On the 4th of February 4th of 2019, Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque both signed a document on Human Fraternity which contains the following statement:
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”
Some folks have claimed that this is heretical. Catholic theologian Dr. John Lamont, for example, says that this statement is “a clear, public repudiation of the Catholic faith”. Although not directly saying that Pope Francis intended to repudiate the Catholic faith, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in an article entitled “The Gift of Filial Adoption“, attempts to emphasize that Christianity is the only religion willed by God.
Is the statement from this document necessarily heretical? This article will attempt to say that it is not necessarily heretical. However, that does not mean I am here arguing that Pope Francis intended an orthodox meaning necessarily. I am only here to demonstrate that the words, as stated, can be understood in an orthodox manner. Other theologians have already attempted to interpret it in an orthodox manner. For examples, see Dr. Chad Pecknold and Fr. Zed. Without belittling the statements of these intellectual giants, I intend to bring more evidence to this direction. Understand, however, that I’ve no particular benefit from defending the orthodoxy of the current Pope, nor do I seek that as a goal. In fact, I’ve wanted him to be put under Episcopal trial since the first year of his pontificate in order to be held accountable to the dogmas of the Catholic Church. What Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s recent Manifesto of Faith was great, but it is simply not good enough. With that said, if and when we do criticize the Pope, however, we should be as accurate as the sun is bright, and make sure there is no hole in our traps through which our opponents can escape with the trickery of words. And this is precisely why Pope Francis is so dangerous. He is not the sort of man who could easily be caught in a position like Arius, who made it clear what he was negating (i.e. the deity of Christ). Heretics such as Apollinaris, Eutychios, and Nestorios were great because you could actually discern what they were saying and negating. In our modernistic and psuedo-intellectual hierarchy today, we do not have the benefit of such clarity (see my article dissecting the mentality of Pope Francis)
Let me first begin by setting the stage of this joint document. In the first place, this was not an invitation from the Middle East for Francis to swoop in like the revivalist George Whitefield and begin open-air preaching to the populace on the necessity of conversion to Christ in order to escape the fires of hell. I wish he would do that, but that is clearly outside the intention of both the Pope and his hosts in the Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates . Rather, as the subtitle of the document suggests, the context was for World Peace and Living Together. The very opening begins with “In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters“. It goes on to mention innocent human life, the poor, the destitute, tortured, orphans, widows, refugees, victims of war, persecution, and injustice, etc,etc. It is quite plain that a Catholic Pope and Muslim Imam speaking to this are quite outside the purview of any evangelistic context through which one side is seeking to convert the other. This is very *down to earth*, in other words. It is far more basic to earthly peace than vital to everlasting happiness with God. The title, Human Fraternity, is precisely referenced in one particular line: “In the name of human fraternity that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal“. There you have it. This document is speaking to the equal rights of all human beings that should be respected in order to best live out our time in the midst of religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial differences. Unless the orthodox Catholic wants to insist, contrary to religious liberty, that we should discriminate unbelievers as less-deserving of freedom, there isn’t a whole lot of exhortation to become Christian to be expected from this document. That is not the intention, nor the goal of it. The goal is stated very clearly in the middle of the document:
“In the name of God and of everything stated thus far; Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard” and “call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”
The goal of the document is to reach dialogue, tolerance, peace, cooperation, and understanding. This is not out of the blue, either. It is not news to anyone in the know that there has often been conflict, hostility, persecution, and even massive casualties caused by the friction created between Catholics and Muslims (at least). And for us Catholics, we shouldn’t see this as a horrible thing. As we shall see, this concept has been clearly taught in the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. How should Muslims coexist with Catholics, is the question. This is why the document goes on to speak of the protection of different persons of diverse religions, etc,etc. We aren’t expecting to be told we should suppress one or the other.
Now, I will dedicate the rest of this to the section that everyone keeps talking about. It begins with this:
“Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action”.
It is important that we see that this is the ground of the following comments to come afterwards. Freedom is the right of every person. This is none other than what the Catechism says. In paragraph 2106, the CCC states:
2106 ‘Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits’. This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order. For this reason it ‘continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it’
This is a basic description of what the 2nd Vatican Council understood as religious liberty, and it claims it to be not just permissively willed by God, but something God antecedently wills all creatures to have. It is the very nature of the human person which grounds this freedom, since especially it is with this freedom that God desires the free assent of love and adoration from the creature. If it were otherwise, than we would be automatons only coerced by force to offer God our worship. This religious freedom, i.e. the freedom to choose, is therefore based upon human nature as God antecedently willed it to be. Now, interestingly enough, the last part of what I cited speaks to this religious liberty continuing to exist (again, by God’s antecedent will) even in those who disobey their obligation to the truth, and who refuse to adhere to it. What obligation?
Surrounding paragraph 2106 is 2104-2105 and 2108, all of which are vital to understanding what the Catechism is seeking to communicate. These state the following:
2104 ‘All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it’. This derives from ‘the very dignity of the human person’. It does not contradict a ‘sincere respect’ for different religions which frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’, nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians ‘to treat with love, prudence, and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith’
2105 The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially. This is ‘the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and socieities toward the true religion and one Church of Christ’. by constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them ‘to infuse the Christian spirit into the menality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live’. The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human socieities.
2108 The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e. immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.
Alright, to continue looking at the section of the document signed by the Pope, we must realize that the starting content (i.e. freedom is the right of every person) has this background that we saw from the Catechism. This right of religious liberty is not just something permitting by God, but something intrinsic to human nature as they are created by God in His wisdom. This will help to understand what comes next.
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 is the spot where many point to in order to show that Pope Francis is saying that all religions are equally willed by God in their content of worship, beliefs, morals, etc,etc. In other words, flat out religious indifferentism (which is condemned by the paragraphs from the Catechism cited above). Moreover, it is urged that since colour, sex, race, and language are couched in the object of this “willing” by God, and since neither of these are merely “permitted” but are, as a matter of first instance, antecedently willed by God, the Pope must be subscribing to a document which espouses the equality of all religions as good in the sight of God. It is a good point, however it is not absolutely true. The diversity of language was not, as a matter of first instance, willed by God since God brought the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, to prevent the evil of man’s pride.It was only at the celebration of Pentecost where we see the healing of this effect from pride in the miracle of Apostolic tongues. Still, one could argue that this was struck down upon men at Babel by God’s direct willing, even if it was not his ideal plan. Such could not be said about the different religions. But this one unique feature on the diversity of languages does show that this listing of natural characteristics (colour, sex, race, & language) does not all have equal standing under God’s plan of human creation, and so it leaves for some room on the matter of religions. If we keep in mind that the starting point was “freedom is the right of every creature“, then God’s willing of the diversity of religions has to be rooted in this freedom which is part of the constitution of human nature (not merely God’s permissive will). As we saw, the Catechism says this freedom is a matter of God’s antecedent willing for human nature, and thus the diversity of religious expression flows out of this essential human right. Now, this does not mean that the varied expressions which flow out of this right are good and accepted by God. It merely entails that God is squarely behind the right of religious freedom in the nature of humanity, and it is precisely this freedom which can be applied in diverse ways. In this way, and only in this way, does God will the diversity of religions. The Catechism explicitly states that the “right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error” (2108).
The next part of the section under examination goes on to say:
“This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.”
And this is precisely what the Catechism says. What is the source from which the right of religious freedom? It is the natural constitution of the human being as antecedently willed by God. Thus, the religious diversity of our world is rooted in something which God antecedently willed, and not just permitted to happen. Now, the application of this freedom to disobey the truth is what is merely permitted by God. In other words, there is both an antecedent and consequent/permissive willing that is going on in the phenomena of a human person who always keeps the right of religious liberty with himself and the allowance of that liberty to be applied in false religion which does not please God, nor leads to salvation.
The last part concludes:
“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”
This conclusion proves that the foregoing intends to reach the goal of arguing in favor for the eradication of civil restraints on the diversity of religions. This is precisely what paragraph 2108 says: “The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right to the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities“. That’s it, folks. This was not an attempt on either the Pope or the Imam to give the idea that the content of Islam and Christianity are just as good, willed, and acceptable by God at the day of judgment. That is quite outside the purview of scope.
So what have I to add that Fr. Z and Dr. Pecknold did not already offer? The only thing I offer is to emphasize that it is not merely a resorting to God’s permissive will that brings this section of the document within the boundaries of orthodoxy, but also God’s antecedent will. Again, the right to religious freedom is not merely permitted by God, but is part of His will for the very nature of the human person itself. It is essential to the constitution of the human being, in other words. That cannot be restricted to God’s permissive will. Secondly, God’s permissive will does come into strict isolation when that freedom is applied to false religion. This cannot be antecedently willed by God, since God made the human person with that very freedom by which to give assent to the one singular truth in Jesus Christ, through whom alone mankind finds eternal redemption. Now, is this what Pope Francis intends to say? Since what he signed could be aligned with the explicit teaching of the Catechism, I want to say that he probably meant it in this way. However, I will not be caught sleeping if something proves otherwise. But in our pursuit to read the Pope, we want our accusations of error or heresy to be free from any alternative readings which could align him to orthodox confession. In this case, I don’t think we have such a singular reading by which to make an absolute judgment on the meaning. If it were the intention of Pope Francis that all religions are equally good in their content and acceptability to God, then it would be a clear and manifest denial of not just the Christian tradition, but also to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church of which he is the earthly Head.