being willed by God – is more than confusing, for it contradicts the witness of Holy Scripture and also the teaching of the Catholic Church!
Since the Second Vatican Council, a greater openness to the value of other religions has been observable and one seeks to perceive and promote the “seeds of God” in them in a positive way! This does not mean, however, that one can regard the other religions as equivalent ways to salvation and that it is almost irrelevant in which religion I grow up and which one I practice, if these are so desired by God in their diversity! If this were so, then the mission in the Catholic Church would be reduced only to striving for what is common through inter-religious dialogues and to realizing values like peace and justice!
God’s will is unconditionally the mission
But precisely in such an attitude lies a serious error! Jesus clearly states: „I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me“ (Jn 14:6). And we all know his missionary mandate: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…“ (Matt 28:19).
God’s will, then, is that all human beings should come to the knowledge of the truth, and God wants – as he himself has made known to us – that we should recognize his Son, follow him and so obtain salvation. So God cannot deliberately want different religions at the same time, which often still carry great errors in them and are not able to recognize the Lord in the Holy Spirit! Muslims, for example, worship Jesus as a prophet, but do not recognize him as the Son of God and reject the Holy Trinity!
Some might object that the Pope was only interested in building a bridge so that he could do more for peace and understanding among religions! Some might even be delighted that a leading Muslim has entered into such a level of declaration and might think that here the way is being prepared for peace! Surely the Pope and his collaborators will think in this way!
But now it is time to draw a clear distinction: Is it right, for the sake of a joint statement with a Muslim leader and thus for the sake of possible peace, to make such a misleading statement public? Are some representatives of the church giving up mission or interpreting it differently now?
Let us note:
1. True and lasting peace will only come through Jesus Christ, that is, through the encounter with the Son of God and the faith in Him!
2. Such a statement, if not clarified, would invalidate the missionary mandate or at least relativize it. But this would be an injustice to God, for it serves the glory of God if men recognize his Son and we proclaim him; it would also be unjust to the people who are to receive the message of salvation.
So as not to create any misunderstandings: This is not a critique of the Pope’s efforts for peace and his meeting with Muslim leaders! Every step that serves true peace is helpful!
However, the Church’s main vocation of proclaiming the Gospel cannot be allowed to be voluntarily restricted and our Catholic faith cannot be allowed to become part of a general structure of different religions on the same level!
This cannot and must not be allowed to happen! Not because we Catholics want to put our religion above everything else, but because it is simply the revealed truth of God!
The meaning of true dialogue and ecumenism
This questionable sentence of the Abu Dhabi Declaration gives cause to make clear once again how the dialogue with other religions is to be led, so that there is neither mixing nor confusion and so that the very mission of the Catholic Church is not restricted! This is extremely important, because the spirit of relativism, which is present almost everywhere, represents a great danger that we may doubt or call into question firm convictions that arise from faith and are brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is also needed to be wary of any euphoria about dialogue with other religions, because then we no longer know how to distinguish sharply and are perhaps moved more by the human desire for greater closeness and better understanding or by the longing for peace, instead concretely by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The same applies to the way of ecumenism. There is a fruitful way, which does not abandon any truth of faith or meaningful practice of faith, and yet is able to overcome barriers of mutually blocked understanding! But we know of other ecumenical attempts which put aside or even give up the question of truth in order to find a unity that does not have God as its source!
Discernment of spirits
In order to receive this necessary discernment of spirits, we cannot seek better advice than in the words of Sacred Scripture itself, in the tradition of the Church’s teaching, and in our emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who is rightly considered a great theologian. His writings leave us a legacy and provide clear information about the course of the Church, also on this important issue. They are intellectually a little demanding! It is therefore advisable to read them very carefully, and if necessary, to reread them!
In the following I will reproduce some passages from the writing of Dominus Iesus. Those who have this topic burning in their hearts are strongly advised to study the whole of the text, which consists of only about 20 pages, in peace. It clarifies thinking and has a great breadth! Above all, however, it shows how far the Church can go in her efforts to lead a dialogue with other religions.
Thus Cardinal Ratzinger, still as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, writes in point 21 of Dominus Iesus:
“From what has been stated about the mediation of Jesus Christ and the ‘unique and special relationship’ which the Church has with the kingdom of God among men — which in substance is the universal kingdom of Christ the Saviour — it is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.
Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what ‘the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions’. Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God. One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation”.
Never must we as Christians give up proclaiming the faith. We can ask the Holy Spirit for the appropriate means, but the basis remains the same. The Lord has allowed different religions to exist and has overlooked their ignorance (cf. Acts 17:30). But he wants a Church from all peoples. Therefore, such a misleading sentence should not appear in a document for which the Church is responsible. If it has happened, then it needs an explanation of how it is meant.
Intervention by Auxiliary Bishop Schneider from Kazakhstan
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, during an Ad Limina visit of the bishops from Kazakhstan, made reference to this sentence to the Pope and asked him to publicly clarify such a misleading statement. Even though Pope Francis made it clear to him that the sentence was meant in the sense of the permissive will of God and that he, Bishop Schneider, could transmit it in this way, and even though he also spoke in the General Audience on 3 April 2019 of the permissive will of God in relation to the reality of the various religions, the Pope did not officially withdraw the erroneous sentence. Instead, it remains in the document and is taught and passed on uncorrected in universities and other places.
In an interview with Life-Site-News on 26 August 2019 [1], Auxiliary Bishop Schneider said that the Pope had welcomed and praised the fact that a so-called Higher Committee had been formed in the Arab Emirates to achieve the goals contained in the Abu Dhabi document.
Auxiliary Bishop Schneider said literally:
The establishment of the aforementioned “Higher Committee” mandated with implementing at all levels, among other good aims, the allegedly divinely willed principle of the “diversity of religions,” in fact paralyzes the Church’s mission ad gentes. It suffocates her burning zeal to evangelize all men – of course with love and respect (…).
The missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, ‘who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim 2:45), ‘neither is there salvation in any other’ (Acts 4:12).
In this context, Bishop Schneider recalled the words of Leo XIII (Encyclical Humanum Genus, 16):
“The view that all religions are alike is calculated to bring about the ruin of all forms of religion, and especially of the Catholic religion, which, as it is the only one that is true, cannot, without great injustice, be regarded as merely equal to other religions.”
In view of the grave situation, Bishop Schneider comes to the following conclusion:
“In recognizing directly or indirectly the equality of all religions, through the spread and implementation of the Abu Dhabi document (dated February 4, 2019) without correcting its erroneous affirmation on the diversity of religions, men in the Church today not only betray Jesus Christ as the only Savior of mankind and the necessity of His Church for eternal salvation, but also commit a great injustice and sin against love of neighbor”.
If it is true that it is believed that the Church should abandon her claim and humbly join the diversity of religions in order to promote peace, then this is not a way that is in harmony with the testimony of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, and it must be expressly warned against it. It would then not be a way of the Lord, but a deception which would prevent people from reaching the true knowledge of God.