The Pope

Pope Francis on God’s Will and the Diversity of Religions

Heresy or Not?

Pope Francis has been accused of heresy for his alleged teaching on the will of God and the plurality of religions. There are many different religions in the world. Certainly, God permits this situation, just as He permits sins, failings, and mistakes of every kind in the world today. So at the very least, this diversity of religions falls under His permissive will.

God established the Jewish faith by Divine Revelation. What we call the Old Testament is the infallible Word of God entrusted by God to the Jewish people, who were chosen by God to prepare for the Messiah. Their religion is certainly willed by God.

So the question should be phrased as to whether God positively wills that there be many religions, or whether, since the arrival of Christ, He wills only the Catholic Christian Faith.

Has any Ecumenical Council decided this question? No, they have not. I have read every dogmatic teaching of every Ecumenical Council, and there is no infallible decision of a Council on this point. Has any Pope decided the question infallibly? Not to my knowledge. Finally, we must ask if the ordinary and universal Magisterium has taught an answer. Again, I find no evidence of a definitive required belief under that mode of infallibility. One might try to build a theological argument based on the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium to answer the question. But it seems clear that the answer is not a matter of formal dogma.

Now heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt (hereafter referred to as the rejection) of a truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith. But such truths include only those taught not only as material dogma in Tradition and Scripture, but also as formal dogma by the Magisterium. If the Magisterium has not defined a truth as an infallible doctrine and required belief, the rejection of that idea is not heresy.

So no matter how Pope Francis answers the question, he would not be guilty of heresy. See Jimmy Akin on this point.

Answer to the Question

In any case, how did Pope Francis answer the question? (It is worth noting that Pope Francis signed this document, but he is not the author or sole author. Thus, the choice of wording was perhaps not his.)

A document signed by Pope Francis: “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, colour, 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;” [Human Fraternity]

Each person in the world has the God-given right of freedom in the use of his gifts of reason and free will, as well as conscience. If a person believes that a particular religion is the truth, he has the right to adhere to that religion, even if he is in error.

Can. 748 §1. All persons are bound to seek the truth in those things which regard God and his Church and by virtue of divine law are bound by the obligation and possess the right of embracing and observing the truth which they have come to know.

§2. No one is ever permitted to coerce persons to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.

Canon law says the very same thing. People have a right to seek and adhere to what they believe to be truth, even if they are mistaken. No one is permitted to coerce persons to become Catholic, even if their conscience is mistakenly telling them to belong to a different religion. This is the teaching of the Church, the law of the Church, and therefore the will of God.

Human Fraternity: “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.”

God created human being through His wisdom. The text does not say that the will by which God created human persons is the same one that wills a diversity of religions. And this reading is confirmed by the very next sentence:

“This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.”

So the document Pope Francis signed does not say whether it is the permissive will of God or whether God positively wills the diversity of religions as a good for humanity. God permits natural disasters (physical evils) as well as grave sins (moral evils). So there is no denying that the diversity of religions at least falls under the permissive will of God.

Since the document does not answer the question as to whether or not the diversity of religions is positively willed by God, it cannot be taken as an heretical answer to the question. In addition, as previously stated, the Magisterium has not decided the question, so neither answer is heretical.

What is a Religion?

How does the document Human Fraternity define religion? This question is important to the point as to what God is willing.

“The first and most important aim of religions is to believe in God, to honour Him and to invite all men and women to believe that this universe depends on a God who governs it. He is the Creator who has formed us with His divine wisdom and has granted us the gift of life to protect it.”

The above statement narrows the term religion to those belief systems which believe and honor God, and who consider that God created and governs the universe. Evil “religions” are excluded from being willed by God in any sense except that God permits the evils of this life. Examples of evil “religions” (not worthy of the name religion) include Satanism, occult religions that call upon fallen angels, and the future religion of the Antichrist.

“Moreover, we resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion.”

The above quote further narrows the term religion to exclude extremist Islam and other groups which are merely using the mask of religion to incite hate and violence. So it is not true that, by signing this document, Pope Francis is approving of the worst aspects of “religion”.

Later Clarifications

LifeSiteNews.com reports: “At the March 1 meeting, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary of Astana, Kazakhstan, also obtained from Pope Francis a clarification that God only permits but does not positively will a ‘diversity of religions.’ ”

‘You can say that the phrase in question on the diversity of religions means the permissive will of God,’ he [Pope Francis] told the assembled bishops, who come from predominantly Muslim regions.”

So Pope Francis later clarified that God wills a diversity of religions in a permissive sense, not in the sense of positively willing this diversity for some good purpose.

In an General Audience of April 3, 2019, Pope Francis again clarified that this is due to the permissive will of God:

“But some might ask themselves: but why is the Pope going to the Muslims and not just to Catholics? Because there are many religions, and why are there many religions? Along with the Muslims, we are the descendants of the same Father, Abraham: why does God allow many religions? God wanted to allow this: Scolastica theologians used to refer to God’s voluntas permissiva. He wanted to allow this reality: there are many religions. Some are born from culture, but they always look to heaven; they look to God. But what God wants is fraternity among us and in a special way, this was the reason for the trip, with our brothers, Abraham’s children like us, the Muslims. We must not fear differences. God allowed this. We should be afraid were we to fail to work fraternally to walk together in life.” [General Audience]

How much more clear could it be that Pope Francis agrees with his conservative critics that God only permits a diversity of religions, he does not positively will it?

Yet the Open Letter accused Pope Francis of heresy on this point. The letter ignored these clarification by Pope Francis, pretends that the document Human Fraternity states something it does not state (that God positively wills many religions), and accuses Pope Francis of heresy for something he repeatedly stated he did not teach.

And despite having received a clarification on this point directly from the Pope, in person, Bishop Schneider also continues to accuse the Pope of heresy, as if the clarification was null and void. Bishop Schneider claims that the wording of the document necessarily implies that God positively wills a plurality of religions.

“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.”

Schneider claims that because sex is willed by God positively, this implies that everything else in the list is also willed positively. Really? What does the story of the Tower of Babel teach us about the diversity of languages? It was not that way from the beginning, but God permitted this diversity due to the pride of human persons. So the argument by Schneider fails.

This list of things willed by God includes things positively will and things permissively willed. So why would they all be in the same list? It is because, as the document plainly states, these all fall under Divine Wisdom. Whether God positively wills something or permissively wills something else, all this is part of the plan of Divine Wisdom.

It is absurd to add to the document a rule which states that if a list includes one thing which is positively willed, then all else is positively willed. And when Pope Francis clarifies what he meant, they refuse to accept it, and insist on an interpretation openly contrary to the manifest will of the Vicar of Christ, for the sole reason that they would then be able to accuse him of heresy.

Formal heresy must be obstinate and contrary to a formal dogma. There is no formal dogma being rejected here. And how can the Pope be obstinately adhering to an idea that he has repeatedly said he does not teach or believe?

The dishonesty and malice which these papal critics bring against the Roman Pontiff is so plain and full that I do not see how they can possibly be in good conscience.

My Position

As previously stated, my view is that, in one sense, but not another, God does will the plurality of religions. And this is “religions” in the narrow sense discussed above, excluding religions that worship evil or which lack the love of God and neighbor.

Before the fact of our sinfulness, God does not will many religions. He wills each person to know the whole truth about faith and morals, so much as can be known by fallen human reason in this life.

[1 Timothy 2]
{2:1} And so I beg you, first of all, to make supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings for all men,
{2:2} for kings, and for all who are in high places, so that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all piety and chastity.
{2:3} For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
{2:4} who wants all men to be saved and to arrive at an acknowledgment of the truth.
{2:5} For there is one God, and one mediator of God and of men, the man Christ Jesus,

God wants everyone to know the full truth, as taught by Jesus and His one true Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit. He does not positively will some persons to enter other religions, which have less of truth and many errors on faith and morals.

However, after the fact of our sinfulness, God does positively will other religions, those which contain some substantial truths and at least the love of neighbor.

This is certain because we can easily see the grace of God working in other religions. We see Protestants who love Christ and who live the Gospel. We see Jews and Muslims who love God and do works of mercy to persons in need. We see good persons cooperating with grace, throughout the world. God is working with them and in them. However, He does so as a type of compromise. They are not cooperating with grace to a sufficient extent to convert to Catholicism, so God works with them despite their failings.

They are not willing to convert to Catholicism, or they are limited by their circumstances and failings, as well as the failings of others. So, when they fail to do the whole will of God, He nevertheless wills them to do as much good as they can. This includes willing them to worship God and love their neighbor in the Jewish faith, the Islamic faith, the Orthodox or Protestant faiths, or perhaps even in some other religions, such as Buddhism.

And this principle also applies to us Catholics. Each of us has misunderstood Catholic teaching in various ways. Many Catholics have unwittingly adopted heretical errors in their understanding of the faith. And yet God is with them (as long as they avoid actual mortal sin). Many Catholics err to such a great extent that they are essentially no different than Orthodox Christians or Protestant Christians. Some who call themselves Catholic are really following a religion of their own making.

God positively wills a diversity of religions, after the fact of our sinfulness, so that those who fail to reach to the fullness of God’s will in religious belief (the Catholic Christian faith) may still worship Him and learn to love their neighbor. However, this assertion is limited to religions which offer some true helps along the path of salvation.

Some belief systems have little or nothing of true religion and true morals in them. Such religions are not an expression of God’s will at all. Even so, God works with the members of those religions (such as the ancient pagan religions) to guide them by natural law and grace. He does not positively will those religions, but He wills to tolerate them. And He does work by the Holy Spirit with all persons of good will, even those who have rejected religion entirely.

Conclusion

Pope Francis did not teach that God positively wills a diversity of religion. But I expect a future Pope or Council to teach that point, as I outlined above. So far from being heresy, it is the most insightful and coherent theological position on the question.

Those who accuse Pope Francis of heresy on this point sin gravely by making a false accusation, not only because Popes cannot commit heresy, but also because Pope Francis did not even teach the idea they claim, and he directly stated what they claim is the right idea. Severe intellectual dishonesty is always an actual mortal sin.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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