Catholics and Their Interaction with Other Religions in Contemporary Society

I.

Contemporary Western society’s preponderant secular relativistic thought tendencies contend that all beliefs are to be deemed worthy of being considered equally true. The philosophical concomitant outgrowths of this thought place spotlight on, among others, four fashionable terms: “inclusivity,” “accommodation,” “toleration,” and “diversity,” all understood wrongly, and all of which have increasingly been adopted by some Catholic institutions, especially a number Catholic colleges and universities (rather to be considered, rightfully and in actuality, marginally Catholic or nearly not Catholic at all). Unfortunately, these institutions are ignorant of the logical implications of these secular philosophical ideals, of their philosophical origins, and of their philosophical incongruity with Catholic teaching, understood rightly.

In the midst of the infatuations with these ephemeral philosophical ideas amongst the many of society, it is of great importance for Catholics to consider the following question: What does the Catholic Church teach about how Christians must interact with other religious faiths, beliefs, ideals, and traditions? By exploring Catholic philosophical thought, Church teaching, and Catholic exegesis, all understood rightly, one can endeavor to find guidance on the above question.

It would be the case that those of the Church who attempt to apply the contemporary societal relativistic philosophical ideal that all beliefs are equal in their stations, as well as the ideal’s outgrowths and implications, interiorly to Church thought are rejecting, to use guidance from Church theology, that the Father sent his only begotten Son who took on human flesh and was crucified in order to testify to the truth. If all religious beliefs are to be deemed equally true, then the necessary implication is that the birth, ministry, Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were of no particular significance. Thus the Christian who argues that all religious beliefs are equal — which the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith under Pope Benedict XVI termed “religious relativism”1 — is not truly inclusive in nature, but is actually excluding of Jesus Christ. In short, he is trying to be “inclusive,” as society sees it, but he is actually excluding the primacy of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church.

One must recall that the Catholic Church views itself as a timeless institution. The Church considers itself to be a body — one comprised of, indeed, finite and fallible human beings — that through the centuries, seeks understanding of truth, insofar as man can comprehend it, find it, and understand it.

As preeminent Church philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas argues, understanding of truth — that is, understanding of reality — requires the rational part of the soul, for: “The notion of the true consists in the adequation of thing and intellect.”2 Man searches for truth, the discoverable kind, by utilizing the rational part of the soul. Man tries to understand as best possible, however inadequate are his abilities; for as Paul acclaimed: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgements and how unsearchable his ways!”3

As a body, then, that seeks to understand truth, the Church does not attempt to create first principles. As another eminent philosopher of Church history, Saint John Paul II, declares: “Sure of her competence as the bearer of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Church reaffirms the need to reflect upon truth.”4

If the Catholic Church considers itself to be the “bearer of the revelation of Jesus Christ”5 and it requires itself to “reflect upon truth,” then both reason and faith, as Thomas Aquinas would argue, is requisite.

Further, as a timeless institution searching for the truth — which always was, is, and forever shall be, and which subsists independently of society’s whims and bows subservient never to its fads and fashions — the Church must be impenetrable to the interference of outside ideologies and thought, if rather than helping it understand truth, they influence Church philosophical thought processes and require or encourage the re-definition of first principles interiorly. From its beginning, the Church has struggled to resist outside societal influences. Even though the latest ideals fancied by the many, and whoever are and whatever are their leaders and influences at any given time, will wither, they nonetheless cause destruction while alive and continue to do so even after death.

II.

Church teaching instructs believers that it is their absolute duty to love all people and that they must recognize always the inherent dignity of each and every person. That instruction does not mean, however, that others’ religious beliefs must be accepted as equal to those held by Catholicism. Jesus said that “The Father and I are one.”6 To the Apostle Thomas Jesus declared that: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”7

Other religions do not believe in the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (and alongside non-trinitarian Christians, reject the essence of God as being of three persons). For the Church, the Trinity represents the complete essence of God. To know God, one must recognize and worship all three persons of the one Godhead.

Some in the contemporary Catholic Church, even as Christian martyrdom, suffering, and sacrifice continue daily around the world, are leery to speak the truth, having been influenced by the secular culture and its pressures to conform to its totalitarian dictates. The real greatest act of love, however, would be to bring others to the truth of Christianity, understood rightly.

The Church’s bishops, priests, and consecrated must resist, as difficult as it may be at times, to speak and to write in politically-correct platitudes so as not offend or upset. Judging is only left to God, for Jesus said that “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”8 Saving souls, the primal duty of the bishop and priest, however, requires teaching, which is of another genus than is judgement. The Church sees Catholic teaching not to entail judging, but rather to be instruction on what one needs to do to be saved. God judges, but Catholic teaching is providing the instructions — insofar as man can know — on how one must act in order to be judged favorably by God.

III.

The Church teaches that the Old Testament writers prophesied the coming of Jesus Christ — that He was the One for whom the people of Israel were waiting.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, He told them: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.”9 Then, writes Luke, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”10

As one sees in the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians still considered themselves to be Jews, with debates amongst them centering on whether Gentiles could even be saved. Indeed, Acts tells the story a fledgling Church that sees itself as the rightful and proper continuation of the Judaism of the Son of Man — who as a man was conceived as a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew. Further, in Romans 9, Saint Paul, who elsewhere calls himself “the apostle to the Gentiles,” laments the Jews who have rejected Jesus as God and writes that salvation will come only with belief in Jesus.11

Christians, then, are the heirs of the Jewish faith of the Old Testament, which consists of God’s revelation preceding Jesus’s coming. Christians today are not awaiting the Messiah’s first coming, for He has already come, but rather they stand in waiting for His second earthly sojourn when, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed declares, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

IV.

When headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to become later Pope Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released Dominus Iesus, which affirmed that always God alone will judge who is to be saved, but which nonetheless cautioned the following:

God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth.12

Dominus Iesus is a reminder that the Church is the possessor of the truth, and with such she is tasked dutifully with spreading that truth.

In Acts, Peter proclaims his devotion to the name of Jesus in the face of the Jewish elite who deny Jesus’s divinity, mincing words not when he tells them: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”13

It is of great importance to remember that the Catholic Church teaches that it has the clearest possible understanding of that which God desires, insofar as man can know and that the Holy Spirit allows man to know by His grace. It must be remembered, then, that understanding of the Holy Spirit is crucial to the understanding of God, for the Holy Spirit is One of the Three, as it was so declared at the 381 Council of Constantinople.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ This knowledge of faith is possible only in the Holy Spirit: to be in touch with Christ, we must first have been touched by the Holy Spirit. He comes to meet us and kindles faith in us. By virtue of our Baptism, the first sacrament of the faith, the Holy Spirit in the Church communicates to us, intimately and personally, the life that originates in the Father and is offered to us in the Son.14

Hence the Church teaches that in order to know the Father, one must know the Son, and to know the Son, one must know the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of faith and who provides the unearned and undeserved grace that is given to man. It is the Holy Spirit who inspired directly the Old and New Testaments as well as the formation of the Canon.15 From the Paraclete man is offered the opportunity to share in His seven gifts.16

Thus Church teaching would instruct that to administer true love and care, understood rightly, for those chained in darkness with regard to the Holy Spirit and Jesus as God would be to bring them to the light of truth. Being guided by exterior societal demands and attitudes, many blessed priests and bishops are more apt today to isolate the positive-feeling scriptures and teachings of the Church, neglecting one of the most important teachings they can impart on, and explain to, their flocks: that Jesus Himself said that there was one sin that was unforgivable: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Catholic teaching, employing a great deal of insight from both Augustine and Thomas on the topic, interprets the unforgivable sin as being one who does not accept the Holy Spirit. One cannot know the Son without be led to him by the Spirit, hence one must know the Spirit.

When Paul writes that God, “who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles,” Paul is not concerned with “inclusivity,” “toleration,” “accommodation,” and the “diversity” of other beliefs that reject Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.17 One must remember that respecting and loving another on principle does not correlate necessarily with acting the same towards his beliefs. A man’s inherent dignity and the Christian duty to love one’s neighbor as a fellow child of God does not mean that one is required to love the beliefs of those who reject that Jesus and the Spirit are God.

Peter and John said to the Sanhedrin: “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”18 The Catholic must speak truth, remembering that prior to the resurrection Peter denied Jesus three times, but that he was subsequently forgiven by Jesus and would ultimately die a martyr for the Lord. The Church teaches that Saint Peter died for that truth which says that the Trinity is God.

The Psalmist sang to God: “May the nations be glad and rejoice; for you judge the peoples with fairness.”19 Indeed, in the Catholic conception, God loves all of the children He has made and He shall judge them with equity. Jesus judged the Canaanite woman, an ostracized non-Jew, based on her faith in Him, healing her from possession by a demon because she showed great faith in Him.20 And to those who live for earthly possession only He is not tolerant.21

Thus in the Catholic conception, those who do not bring themselves to the feet of the Son, Jesus, through the grace provided by the conduit, the Holy Spirit, “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son,”22 are the intransigent who shall be unable to see fully the Father, the unbegotten, unprocessed, unmoved first mover. Thus Catholic philosophical thought, Church teaching, and Catholic exegesis would instruct that one must love, respect, include, tolerate, and accommodate the non-believer, he of many diversities, but never his disbelief in the truth.

  1. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, August 6, 2000, vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html, no. 22.
  2. Disputed Question on Truth, Pt. I, ques. 1, art. 3, resp., in Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998), 173.
  3. Rom 11:33, New American Bible Revised Edition.
  4. Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, reprint of Vatican translation (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), 1998, no. 6.
  5. Saint John Paul II
  6. Jn 10:30, NABRE.
  7. Jn 14:6.
  8. Mt 7:2. See also Lk 6:37, when Jesus said: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
  9. Lk 24:44.
  10. Lk 24:45.
  11. Rom 11:13.
  12. Dominus Iesus, sec. 22.
  13. Acts 4:12.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 683.
  15. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965, vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html, no. 11.
  16. Dei Verbum, no. 5.
  17. Gal 1:15–16.
  18. Acts 4:20.
  19. Ps 67:5.
  20. Mt 15:21–28.
  21. Mk 10:17–31 and Lk 18:18–30.
  22. Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Gerard T. Mundy About Gerard T. Mundy

Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy at a private college in New York City. His essays have appeared in Public Discourse, the University Bookman, Crisis, the American Conservative, and the Federalist, among others.

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*