Does the New Catholic-Muslim Declaration Deviate From Catholic Teaching?

The document’s statement that ‘diversity of religions’ is ‘willed by God’ has generated controversy.

Pope Francis and Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb (second from right) sign documents during the Human Fraternity Meeting at the Founders Memorial in Abu Dhabi Feb. 4.
Pope Francis and Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb (second from right) sign documents during the Human Fraternity Meeting at the Founders Memorial in Abu Dhabi Feb. 4. (photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — A joint Catholic-Muslim declaration signed by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi earlier this month was praised for trying to push back a drift toward a “clash of civilizations” but received criticism for a controversial passage regarding religious diversity that some Church scholars believe deviates from the Catholic faith.

The Holy Father signed the document, entitled “On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, on Feb. 4.

The Vatican said the document was “an important step forward” in Christian-Muslim relations and a “powerful sign of peace and hope for the future of humanity.”

“The document is courageous and prophetic,” the Vatican said, because it confronts the “most urgent issues of our day,” encouraging believers in God “to question their own conscience” and to “confidently assume their own responsibility so as to give life to a more just and united world.”

The government of the United Arab Emirates has said the document will be taught in the country’s schools.

But a number of theologians and philosophers criticized a passage in the document that stated the “diversity of religions” is “willed by God.” Such a teaching, they said, appeared to contradict the Church’s central belief that the Christian faith is the only valid and the only God-willed religion through which man can be saved and that God, being truth itself, cannot will false religions.

The full passage states:

“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, color, 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.”

“How can God, who wants his disciples to go out and preach to the whole world and baptize them, have willed any Christian heresy, let alone religions that deny the faith of which Jesus says to Nicodemus that he who believes in him will be saved and he who does not will be damned (John 3:18)?” Austrian Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert asked.

The passage, he added, contradicts the Great Commission — Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all he commanded — and instead turns God “into a relativist” who neither knows there is only one truth, nor cares whether men “believe in truth or falsity.”

Seifert called on the Holy Father to “revoke” the sentence that “constitutes a total break with logic as well as with biblical and Church teaching.”


Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, also believes the statement “has to be removed from this accord because it’s not correct.”

In Feb. 12 comments to the Register, he noted that some have tried to justify it by saying that the Pope is referring to the permissive will of God: that other religions are an “an evil that God permits.” But the cardinal argued that the document is not declaring this, but, instead, “that the plurality or diversity of religions is good.”

“That’s a mistaken notion,” Cardinal Burke said. “It’s certainly confusing for the faithful regarding salvation, which comes to us through Christ alone.”

According to Italian Church historian Roberto de Mattei, the statement is made worse when viewed in the context of the “symbolic importance” of the event, during which the Pope proposed that, “in order to safeguard peace,” mankind needed to “enter together as one family” into “the ark of fraternity.”

For de Mattei, not only did the document negate the principle that “there’s no salvation outside the Church, but after denying this principle, Pope Francis says: ‘What is the true salvation?’ And he is replying that the true salvation is an ‘ark of fraternity’ where the supreme value is fraternity and religions.”

A Dominican theologian, speaking on condition of anonymity, also believes that when read in the context of Pope Francis’ other statements on Islam, which have generally been favorable, then “we must take Francis at his word: In his view, both Christianity and Islam were actively willed by God for the good of the world.”

Such a belief, he said, “undermines the Catholic faith in the uniqueness of the Incarnate Son of God and in the salvation that comes only through union with Jesus Christ through grace.”


Positive Perspectives

On the papal plane back from Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis stressed there was nothing in the document that was not in line with the Second Vatican Council — including a phrase which, he said, “surprised even me.”

“From the Catholic point of view, the document does not pull away one millimeter from Vatican II,” he said. He also said “some theologians” had read it, including the theologian of the Pontifical Household, who “approved it.”

Vatican sources said the theologian, Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, first read a draft of the document in October, but did not see the final draft, and that he did not recall seeing the particular passage of controversy.

Asked if the papal theologian was aware of the passage and whether he judged that it could be interpreted in a theologically acceptable way, papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told the Register on Feb. 13 that Father Giertych had seen the document on “Human Fraternity” “at the final moment of its preparation” and that there is “no basis for questioning” the Pope’s words about the matter on the papal plane.

And other observers disagree with the criticism of the document, arguing that the “diversity of religions” passage must be read in context and in the light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and that God can will different religions in a broad and ambiguous way.

Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, an associate professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, warned against using a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that concludes that the Pope “commits heresy several times each day” and instead urged “a charitable hermeneutic of continuity” by reading Francis “in light of the Tradition.”

He believes critics have tried to “decontextualize the paragraph,” falsely asserting that it places Jesus “on the same level as other religious beliefs.”

Rather, he believes that when read in context, the main point of the paragraph is “clearly to defend religious freedom” at an event which, he said, declared the value of religious liberty as a “great step forward for authentic religious dialogue and to defend the rights of persecuted Christians.”

He also believes it should be read in light of documents such as the 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus and Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which underlined the importance of seeing “positive elements” and the seeds of divine word in other religions.


Father Petri

Speaking on EWTN’s Church Alive radio program Feb. 9, Dominican Father Thomas Petri, the vice president and academic dean at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., admitted that the sentence “sounds very strange” but that the Second Vatican Council teaches that “everything that is true in other religions” can ultimately lead them to the “truth that is Jesus Christ.”

“So does God will that there be all of these religions?” he asked. “He wills that everybody seek him and eventually find him.”

“That doesn’t mean that Islam is salvific,” he added, but that a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu can “slowly, through their own religions, know the truth that will ultimately lead them to Jesus Christ.” That happens not because they are Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus, he explained, “but because their religion has something that is true, something that will point them to the truth, and the truth, we believe, is a person, and that is Jesus Christ.”

“St. Thomas Aquinas says that religion is almost like a virtue that everyone should acquire, whether believer or not,” said Father Petri. “And by that, he simply means the desire to worship a higher power, a desire to seek that which is beyond.”

“I suspect that’s what the Holy Father is getting at,” he added, “that just like our skin color, just like our sex, just like our language, God created us with this desire to know the transcendent, to know the divine, and we believe and have always believed that the answer to that desire is Jesus Christ who is incarnate.”

Similarly, Father Gahl believes the document itself should be read more from an “anthropological approach to religions” rather than having been “formulated in the technical vocabulary of Catholic theology.” In other words, the belief that man has a capacity for God and can come to know him by virtue of religion.

An informed Vatican source who acknowledged the controversy surrounding the passage said the beneficial effect of the document on Muslims outweighs these concerns.

He said, “The Pope might have gone too far on that issue, but destroying the document would undermine its purpose, which is to help moderate Muslims, even if it seems to tolerate Islam unreservedly.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.