Religious Indifferentism and Religious Pluralism

Muslims worldwide are currently observing the month of Ramadan. And the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has issued another of its various messages (viewable here) over the years on the occasion of this or that religious holiday of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others (click here for other examples). Is the Pontifical Council unintentionally promoting a mentality of religious indifferentism and hence religious pluralism? If so, it is violating its own warnings in its 2014 document, Dialogue in Truth and Charity.

Of course, I honor the Council’s motives in these messages: “maintaining of good fellowship among the nations” (1 Pet 2:12); and, “as far as depends on one, to live at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). Still, there is the danger here that the Council has warned of, namely, an “irenicism, which is an inordinate attempt to make peace at all costs by eliminating differences.” (no. 48)

Such messages have over time fostered a mentality of indifferentism that we are also warned against: a religious relativism/pluralism that holds all religions to be not only equally true but also efficacious vehicles of salvation. They leave the impression of leveling out the fundamental differences among all religions, suggesting a muting of the primary call to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Christ alone. (John 19: 9; 14:6; Acts 4: 12; 1 Tim 2: 5-6)

This muting also leaves out the question not only of truth in general but also of religious disagreement and conflicting truth claims among the religions in particular. The Council isn’t unaware of this question. Its 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation raised it: “An open and positive approach to other religious traditions cannot overlook the contradictions that may exist between them and Christian revelation. It must, where necessary, recognize that there is incompatibility between some fundamental elements of the Christian religion and some aspects of such traditions.”

The Council recognizes that “religious identity is a necessary condition for any genuine interreligious dialogue.” (Dialogue in Truth and Charity, no. 42) Acknowledging unique differences in ideas and tradition between Christianity and all other religions, however, is not enough when it comes to the question of conflicting truth claims. It’s necessary to state, openly, that the central Christian truth claims are alone valid and absolute, and hence logically incompatible with other religious claims.

Take the assertion, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:16) If that is true, then its denial must be false, and hence anyone who denies it must be wrong. Truth by its very nature excludes contradictions. Hence, if this belief is true because what it asserts is, in fact, the case about objective reality, then it alone is valid and absolute.

We live in a culture, however, where people claim that there are no true propositions; yet if there are no true propositions, then there are no false ones either. There are just differences, and no one is wrong. This is relativism about truth, and it looms large among the Council’s messages to other religions.

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Cardinal Ratzinger once rightly insisted, “Anyone who sees in the religions of the world only reprehensible superstition is wrong; but also anyone who wants only to give a positive evaluation of all religions, and who has suddenly forgotten the criticism of religions that has been burned into our souls not only by Feuerbach and Marx but also by such great theologians as Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer, is equally wrong.” Consequently, it is wrong to treat Sacred Scriptures by just focusing on the “positive” passages and not the “negative” ones critical of non-biblical religions as “full of idols.”

Years later, as Benedict XVI, he made an important point on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. About the reception of Nostra Aetate, he commented: “In the process of active reception [of Nostra Aetate], a weakness in this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance.”

That one-sided reception must be supplemented by the full doctrine and the full life of the Church, reflecting the Biblical witness regarding non-Christian religions such as we find in the Old Testament and the New Testament, for example, in St. Paul’s approach at the Areopagus. (Acts 17: 16-32)

God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:16) in his general revelation. He reveals Himself to all men at all times and all places so that men, in principle, may know something of God’s existence, His attributes, and His moral law. (Rom 1:20; 2:14-15; Acts 17: 28.

The reception of this general revelation, of course, is open to resistance and hence to distortion, misinterpretation, and denial. (Rom 1:18-32) Indeed, although St. Paul is “deeply distressed to see that the city [of Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), he also expresses his appreciation to the Athenians: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22) Nevertheless, St. Paul argues against Athenian idolatry, revealing to the pagan Greeks the God not only of creation but also of redemption in Jesus Christ. (v. 31)

Perhaps the most damaging implication of the Council’s messages is that they suggest the efficacy of the prayers and religious practices of these other religions in bringing people into fellowship with God. There seems no awareness that “objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” (Dominus Iesus 22)

The Christian faith, as Paul VI summed it up, “effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 53)

Denying this truth leaves us with indifferentism and hence religious relativism, and that is a denial of the Gospel.

 

*Image: Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter by Giovanni Battista Castello, 1598 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]

Eduardo J. Echeverria

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (2015) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018).