There has been some consternation recently over this sentence from a February 4th document “On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Taye:
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.
Much controversy and commentary followed, and Pope Francis clarified his meaning (more on that in a moment).
Some of the confusion about the statement was understandable. It is worth pointing out that such problems often arise whenever the question of “God’s will” comes up. Thinkers in the Middle Ages such as Aquinas and Bonaventure had better resources for dealing with the problem than we do because they understood the value of making proper distinctions. Modern people tend to think that making distinctions the way medieval thinkers did was just “language games.” It was not. They had their own problems, but our failure to be as precise as they were causes us problems that could be avoided.
Permissive and positive will
I want to consider this question of “God’s will” in more detail. There is one sense in which the statement, “the plurality and diversity of religions is God’s will” is merely trivially true; another in which it would be wholly unacceptable to Christian faith; and a third that is not merely trivially true, but providentially true.
Let’s begin with the sense in which when we say something is “God’s will,” we mean it is in accord with His “permissive will.” That is to say, God has permitted it. Now clearly we know that the multiplicity of religions must be in accord with God’s permissive will, because it has happened. But this is merely trivially true. We could also say (and orthodox theologians have said) that evil is in accord with God’s permissive will. God permits evil. If He didn’t, there wouldn’t be any. And since there is evil, it follows God must have permitted it. That God has permitted evil is not in question; it is an obvious fact. Why God would permit it is the question.
Pope Francis later clarified that when he said the multiplicity and diversity of religions was “willed by God,” he meant “God’s permissive will.” If he meant God’s permissive will, then his statement is absolutely unobjectionable. Since he says that is what he meant, I take him at his word, and there’s an end of it.
I take it that what has caused all the consternation is the tendency for people, when they hear statements about “God’s will,” to assume this means God’s positive will, because “will” in English can also have the connotation of “wishing” or “wanting.” So some people hear the statement that “the multiplicity and diversity of religions is God’s will” and interpret it to mean: “This is what God wanted. God ‘willed’ it in the sense that He chose to bring about this state of affairs because He judged it to be the best.” There might be some way of arguing for this claim that might be acceptable, but only in tandem with the third view I am going to describe below. But we would also have distinguish more clearly between God’s will and human will.
If I write a sentence on the board for my class, and I misspell a word, I should not say, “God willed for me to do that.” Clearly God permitted me to make the mistake (so He “willed” it in that sense), but it does not follow that He wanted me to make that mistake or that He caused me to do it.
We discern a similar problem when someone tells you about the death of a loved one, “It was God’s will.” If by that the person means, “God caused your husband’s death,” then this is likely to drive the person out of the Church. How could a good God do such a thing? It is hard enough to conceive of how God could have permitted it, but to say God caused it or wanted it is to turn God into a soulless murderer, and He isn’t. So we need to keep distinct God’s overarching causality and His providential will (on which more in a moment) from our will and our causality. About my mistakes and evil deeds, I should not say “It was God’s will.”
Multiplicity of religions
The more troubling addendum that people sometimes add to this idea about the multiplicity of religions is that God willed the multiplicity and diversity of religions because His will is that there should be (and are) many ways to salvation of which Christianity is just one among many. To be clear, this would not be in accord with the Christian faith.
It is simply not true that “every religion is the same.” This is a rank injustice to every religion, and the only person who could utter such a banality is someone who knew little or nothing about any of them. Nor does the Catholic Church hold that each person attains salvation by faithfully observing whatever religion (or no religion) he or she happens to hold, as long as they feel it is “best for them.” No serious religion could ever hold such an empty view, and no serious religion ever has. Every serious Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian believes that there are things that are worthy of serious adherents to the faith and things that are not. A devoted Muslim would surely maintain that a person cannot just say anything about the prophet and about Allah and about the life a Muslim is called to live and consider himself or herself a faithful Muslim. He might be willing to admit degrees of adherence and allow a certain amount of disagreement among men and women of good will, but you can’t say that you think Mohammed knew nothing and Allah is an illusion and call yourself a faithful Muslim, if the word is to have any meaning at all.
Zeus may exist and he may hold the scales of fate in his hand. But if he does, then Christians are wrong and Homer was right. What cannot be the case is that Zeus exists for a pagan Greek, but when that pagan Greek becomes Christian, Zeus no longer exists and God the Father starts existing. The laws of General Relativity existed before Einstein. It is not as though they only started existing when some human being thought them up in his mind. And those laws existed even when there were people — and there were plenty of them, including some very good scientists — who were sure that Einstein was wrong. As far as that goes, the laws of quantum thermodynamics exist even though Einstein thought they didn’t.
There is simply no getting around the fact that statements of faith in any serious religious tradition are statements about the world, not just about how I feel about the world. If you don’t think the religion you are part of has anything true to say about the world and about human life, then you shouldn’t pretend to be a part of it, because you aren’t really united to those who do think the religion has something true to say about the world and about human life and are willing to risk their entire lives on its truth.
What does the Catholic Church hold about salvation and the multiplicity of religions? You can read what the Church herself says in Lumen Gentium, 13-18 or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 813-822. Now if you don’t want to accept those documents as authoritative, that’s fine. You don’t have to accept the teachings of the Council of Nicaea or Chalcedon either. It’s just that, if you don’t, you are not a “Catholic” in the sense that the Catholic Church understands that term.
There isn’t space here to go into that teaching in the detail it requires or deserves, but here is the heart of it. Does the Catholic Church teach the salvation of all comes through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross? Yes.
Does the Catholic Church teach that “outside the Church there is no salvation”? Yes, if by that is meant that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (cf. CCC 846; LG 14). However, says the Church, “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church” (CCC 847). And:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (CCC 847; LG 16).
And yet, “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” (CCC 848).
So, can Catholics say (in accord with the teaching of the Church) that God willed the multiplicity of religions in the sense that it is His will that there be many ways to salvation? No. Can Catholics say (in accord with the teaching of their Church) that God wills the damnation of the people who are not in the Church? No. (That was the Calvinist mistake.) Can a Catholic say that everyone who is not explicitly connected with the Catholic Church will not achieve his or her salvation? Can’t say that either.
I am sorry, but the Church is just not interested in simple either-or propositions. It is one God who is also three. He is fully God and fully man. You do the good acts you do, but God makes them possible with His grace. Is the Church necessary? Yes. Can people outside the Church attain salvation through the Church (that is, through Christ) even if they don’t know Christ or the Church? According to the Church Herself, yes. You might wish it were simpler, but it just isn’t. God never promised a simple faith without complexity or mystery. In fact, He pretty much promised exactly the reverse.
The mystery of evil
Since we have touched upon the subject of mystery, let’s consider the third sense of what it might mean for something to be “in accord with God’s will.” God doesn’t will evil in the sense that He wants it or causes it. But He does permit it. It is “in accord with His will” in that sense. But why does He permit it? To be honest, I don’t know. But neither does anyone else.
Don’t get me wrong, we can begin to see the sense of it with various arguments from “fittingness” (conveniens), which are not demonstrations with “necessary reasons.” So, for example, it makes some sense when we realize that there could be no human free will and thus no real human love without the possibility of choosing what is not good. And it makes some sense when we realize, as Augustine did, that evil is not really a thing; it is a privation of a good that should be present. So choosing evil is a way of choosing non-being. It is a choice to be nothing. The only way to be totally evil would be to cease to exist. Everything that is, as Genesis tells us, is in some real way “good.” A baseball bat is good. It is not good if I use it to hit someone over the head. The same hardness that makes the bat “good” for hitting baseballs also makes it “bad” when I hit someone over the head with it. But none of these explanations is likely to be adequate when I am dealing with the evil of a murdered child.
What does the Church say? The Catechism states:
If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil (CCC 309, emphasis in the original).
Why did some particular bad thing happen? One answer is: Some person did that bad thing. Another answer is: God permitted it. But a third, more important response is to say that God can transform even the bad that we do into good somehow. God’s providence—His will for our salvation—can overcome all obstacles.
Wouldn’t it have been better if humanity didn’t crucify the Son of God on a cross? In one sense, clearly yes. But that is not what happened. With this act, God showed that He could take even the evil we do and make something better out of it. Hence we know that God providentially can take whatever we do, whatever others do, whatever multiple forces of history are at work, and still bring about his divine salvific will.
Can we say with a certain confidence that certain select things seem to have been in accord with God’s will (at least in some broad, general sense)? Yes. The lives of saints. The ecumenical councils of the Church. The emergence of greater clarity about the Gospel. But even in those cases, the “will of God” was mixed up with the usual toxic fallout of sinful humanity. The light of the saints shined brightly, but usually only in and through great darkness. They were martyred; they fought against great evil, oftentimes they lost. They worked against great human obstacles, both individual and societal. They often had to fight against their own sinful dispositions. Ecumenical councils brought tremendous light, but were often made necessary by the battles against confusion and heresy. And they were often a confused jumble of human intentions.
What about “the multiplicity and diversity of religions”? Wouldn’t it be better if Europe had remained in union with the Catholic Church? In one sense, it seems obvious that it would have been better at least in one sense because the divisions in the Body of Christ are a great scandal and a tremendous sorrow. But God permitted it. So I don’t need to speculate. I don’t know how all this fits into God’s will. I only know that I have to be faithful to the calling God has given me now.
Do I think Protestants and Catholics both made mistakes in the past? Yes. But have I benefitted from the insights of Protestants and non-Catholics? Very much so. So, for example, I have been reading some of the amazing writings of the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I have often been left in awe of Heschel’s wisdom about God and about life, as I have often been in awe of the wisdom of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. There is something distinctly “Jewish” about their thought which is refreshing. One gets the sense that these insights come from a man deeply in touch with the one, true God. Would they have had the same insights or better ones if they had been Catholic? I have no idea. But I know there is something deeply insightful that has come from their particular intellectual and moral tradition.
So, what is God’s will now? He has made this clear, and so has the Church. Love God and neighbor. Obey the commandments. Be an instrument of God’s love and God’s grace. Make the best of the challenges we face now. Preach the Gospel, in words and with our lives. This is the only part of “God’s will” we can really know and is really relevant to us.
Some people will turn away. But that doesn’t mean we should be happy about that or feel self-righteous if they do. (“Thank you Lord that I am not like them.”) Perhaps they have not rejected God Himself, but merely the false image of God we have presented to them; perhaps what I have preached was simply an expression of my will and my ego, not really God’s will at all.
When people turn away, we “shake the dust off our feet” not as a curse on them, but as a way of shaking off whatever evil or resentment we might carry with us. In all cases, whether our efforts bear fruit or not, we merely plant the seeds; God gives the growth. And if we plant those seeds successfully, we should consider ourselves no more than faithful stewards. We do our part and then leave God to care for the whole. The rest is not our affair.
This is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight and to be a people of faith, hope, and love in a world in which God has told us our destination and given us our marching orders, but kept most of the details of the journey to Himself.
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