How Catholic teaching respects religious differences, without encouraging religious indifferentism.

                           AREN'T WE THE TRUE CHURCH?

                                                                     Religious Freedom

A non-Catholic student was talking disparagingly to her Catholic roommate about a non-Christian.  When the Catholic objected, the non-Catholic retorted: "But don't you believe that yours is the true church and that everyone else is going to hell?"

Not too many years ago many Catholics did interpret rather literally the teaching: outside the Church there is no salvation.  Many understood this to mean that non-Catholics were destined for hell and that all their religions were the work of the devil.  During the very sorriest times in our history, when fundamentalists held sway in the Church, non-believers were thought to have no rights.  Violence and torture were considered appropriate means to force "conversions" in order to save people's immortal souls.  The ravages wrought by crusaders, inquisitors, and conquistadors were for "the greater glory of God"!  If He had not risen, Jesus would have been rolling over in His grave!

Fortunately, during the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of 1963-65, the Church finally set the record straight.  Vatican II begins its Declaration on Religious Freedom by professing clearly:

its belief that God himself has made know to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness.  We believe that this one true religion subsists in the catholic and apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.  [1]

But then it opens chapter I by declaring equally clearly:

that the human person has a right to religious freedom.. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.  Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs...within due limits.  [2]

Religious freedom is needed so that people can find their way to God.  The salvation of all people, Catholic or not-Catholic, pagan or atheist, depends on how conscientiously they seek out and live by the truth.  Christians with the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, and His Church, will be judged by how faithfully they live by this truth.  People with a lesser grasp on the truth will be judged by how faithfully they live by the truth as they know it:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons--that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility--that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.  They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.  [2]

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created.  It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.  Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.  [3]

In defending each person's right to religious freedom, the Council goes on to condemn an even more subtle form of violence against human freedom, the kind of high-pressure and deceptive proselytizing that, unfortunately, is so common here at Rutgers: spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices, everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy....  [4]

Finally, the Declaration teaches flat out: one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.  [10]


                                                                     Other Christians

What does the Catholic Church have to say about other Christians?  For over 400 years after the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants were at odds, defensively blaming each other for their divisions.  Vatican II states honestly, in its Decree on Ecumenism, that "men of both sides were to blame."  [3]  "Moreover," the Decree continues:

some, even very  many, of the most significant elements or endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church herself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, along with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements.    [3]

The brethren divided from us also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion.  Undoubtedly, in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation.  [3]

The Catholic Church recognizes that, to the extent that these separated Churches are faithful to Christ and His teachings, the Spirit of Christ is at work in them, bringing their members to salvation.  In order to promote the restoration of unity among all Christians, rather than focusing on the defects of others, the Decree instructs Catholics that:

...their primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more loyally and luminously to the teachings and ordinances which have been handed down from Christ through the apostles.  [4]



What about non-Christians?  Is the Spirit of Truth also at work in their religions?  Vatican II's Declaration to Non-Christian Religions acknowledges the goodness found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.  Referring to all world religions the Declaration affirms:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.  She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.  Indeed, she proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6) in whom men find the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (cf. 2 Cor. 5: 18-19).  [2]

Even those who do not explicitly know or profess Jesus as their Savior, but nevertheless strive conscientiously to conduct their lives in accord with the ray of Truth that enlightens them, are saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Even if we do not recognize Jesus, whatever love we show to the least ones, Jesus accepts as done directly to Him, and welcomes us to eternal life (Matt 25:31-46).


                                                                       Brotherly Love

The Declaration ends with a sweeping statement of vital importance for our factious world:

We cannot in truthfulness call upon that God who is the Father of all if we refuse to act in a brotherly way toward certain men, created though they be to God's image.  A man's relationship with God the Father and his relationship with his brother men are so linked together that Scripture says: "He who does not love does not know God" (1 Jn. 4:8).

The ground is therefore removed from every theory or practice which leads to a distinction between men or peoples in the matter of human dignity and the rights which flow from it.

As a consequence, the Church rejects, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.  [5]

Fear can so entrench us in our prejudicial attitudes that we never ask:  how does God feel about it?  Rather than allowing our rich religious traditions to expand our heart's capacity to love all God's children, insecure people misuse religious (and other) differences to disparage the human dignity and rights of others.  Tragically, some of us have enough religion to hate, but not enough religion to love.                                                        ( by Ron Stanley, O.P)