In section 254 of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis takes up and even advances Vatican II’s teachings on other religions. Here is the full paragraph:
Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God,” and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.” But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.
The first sentence reaffirms what the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium says about the universal availability of salvation to people of all religions or none (#16). Francis goes farther, though, by saying that, in a way similiar to how God distributes grace through the sacraments, the grace that non-Christians receive from God also “tends to produce sign and rites.” One thinks, perhaps, of Muslims praying five times a day. These religious rituals help people “journey towards God.” If this is so, these rituals must be more than simply human, since humans cannot by their own effort, without grace, come to God. And, indeed, Francis says that these rituals have actually been “raised up” by God’s Spirit into “channels” of “liberat[ion].” The rituals do not necessarily bring people into full communion with God in the way the Church’s sacraments do, but they at least free them from atheism and individualism by joining them to a religious community in search of the divine. Not only that, the religions possess “pratical wisdom,” which, again, is not merely human. The wisdom in the world religions has been brought forth by the Holy Spirit! Francis goes yet farther: this wisdom “can help us [Christians] better to live our own beliefs.” Christians can benefit from studying other religions; the wisdom contained in them helps us to adhere more closely to Christian values. I think that many Christians who have honestly studied other religions could testify to the truth of this statement, as could members of other religions, including some of my own students, who find value in their own way by studying the Bible.
The teachings of Francis on non-Christian religions are rooted in what Vatican II taught (particularly Nostra Aetate). In fact, the pope said as much during the in-flight press conference (full text):
From the Catholic point of view, the document does not pull away one millimeter from Vatican II, which is even cited a few times. The document was made in the spirit of Vatican II.
But the new document goes farther than Nostra Aetate does, or at least makes explicit what was merely implicit in it. It is a further development, though a small one, as the pope also said:
It is a step forward. But, step forward that comes after 50 years, from the Council, that must be developed. The historians say that a council takes 100 years to take root in the Church. We are halfway.
Despite the commotion this document has made, what it says about religions is actually less noteworthy than what is in Evangelii Gaudium. I don’t think many people noticed section 254 when it came out because they were too busy arguing about other sections of EG!
Pope Francis’s teachings in both documents remind me of a famous (and authentic) quotation of St. (Mother) Teresa. When asked whether or not she proselytized those to whom she ministered, she replied, “Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do” (source). The whole tenor of the new document suggests this sort of approach: mutual respect and cooperation among Muslims and Christians to build a more just, more peaceful, more humane world. A world that is in closer conformity to the values of the kingdom of God (e.g., humility, compassion, faith, obedience to God), as taught in the Bible. With Islamophobia on the rise in the West, this message is badly needed. May it not fall on deaf ears.
This kind of talk, which was already authentic Catholic teaching through NA and EG, is frequently dismissed and ridiculed, even by Catholics. They call it “syncretism” and say it’s trying to make a “one-world religion.” Such baseless anxiety often devolves into pseudo-apocalyptic nonsense. This right-wing trope could not be farther from the truth. The idea of merging all religions into a “one-world religion” may have been featured in a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery (“New Eden“), but in the real world it has never been more than a silly, utopian pipe-dream and conservative nightmare. There is no reason to worry about this; it will never happen and has nothing to do with anything this or any pope (or theologian) has ever said. Nor does the pope imply that Christianity and Islam are “the same,” another tired trope repeated in uninformed popular discourse. No two religions are “the same,” let alone all of them. Duh.
This document on Human Fraternity wisely avoids all discussion of creedal doctrine. Nevertheless, Christians and Muslims (as well as other religions) hold many common values and beliefs, such as, for example, that God made the universe and that he commands us to protect the poor and marginalized. This is what the document is about, and it is beautiful. Read it!
We know where the Church is. We do not know where it is not. The sacraments are intended as sure encounters with the grace of God, not as reducing valves to exclude as many people as possible from salvation. The plurality of religions is willed by God because freedom, and the consequent diversity of human people and religions is willed by God. Christ Jesus remains the Way, the Truth, and the Life and no one comes to the Father but by him. But that does not in the slightest mean that only people who have full consciousness of him and perfect theological understanding of him can be obedient to him. He is God, after all. He can work when and where he pleases because the Spirit blows where he wills. St. Justin Martyr believed that the pagan Socrates acted by the power of the Holy Spirit.
God wills both catholicity and unity, not only in the Church, but in the human race. The Church is capable of both calling people to greater unity and of honoring human diversity beyond her visible boundaries because she does it at home already. This is not a contradiction of the Faith, but an affirmation of it. It is the believe that grace is prevenient and prior and that God is already at work preparing the way for Christ in the hearts of those who have not yet come to full faith in him. If we reject that, we are Pelagians. We imagine we are Catholics, not by grace, but because we are just That Kind of Chap who worked out an appreciation for Western Civilization and saved ourselves by our Correct Thinking. And as a result, we regard contact with those outside Fortress Katolicus, not as a chance for love, fellowship, and the sharing of Jesus Christ, but as a threat. Not coincidentally, the Holy Father described this mindset–the mindset of the Greatest Catholics of All Time in precisely those terms: “self-absorbed Promethean Neo-pelagianism”. It is the subculture in the Church most bitterly opposed to his evangelical work.
If the enemies of Pope Francis among the Greatest Catholics of All Time were only able to extend to him the charity they routinely extend to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, gun kooks, predatory capitalists, frat boy rapists, birther conspiracy theorists, and people who kidnap and disappear refugee children, we would not have these endless Panics du Jour when he says something perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching. But since the Greatest Catholics of All Time are convinced that God has appointed them to be Saviors of the Church in lieu of Jesus, they use every word the Holy Father says in order to assist the Accuser of the Brethren in his war on the Church–and on those to whom the Church reaches out.
The Pope just celebrated the largest Mass ever held on historically Islamic soil. This is historic. This is good. This is a huge step forward. And the only people who have managed to portray it as a problem are the people who have been so wrong about so much so many times for so long that only a fool would trust their judgment.