With the publication of the Instrumentum Laboris (a working text) in preparation for the upcoming Amazon Synod this coming October has come many concerns from within and without of the Catholic Church. Some passages of the document are clearly at odds with the mindset of the Church as defined by Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. One aspect of the document is its belaboring the recommendation of other religions to be integrated and interconnected with the Catholic faith. The idea behind this is basically true. The Catholic faith is the fullness of God’s divine revelation to mankind, but the world religions made by man are, to one degree or another, reflective of, at most, a bit or piece of the whole truth. Since these non-Christian religions, and we are including the cultural religions of the historic Amazon in particular, contain bits and pieces of the whole, the vision of this Instrumentum Laboris is to finds ways of appropriation to connect the Amazonian religions with the Catholic religion, and thus find a way towards full integration. The text, however, has some problems with it which are not limited going directly contrary to divine revelation. This is , however, not surprising. The 2nd Vatican Council has opened the door to considering the “good, true, and beautiful” of the religions of the world, including paganism, as a way to consider the possibility of there being a way unto salvation for everyone, even by means, albeit indirectly, of elements in the non-Christian, even pagan, religions. St. John Paul II’s famous Assisi Prayer Meeting in 1986 not only demonstrates this, but also shows forth the intention behind many pro-Vatican II theologians, including John Paul himself. This is so much the case that, for John Paul, the 2nd Vatican Council lived on in what he called the “spirit of Assisi”. In other words, the meeting which brought all sorts of different religions together for the purpose of praying for world peace , both Catholic and pagan, is the living and breathing entity of the 2nd Vatican Council. Pope Benedict XVI, often somehow thought of as the more conservative follow-up, was right there to defend this mentality in the 20-year anniversary of the Assisi prayer meeting. And there is no doubt that Pope Francis is a strong supporter of the “spirit of Assisi”.
What is this “spirit of Assisi”? I have written extensively on this subject elsewhere but if I had to put it in a short summary, it would be like this:
The spirit of Assisi is the mentality which sees the one true God as fully revealed in the content of divine revelation as given by the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and finally through Jesus Christ and His holy Apostles, but that God being He “who fills all” is revealed and manifested in partial ways in even the religious bodies who are not attendant to the Christian faith, and as a result, sees the one true religion, Catholicism, which has the full content of God’s revelation, and then a myriad of participations in that revelation in just about everyone and everything. Consequently, there is already this “partial communion” between all things, literally, and the Catholic Church. There is an interconnectedness, albeit imperfect, between the Christian faith as taught by the Catholic Church, and all the other religions of the world. Further, this entails that we should not think in terms of “right” versus “wrong” or “saved” versus “lost” or “you are in” versus “you are out”, but rather there is the fullness and the varied and pluralistic participations in the fullness. As many readers of mine are aware, Pope Francis even indicated that even atheists can be saved (went so far as to tell a young child his unbelieving father can be prayed to for intercession) . Bishop Robert Barron, even, who is also somehow considered to be a “conservative” voice in modern Catholicism (perhaps, relative to today’s rampant liberalism) is happy to expound on how, commensurate with the 2nd Vatican Council, the many non-Christian religions can partake of Christ, even stating atheists of “good will” who following their “conscience” can be saved.
Although these powerful witnesses have, again and again, testified that this is perfectly consistent with the Christian faith, none of them have sufficiently demonstrated how. On the contrary, we are given every indication that they have departed from the “spirit of the Apostles”. When in Ephesus, St. Paul converted many pagans to Christ. In one instance, St. Luke records how the Gentile converts of Ephesus gathered up their books of magic together and “burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19). So much for integration with their many “elements of sanctification” in their former beliefs and practices. In another event where St. Paul had performed a healing miracle, the people who saw this began to worship him saying, “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men”! (Acts 14:11). See how St. Luke records the response of St. Paul and St. Barnabas:
“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them'” (ibid 14-16)
There is one passage of Scripture where many theologians cite to try and defend this alternative course of integrating with false religions in their “elements” of truth, and that is St. Paul’s speech he delivered in Athens (Acts 17). Here, St. Paul points out that, though the city is given over to idols, there was an altar which has inscribed on it “to the unknown god”. He then goes on to explain the true God, who does not live in temples, nor is he worshiped by things made with human hands. The idea drawn is that Paul seems to indicate that the gentiles had really worshiped the true God , albeit unknowingly and imperfectly. Aside from this being a massive stretch of the text, we know how St. Paul finished that public address. He states:
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31)
In the many lectures by Catholic theologians since the 1960s, there has been this tendency to see in this passage a sort of justification for long-term dialogue with non-Christians, and even a certain kind of admission that non-Christian worshipers can be truly worshiping God in a way known to them as anti-Christian, but somehow Christ doing all the redemptive providing in the background. But notice that it is within the same public address that Paul nails down the binding law of faith and repentance on the people of Athens? And what is his rationale? The coming judgment. If only those Catholic clergy and theologians who love to cite Acts 17 for this elaborate reorientation of evangelism and dialogue would finish their addresses to non-Christians in the same way St. Paul did, then I think we’d have avoided the practical indifferentism that comes along with this emphasis. And it is this practical indifferentism that has come about since the 2nd Vatican Council, but particularly with the Pontificate of Pope Francis, who even stretches the notions already pushed by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
So what is wrong with it? The precise problem is not so much in what it asserts (though, I think the Instrumentum Laboris contains errors) as much as what it leaves ignored and unexplained. If you see the audio above where Bishop Barron (then, Fr.) answers the question of “Is Catholicism the only true Church” ?, you will see the Bishop leaving the matter at the “possibility” of salvation outside the Church, even for atheists. However, does he understand that a possibility of salvation outside does not render null and void the impending doom for those who hear the gospel and reject it after being summoned by God to repentance.
Notice how when certain Jews disbelieved the preaching of St. Paul, the latter reacted in a manner which is “unfitting” of today’s Catholic theologian:
““It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46)
Do you see how St. Paul instantly judged those who disbelieved the message? In today’s Catholic Church, if it were anyone else besides an Apostle, they would be chastised for using such offensive and derogatory (and anti-semitic) language. And yet, it is precisely St. Paul who can say of the Israelites:
“ Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Rom 10:1-2)
And lest this is interpreted as somehow possible to be already so in the mind of St. Paul, he writes further down:
” Because of unbelief they were broken off” (Rom 11:20)
By today’s standards, St. Paul jumped the gun and judged on a matter that was outside of his capacity. We longer have the capacity to stand up and say the things which St. Paul did. What is that an indication of? Authentic development of doctrine? I can’t think of how anyone would even begin to defend that.
Therefore, what is missing is the full expectation of doom and everlasting destruction for the person who does not respond with repentance and belief at the announcement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bishop Barron’s of the world think it sufficient to prioritize the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation, but yet obfuscate this by only emphasizing how all religions can partake in those means somehow and someway, through good-will and following one’s conscience. What about the possibility of them partaking in those things which offend God? This is ultimately why St. Paul taught us that you cannot partake of the cup and table of demons together with the cup and table of the Lord. So much was St. Paul concerned about this unlawful communion that he even exhorted the Corinthians to avoid eating meat sold int he marketplace if it had been offered up as a sacrifice in the pagan temple. Technically, this would be a situation where there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat sacrifice to idols (since there is no such thing as idols), but since it was involved with an idolatrous action, St. Paul encouraged against eating this kind of meat in order to avoid “partaking with demons”. A Bishop Barron could easily shoot back and say, “But there isn’t anything bad with eating meat, even if offered to idols, since the food has been blessed and is good to eat…and therefore I could easily even join in on a pagan feast without violation of God’s law”. Technically true, but notice how St. Paul is so meticulous with the intention to be perfectly cleansed from a communicatio in sacris (communion in sacred things) with the demonic that he is willing to even sacrifice what is normally right and good in order to leave absolutely no chance of partaking in the evil of idolatry, even indirectly. What we see in this Instrumentum Laboris is the opposite of this meticulous spirit in St. Paul. This “spirit of the Apostles” is too rigid, fundamentalist, dogmatistic, and singular for today’s Catholic theologians. At what point, and by what manner, can someone be convinced of this if not by now? And how much will it take to show that this “integration” of the world with the Apostolic faith is a sham that would have been immediately anathematized by the Apostles?