Dr. John Lamont
On February 4th 2019, Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, signed a 'Document on Human Fraternity'. The document and its signing were public acts. It contains the following passage:
'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.'
Taken in its normal meaning, the statement that the pluralism and diversity of religions is willed by God in his wisdom is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. The pluralism and diversity of religions is an evil, and as such cannot be willed by God. These religions contradict each other on doctrinal and moral issues. It must therefore be the case that at least some of these religions are in error where they disagree; and it is a grave evil to hold false dogmatic and moral beliefs. Moreover, the Christian teaching is that there is only one true religion, the religion that worships the Most Holy Trinity. Religions that do not worship the Holy Trinity are false religions, that in themselves cause harm to their worshipers. As such, they are evils.
Many Catholics are reluctant to see this assertion as an act of heresy or apostasy by Pope Francis. In order to do so, they must interpret these words in a sense that can be reconciled with Catholic teaching. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has offered such an interpretation. He remarks:
When we speak of God’s will we make distinctions. God has an “active or positive will” and a “permissive will”. God’s “active will” concerns that which is good, true and beautiful. On the other hand, God has a “permissive will” by which He allows that things will take place that are not in accord with the order He established For example, God created Adam and Eve to live a certain way according to their nature and His will. However, He foresaw that they would fall and He permitted them to fall. By His active will they were to live a certain way. By His permissive will they strayed and fell. In the end, even all that God permits to go wrong will eventually be righted.
Applying the distinction between God's active will and God's permissive will to Pope Francis's words, and interpreting the words as asserting that the plurality of religions is the object of God's permissive will rather than of His active will, is the only way of understanding them in a Christian sense. The question is whether these words can be understood in this sense.
It is useful to briefly explain this distinction. There are some things that God simply does not will. For example, He did not will to create a universe containing only inanimate objects. The only undoubtedly correct thing to say about this possibility is the fact that He did not will it; it is not clearly true to say that He willed that it not happen. Evil, on the other hand, is not just something that God does not will; it is something that His will is always actively opposed to, since He is boundlessly and perfectly good. We can however distinguish between two ways in which His will can be opposed to evil. In one way, His will opposes evil by not allowing it to happen because of its being evil. However, some evils do happen. Such existing evils cannot be said to be willed by God, because He cannot will evil. Nonetheless, He could have prevented any existing evil, and He determines every aspect of creation through His will. An existing evil cannot occur because He was unable to prevent it, or because He simply did not will to prevent it. So if He did not prevent an evil, it must be the case that although He did not will the existence of the evil, He willed to permit its existence. His wisdom and goodness means that He will only will to permit an evil if the evil that is permitted is part of a greater good.
The question is therefore whether we can understand Pope Francis's words as meaning that the plurality of religions is the object of the permissive will of God, rather than something that he actually wills to occur. There are several reasons why this cannot be the case.
a). Saying that something is willed by God, and saying that it is the object of God's permissive will, are mutually exclusive. The objects of God's permissive will are things that He does not will. In order to understand Pope Francis's words as meaning that the plurality of religions is the object of God's permissive will, it would have to be explicitly stated that God's will is to be understood here as His permissive will; or else the context would have to make it clear that this was what was meant. Neither of these conditions obtain. So the normal meaning of the claim that God wills the plurality of religions - viz. that he considers this plurality a good, and causes it to exist for this reason - should be understood as the meaning of Pope Francis's words.
b). The context makes it clear that Pope Francis's words state that God does will religious pluralism itself. Religious pluralism is classed together with other differences such as colour, sex, race, and language that are not evil in themselves, and that are positively willed by God.
c). The document is a joint document signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque. As such, it expresses a conviction that is shared by both of them. We cannot reasonably attribute to the Grand Imam the view that religions other than Christianity are merely the object of God's permissive will.
One might ask what meaning we should attribute to the statement, if the Grand Imam signed it and agreed to it. It is possible that the Imam has embraced a form of postmodern religious pluralism, but it is probably unfair to understand him in this sense. It is more likely that his acceptance of the statement results from the belief in determinism that is a feature of Sunni Islam. According to this determinism, everything that happens is directly willed and caused by God and could not happen otherwise. God is nonetheless not to blame for human sin and other evils, and He justly punishes men for sin. Such determinism holds that religious pluralism is in fact directly willed and caused by God; but it does not therefore conclude that this pluralism is a good, that all religions are good, or that men will not be justly punished for belonging to false religions (which for the Imam would be all religions except for Islam). This is not to say that this determinism is a component of the statement signed by the Pope and the Imam; it would rather be a presupposition held by the Imam that enables him to agree with Pope Francis that God wills the plurality of religions, although they no doubt differ on why He wills them.
This statement by Pope Francis is thus a clear, public repudiation of the Catholic faith. It follows a series of other more or less clear and public repudiations of this kind. Enough has been said about this rejection of the faith; it is time that something was done about it.