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Council affirmed worth of all religions


This is the fifth of 11 articles exploring the future of the papacy. The series of essays, edited by Gary MacEoin, will be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books, in the near future.

Official Catholic teaching on God’s intentions for those who are not members of the Catholic church has varied widely through the centuries. Even today many questions remain unanswered.

The early church fathers were quite clear. Following the lead of John’s Gospel, which declares that the word of God is a true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Origen describe Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus as “pedagogues” guiding their readers to Christ.

In the third century, however, radical change occurred under the influence of Stoic and Manichean notions of human depravity. According to Origen, Cyprian and Augustine, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”).

Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) was even more explicit. In the decree Unam Sanctam, he taught that obedience to the pope is also a prerequisite for salvation. To which the Council of Florence (1442) added that all heathens, Jews, unbelievers and schismatics who fail to become Catholics before death “will be subject to the everlasting fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

As Europe expanded its horizons in the 15th and subsequent centuries with the voyages of exploration and conquest, the cross traveled with the sword. With the Council of Florence mentality, missionaries denounced the religions they found in their way as the work of Satan, to be extirpated with all their idols and temples. This was the attitude that dominated in missionary activity down to the middle of the 20th century. It was reinforced by the widespread belief that Christianity was in fact establishing itself as the universal religion, that it was only a matter of time until all competitors were eliminated.

In this century, however, with the meteoric expansion of communications of all kinds, from the airplane to the Internet, it has become more difficult to think in these terms. Religions are no longer separated geographically. Thanks to massive migrations, members of many religions now live side by side in practically every country of the world, especially in the big cities.

Our neighbors and fellow workers may include Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems. We know that Christianity after 19 centuries is but one of the world’s great religions, the religion of perhaps one human in five. Projections for the foreseeable future tell us that its proportion of believers will grow smaller, while other great religions -- notably Islam -- will increase the proportion of their adherents.

A small percentage

To the issue of justice, namely, whether God shows favoritism to some, is now added the issue of statistics. And some would add yet a third issue. Has the movement of secularization, inaugurated by the 18th century Enlightenment, offered an alternative that is destined to replace religion? The question is valid, but the evidence both anecdotal and statistical gives an overwhelmingly negative answer.

Atheism and agnosticism have indeed become far more socially acceptable than in any previous period of history, but their adherents constitute only a small percentage of the world’s population. Even the Soviet Union’s aggressive propaganda in favor of atheism for several generations had minimal impact on the subjects of that empire.

Given all these agreed facts, we have to think quite differently about religions other than Christian. Far from being the work of the devil, they constitute the result of a high level of human intellectual exploration. Every religion represents a structured response to the questions that each of us must ask and for which we must find an acceptable answer: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? An integral part of the divine plan for humans, religion guarantees supreme values and unconditional norms and creates a spiritual community and home.

This is essentially the view accepted by the Second Vatican Council. Every religion, it said, arises from the depths of the human mind in its search for truth. Each of them offers answers to the deepest mysteries of the human condition, what is the meaning and purpose of life, what is goodness and what is sin, where is true happiness to be found, what is death, what follows death.

Thus in Hinduism, the council said, devotees “contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an unspent fruitfulness of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek release from the anguish of our condition through ascetic practices or deep meditation or a loving, trusting flight toward God.

“Buddhism in its multiple forms acknowledges the radical insufficiency of this shifting world. It teaches a path by which it is possible, in a devout and confident spirit, either to reach a state of absolute freedom or attain supreme enlightenment by one’s own efforts or by higher assistance.

“Likewise, other religions to be found everywhere strive variously to answer the restless searchings of the human heart by proposing ‘ways,’ which consist of teachings, rules of life and sacred ceremonies. ...

“Upon the Moslems, too, the church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, maker of heaven and earth, and speaker to humans. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees.”

As though this were not enough, Vatican Council II undertook an even more thorough reversal of what up to then we had been told was “traditional Catholic teaching,” when in Lumen Gentium, its dogmatic constitution on the church, it said: “Men and women who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ and of his church, but who sincerely search for God and who strive to do his will, as revealed by the dictates of conscience, can win eternal salvation.”

In Gaudium et Spes, its statement on the role of the church in contemporary life, the council described with broad strokes the contribution religion can and should make to bringing all of creation to the perfection of which it is capable. It has a part to play, it said, in ending wars, conflict and violence, in ending hunger, alienation and injustice, in helping each and all of us to reach the level of physical and spiritual perfection of which we are capable.

Noble goals, indeed, yet very different from the actual role of religion up to the present time. All through history, religions have played a part in wars and conflict among neighbors. Many of them have legitimated violence as a means to accomplish their aims. They have focused upon what divides them rather than on what they have in common.

Obviously that should change. And the first step has to be a profound change in our thinking. It is not necessary for any religion to modify its own self-image, its belief that it is the better way, even the divinely ordained way. All that is necessary is to recognize -- as Vatican II did -- that the other religions also have a role in the divine plan, and that we are called to cooperate with them in the wide area in which our common vocation is to work for the perfecting of the created condition.

Does this mean that we are never going to see the religious unification of the world? I do not think anyone can answer that question, but sociologically speaking, such unification is quite unlikely. I believe, however, that the issue of the reunification of Christians is a different matter. Among all of them there is an awareness -- often quite acute -- that division in the Body of Christ is sinful, that we cannot rest until we fulfill the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper: “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I in you.”

Decree on Ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council laid the groundwork for a new approach in its Decree on Ecumenism, in which it recognized that other Christian churches and communities are channels of grace: “All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic church.

“Moreover some, even very many, of the most significant elements or endowments which together go to build up and give life to the church itself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, along with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to him, belong by right to the true church of Christ.

“The brethren divided from us also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation.”

After this strong expression of the positive values of other Christian bodies, the council went on to discuss reunion in terms that clearly envisaged a formal reintegration into the Roman rite, an acceptance of all the practices and canonical regulations currently established by the papacy for the Western church.

This approach, it seems to me, is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. The first thousand years of Christianity were marked by the development of a great number of ways of being a Christian and living a Christian life, a practice maintained to the present time in the Eastern half of the church, not only among the Orthodox but among a number of rites in communion with Rome. Can we not envisage the recognition of the major Christian churches in the West as so many rites, each with its own canonical structures, its mode of government, its charism?

What is possible, and what can be achieved without any of the parties having to repudiate their respective theological positions, is an acknowledgment -- along the lines set out in the council document -- that each is a channel of Christ’s grace for its members, and that all can and should work together to promote the purposes for which they all exist.

Just how they should coordinate their efforts is a matter to be worked out by mutual agreement. Most groups that identify themselves as Christian churches would probably agree with the Orthodox churches in according a primacy of honor to the bishop of Rome. I am not sure, however, that it would be necessary or appropriate to impose such a condition for church communion. The Vatican Council was emphatic that there is a hierarchy of truths. How high on the list should the definition of papal primacy be? The church got along without it for nearly two thousand years. It hardly seems necessary to set it up as the shibboleth on which to determine membership of the only, holy, Catholic and apostolic church of Christ.

The future relations with other religions -- both Christian and non-Christian -- envisaged here call for a significant change of mentality and of self-understanding for all of us, and in particular for the papacy. We have to understand that law is not the only or indeed the primary element in life. The particular legal institutions of the church, as of every society, are to a large extent the result of historical situations and events. The history of the radical changes that have occurred over the centuries in what Catholics believed about salvation outside the church, as briefly described above, has a message for us today. Does it not call us to look for new ways of relating in solidarity with all those inspired by the Creator to worship in ways different from ours?

Gary MacEoin, San Antonio, has worked as a journalist in Ireland, Trinidad and the United States and reported as a syndicated columnist from more than 50 countries worldwide. A lawyer and a graduate of London University, with a doctorate from the National University of Ireland (Spanish), he is a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His latest book is The People’s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997