This encounter with the divine results from a combination of the religious instinct in man and his observation of his world. This general revelation may be accepted by a human being or rejected. Catholics regard this general revelation as a good thing and something which brings all people further towards the formulation of religion.
Those who respond to the religious instinct positively share their religious experiences with others, and communities naturally form a religion from the variety of religious experiences according to their culture, history and shared experiences. These religions are mostly good and noble attempts to understand and relate to the mystery of God, but they are partial and incomplete–rather like the first attempts at a scientific theory may be good as far as they go, but need to be refined and brought into focus–or like the prototype of an invention which needs to be developed and modified and perfected. We also believe that within all religions there is bad mixed with the good–confusion, superstition, human weakness–and sometimes evil. It’s a mixed bag. It’s mixed because religion is a living, developing and adapting aspect of human culture.
Within the historical development of religion the experience of the Jewish people is remarkable and unique. It stands out from the paganism of the ancient world. The Jewish religious experience is of a different and higher order. The Greeks and Romans acknowledged that the Jews–for all their stroppiness–had a unique religious genius. Catholics believe God revealed himself in a special way gradually and in more focus to the Jews. The Old Testament records that developing revelation of God to the Jewish people, and we believe that development came into focus and was finally refined in a unique and superior way in the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
We believe Jesus Christ is God in human form, and that his life, teaching, death and resurrection are real, historical events that are unique in the history of humanity and unique in the history of world religions. As the life of Christ completes and fulfills and perfects the gradual revelation of God to the Jews, so it also completes fulfills and perfects the revelation of God down through the ages in all other religions and cultures. The other religious expressions, like Judaism, are partial hints and guesses at what was to come.
They are good and useful and much in them is beautiful and true, but there is now a fuller revelation. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is experienced through the practice of the Christian religion, and the largest, fullest, most ancient expression of the Christian religion is the Catholic faith.
In saying this, we also believe that humanity is still seeking to fully understand and comprehend the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We don’t profess to understand fully and we don’t profess to follow what we do understand perfectly. We’re still working on it.
What then, is the Catholic attitude towards the followers of other religions? We accept them as fellow human beings and we respect their religious faith and we seek to understand and appreciate all that is beautiful, good and true in their religion. We also wish to share the fullness of the Christian faith with them–not obliterating their culture and religion, but allowing it to be fulfilled and completed in the belief and practice of Christianity. In this process we do not wish to impose anything on anyone. We propose we do not impose. Neither do we condemn anyone to hell. No Catholic–not even the pope–can pronounce judgement on anyone’s eternal soul. That is God’s job. This allow us, therefore, to be perfectly tolerant and accepting of all.
Have all Catholics everywhere lived up to these ideals? No. That does not negate the ideal, nor does it alter the true teaching of the Catholic Church. Does this explanation demand belief of all people? No. However, those who disagree with Catholics should disagree with what we really believe rather than what the opponent mistakenly (but albeit sincerely) thinks we believe.