Does God really want a diversity of religions?

by David Mills

North Texas Catholic

2/12/2019

Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, are pictured after signing documents during an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


“Wait, what?” some people were asking. During his visit to the UAE, Pope Francis signed a statement titled “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” The other signer was one of the world’s most important Muslim leaders.

It addressed ways the world’s religions could work together for a better world, rather than making it worse by fighting. Most of it describes the world’s victims and what the religions together can do to help them. You can find it on the web by searching the title.

The pope and the imam speak, for example, “In the name of the poor, the destitute, the marginalized, and those most in need.” They note that “God has commanded us to help [them] as a duty required of all persons, especially the wealthy and of means.” They speak also “In the name of freedom, that God has given to all human beings creating them free and distinguishing them by this gift.”

Among other things, the statement strongly insists that the world needs the family. It calls the family “the fundamental nucleus of society and humanity [that] is essential in bringing children into the world, raising them, educating them, and providing them with solid moral formation and domestic security. To attack the institution of the family, to regard it with contempt or to doubt its important role, is one of the most threatening evils of our era.”

The pope and imam don’t say anything the average religious person would object to. They’re just making concrete the truth that hatred is bad, love is good. (I don’t mean that snarkily.) They admit that religious people can hate as well as love.

Here’s the statement that got so much attention: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” God wants a diversity of religions? Hello?

Some people, including some Catholics, jumped on this to claim the pope had said every religion is as good as the others. That, of course, would directly deny Catholic teaching.

That’s not what the words mean, says theologian Chad Pecknold, who teaches at the Catholic University of America. He’s been critical of Pope Francis in the past. Here he thinks the pope has been misunderstood.

Speaking to the Catholic Herald, he explains: “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.” He thinks the statement could have been more clearly written, and I agree.

The statement itself explained the words this way: “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression, and action. … This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.” It declared that people shouldn’t be forced to accept a particular religion or culture.

Pecknold explains the explanation: “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.”

I’d explain it a little differently than the professor does. God created man free to follow him or reject him. He knew that once man rejected him, things would go bad, but also good. New religions would develop, and they’d get things wrong but also things right. See what the Church says about Islam in Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate for an example of this.

The diversity of religions in the year 2019 is built into the loving Father’s creation of free people. Once Adam and Eve said “Oh, cool, apples,” history was going to produce Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and every other religion. For most people in them, their religion would be their only way to God. He would provide for them in his own way, as the Church teaches.

In other words, it’s the astonishing gift of freedom the statement affirms. A Catholic can affirm the diversity of religions as something God anticipated, knowing He’s got it covered.

“Wait, what?” some people were asking. During his visit to the UAE, Pope Francis signed a statement titled “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” The other signer was one of the world’s most important Muslim leaders.

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