Pope Francis and The Plurality of Religions

Pope Francis and The Plurality of Religions February 6, 2019

Christian and Muslim playing ouds
Source: Alfonso X, “The Wise” / Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Solovyov, in his essay, “On Counterfeits,” discussing various misappropriations of the Christian faith which neglect the transforming power of Christ in the believer, began his work with a very insightful truism: “Even in the very finest human undertakings the negative side usually lets itself be heard much sooner and more intensely than the positive.” [1] Without question, this has been verified true time and time again when Pope Francis promotes some positive good; even though what he states can be demonstrated from principles already established and accepted by significant theologians and saints in the Christian tradition, his critics malign whatever he says, seeking to undermine the good he promotes because it contradicts their negative, indeed, hostile, view of the world and its peoples. This can be seen in the way many have complained about his recent agreement with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, in which they talk about a way in which God wills a plurality of religions:

Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. 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. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept [.][2]

Inherent in this statement is the affirmation of Dignitatis Humanae: God wills a plurality of religions because he wills human freedom, and with that religious freedom. “It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.”[3] It is impossible to have religious freedom without a plurality of potential religious beliefs and practices: if there is only one way to believe, and one way to act out that belief, whence the freedom to discern truth and act upon it? And yet, this is a fundamental principle:

Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.[4]

When providence is understood as being involved in the human quest for truth, it can work with and provide for a diverse variety of ways in which people engage it, establishing many different forms and levels of revealed truth. The development of world religions demonstrates this interaction between providence and humanity, so that, not only is there need for a variety of potential religions by which people are free to choose, God freely interacted with the development of those religions, giving peoples in their particular times and places those elements of the truth which they not only are prepared for but those which they needed in order to prepare them for greater revelations of the truth (which the fullness of the truth and the fullness of revelation being found in the person of Jesus Christ).

For this reason, salvation history itself will demonstrate a variety of religions willed by God. The Mosaic Covenant was for the people of Israel, but outside of Israel, there were other religions, other rites, which can be seen to be willed by God. Elijah Benamozegh, in his fundamental work, Israel and Humanity, indicated this by explaining how humanity as a whole was called to follow the covenant with Noah, while Israel was given a special covenant with Moses, so that the teaching of Israel was not one which rejected the work of God with other nations. Implicit in this was the acceptance of other religions which were guided by God:

The Mosaic Law in its essence must categorically reject the notion that all peoples should submit themselves to it, for the most salient features of Mosaism all bear the stamp of Jewish particularism. It is the individual Jewish life which breathes in it. In Mosaism are reflected the history, the interests, the hopes of Israel. Not, indeed, that this particular life is not linked to the universal life of mankind. To the contrary, it is in this link that the grandeur and noblest aspirations of Judaism can be found. But mankind, at all events, is not destined to be absorbed into it, any more than the life of Israel must dissolve into that of mankind at large. [5]

To verify this, Elijah pointed out how Abraham and Moses themselves were blessed by pagan priests, whose blessings were good and true because they had a proper relationship with God:

The fact remains that the two preeminent personality in Jewish history, Abraham and Moses, found themselves in very close contact with two pagan priests: Abraham in receiving blessing from Melchizedek, Moses in marrying the daughter of Jethro and accepting spiritual direction from him. In each case, the Gentile world – or, more accurately, mankind – confers priestly investiture upon Israel.[6]

St. Cyril of Alexandria, likewise, implied similarly, that there were many shepherds before Christ, sent into the world to direct and guide humanity, with Moses being the first or greatest of them:

Now even before our Savior manifested himself in the world in flesh, there were other shepherds who were good and noble. First of all, there was the divine Moses, and then following him a succession of those who tended the spiritual flocks.[7]

This implies a positive take in regards world religions; it can be said God indeed established a plurality of religions and religious rites because of the plurality of peoples in the world. This is how Nicholas of Cusa, in his De Pace Fidei, explained this truth, teaching that God sent messengers to all nations, giving them lawmakers  (like unto Moses) and rulers to direct and guide them according to their particular needs and unique qualities:

Accordingly, You set over Your people different kings and different seers, called prophets—very many of whom, in their role as Your legates, instituted (in Your name) worship and laws and instructed an uneducated people. [Men] accepted these laws just as if You Yourself, the King of kings, had spoken to them face to face; they believed that they heard not kings and prophets but You Yourself in and through kings and prophets.  Now, to various nations You sent various prophets and teachers—some at one time, others at another. But the earthly human condition has this characteristic: viz., that longstanding custom, which is regarded as having passed over into nature, is defended as the truth. In this way there arise great quarrels when each community prefers its own faith to another [faith].[8]

Nicholas of Cusa did not think the establishment of a plurality of religions meant they must remain divided: indeed, he believed they should find their fulfillment in Christ, finding how their own histories and special insights and doctrines point to the truth of Christ. On the other hand, he also saw value in the plurality of rites established because of the plurality of religions, and thought that even in Christ, that distinction can and will remain as a positive good:

Where conformity of mode cannot be had, nations are entitled to their own devotions and ceremonies, provided faith and peace be maintained. Perhaps as a result of a certain diversity devotion will even be increased, since each nation will endeavor with zeal and diligence to make its own rite more splendid, in order that in this respect it may excel some other [nation] and thereby obtain greater merit with God and [greater] praise in the world.[9]

Providence has been at work with humanity, sending prophets and guides to all nations, to all peoples. The amount of wisdom and grace each received could differ, according to the diversity of the peoples and the way they engaged God in their pursuit of truth, but as Nostra Aetate indicated, from ancient times until the present, this guidance by the hidden power of God remains at work:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.[10]

As this continues to the present day, it can be seen that in some fashion or another, the will of God continues to be at work with and through the plurality of religions. This is not to say they are equal: they are not, though they can all be respected in regards to the elements of truth and revelation contained within them. Christian can see how these truths imply Christ, that their fulfillment will be in Christ, because he is the expectation of the nations (cf. Gen. 49:10). However, as Vladimir Solovyov understood, other religions like Islam continue to exist, and so there must be a reason for this: God continues to be at work in and through them.[11] God continues to will these various religions so that people can exercise their freedom to pursue him and find him in the various ways which he has worked with humanity and directed it, so that in and through the shadows of the truth, through all that is good and true in all religions, which the church does not reject, we can come to the fullness of truth. Without the plurality of religions, this freedom would be lost, and people would have far less wisdom and inspiration by which they can discern the work of God, and in doing so, end up believing that there is no God because of how sparse his work appears to be in the world. This plurality, this will of God identified by Pope Francis, therefore, accords with Christian and Jewish tradition, is proven by Scripture, and is an indication of the way God, in his self-giving life, works for the spiritual transformation of humanity so that all can come together and be one in Christ. The recognition of this plurality does not undermine the uniqueness of Christ, nor the Christian faith, but rather, is a foundational principle of the Christian faith, for as the author of the book of Hebrews said, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1 RSV).


[1] Vladimir Soloviev, “On Counterfeits” in Freedom, Faith, and Dogma. Trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), 147.

[2] Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. Vatican translation (02-04-2019).

[3] Dignitatis Humanae. Vatican Translation. ¶10.

[4] Dignitatis Humanae, ¶3.

[5] Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity. Trans. Mzwell Luria (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 238.

[6] Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity, 105.

[7] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, Volume I: Genesis. Trans. Nicholas P. Lunn (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 285.

[8] Nicholas of Cusa, De Pace Fidei in Nicholas of Cusa’s De Pace Fidei and Cribratio Alkorani. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1994), 34-5.

[9] Nicholas of Cusa, De Pace Fidei, 70.

[10] Nostra Aetate. Vatican Translation. ¶2.

[11] See Vladimir Soloviev, “Muhammad” in Enemies from the East? Trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 146-211.


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