Editor’s Note: Yesterday Pope Francis endorsed an interreligious declaration that originally stated, “We note that pluralism and differences in religion, skin color, gender, race and language are expressions of the wisdom of God’s will in creation. Thus any incident of coercion to a particular religion and religious doctrine is unacceptable.” However, hours later the text was updated to read, “We note that pluralism in terms of differences in skin color, gender, race, language and culture are expressions of the wisdom of God in creation. Religious diversity is permitted by God and, therefore, any coercion to a particular religion and religious doctrine is unacceptable.”
While the updated wording is significantly different in theological terms, the original wording closely matched the wording of the 2019 Abu Dhabi Declaration which Pope Francis signed. I addressed the topic of whether a plurality of religions is willed by God in my book Deadly Indifference, which is excerpted below.
In some ways, the Abu Dhabi Declaration is just another in a long line of interreligious dialogue statements produced by Church officials. However, a specific passage in this document crosses a theological line that no other Church document in the past had crossed and that makes this document singular in nature. That passage states, “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.” Breaking this sentence down, this document is claiming that the following things are willed by God:
- The pluralism and the diversity of religions
- Colour (presumably, this means various skin colors)
For our purposes, it is that first item on the list which is alarming. The pope is saying that the pluralism of religions is willed by God. I’m highlighting the “willed by God” again because it is so important. In fact, that statement is the explicit belief of the religious Pluralist—that the multitude of religions in this world is not a bad thing but, in fact, is willed by God to lead many people to salvation. If God wills Protestantism and Hinduism, there is certainly no need to pray or work for the conversion of…well, anyone at all.
Some of the pope’s defenders say that’s not what he means. Catholic theology professor Chad Pecknold argues, “In sensitive inter-religious contexts, it is fitting for the Holy See to acknowledge that despite serious theological disagreements, Catholics and Muslims have much in common, such as a common belief that human beings are ‘willed by God in his wisdom.’” In other words, it is the beliefs shared by Catholics and Muslims that is willed by God, not the errors of Islam or other religions. That’s quite a stretch from a plain reading of the text.
Pecknold also notes, “God wills that all men come to know Him through the free choice of their will, and so it follows that a diversity of religions can be spoken about as permissively willed by God without denying the supernatural good of one true religion.” Let’s take a look at this phrase “permissively willed,” because Pecknold’s defense of this aspect of the Abu Dhabi Declaration is important.
Catholic theologians have historically distinguished between the “active” will of God and his “permissive” will. What God actively wills is what he wants to happen, such as the salvation of all people (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4). On the other hand, what God permissively wills are things that he allows to happen. This is the short answer to the age-old question, “If God is all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?” It’s not that God cannot prevent evil; instead, he allows it in his permissive will so that a greater good can be accomplished. So, based on this understanding, Pecknold and others are arguing that in the Abu Dhabi document the pope actually means that the plurality of religions is permissively willed by God, not actively willed.
However, many others, particularly Catholic Exclusivists, believe the problematic language of this passage cannot be so easily dismissed. One of the fiercest critics of this document, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, confronted the pope directly regarding this passage. During an ad limina visit to Rome after the Abu Dhabi Declaration was released, Schneider asked the pontiff to “retract that statement of the interreligious document of Abu Dhabi, which relativizes the uniqueness of faith in Jesus Christ.” Schneider relates that Pope Francis told him that “one must explain the phrase in the Abu Dhabi document regarding the diversity of religions in the sense of the ‘permissive will of God.’” Yet when Bishop Schneider asked, in verbal and later in written form, for the pope to make an official public statement to this effect, no public response was given by the Vatican or the pope.
Perhaps the pope did intend to refer to the permissive will of God in the Abu Dhabi Declaration, but that is hard to reconcile with the plain sense of the text. The plurality of religions is just one item on a list of things “willed by God,” including sex and the color of one’s skin. If the list refers to God’s permissive will, then being a man or a woman is not a result of the active will of God. That would fly in the face of fundamental Christian teaching, that “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2). The same Scriptures that proclaim the differentiated sexes as part of God’s active will also make clear that religious pluralism is the most evil result of the Fall. Putting sex differences and the plurality of religions on the same footing in terms of the will of God suggests either that the plurality of religions is actively willed by God or that sex differences are not God’s active will. Neither belief is in keeping with historic Christian teaching.
Regardless of how theological specialists try to explain this statement, in practical terms the average person (who isn’t well-versed in theological nuances) comes away with the plain meaning: God wants the plurality of religions. And if God wants many religions, it’s hard to argue that one religion is superior or “more true” than another.
If God wills a multiplicity of religions, then following a specific religion becomes no more important than choosing a favorite dog breed. After all, the diversity of religions and the diversity of dog breeds are both “willed by God.” You can debate with your friends which you prefer, but at the end of the day everyone knows it’s a matter of personal preference. Catholic, Muslim, or even atheist—what does it matter?
[Image Credit: Vatican Media (YouTube Screenshot)]