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Pope Francis and Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque, pay homage at the tomb of the Founders, Abu Dhabi, Feb. 4, 2019Copyright Holy See Press Office

ROME, April 3, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis has further clarified his controversial statement issued in Abu Dhabi, in which he appeared to state that God “wills” the existence of many religions. 

This appears to contrast with the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church, which teaches, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, that the “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.”

The informal clarification came at today’s general audience, as the Pope reflected on his recent trip to Muslim-majority Morocco. In unscripted remarks, he said to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square:

But some may wonder: but why does the Pope go visit the Muslims and not only the Catholics? Because there are so many religions, and why are there so many religions? With the Muslims we are descendants of the same Father, Abraham: why does God allow so many religions to exist? God wanted to allow this: the Scholastic theologians referred to the voluntas permissiva [permissive will] of God. He willed to permit this reality: there are many religions; some are born of culture, but they always look to heaven, they look to God. But what God wills is fraternity among us, and in a special way — hence the reason for this journey — with our brothers, who are sons of Abraham, like us, the Muslims. We must not be afraid of the difference: God has permitted this. We ought to be frightened if we do not work in fraternity, to walk together in life.


In February, Pope Francis came under fire for signing a joint statement with a Grand Imam in Abu Dhabi, saying that a “pluralism and diversity” of religions is “willed by God.”

The Feb. 4 statement incited controversy among Christians for asserting that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions” — like the diversity of “color, sex, race and language” — are “willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings” — a claim many believe to be contrary to the Catholic faith.

Some critics argued the Pope’s statement seemed not only to “overturn the doctrine of the Gospel” but also to align with the ideas of Freemasonry.

Observers pointed out that the potential for confusion was compounded by the fact that both Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church asked in the document that it “become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation.”

To remedy the confusion arising from the statement, four days later Bishop Athanasius Schneider issued a statement on uniqueness of faith in Jesus Christ. Three weeks after that, at a Mar. 1 ad limina meeting of the bishops of Kazakhstan and Central Asia with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Bishop Schneider privately obtained from Pope Francis a clarification that God only permits but does not positively will a “diversity of religions.” 

The Pope explicitly stated that Schneider could share the contents of their exchange on this point. “You can say that the phrase in question on the diversity of religions means the permissive will of God,” he told the assembled bishops, who come from predominantly Muslim regions.

Bishop Schneider in turn asked the Pope officially to clarify the statement in the Abu Dhabi document.

In light of the Abu Dhabi statement and today’s informal clarification from Pope Francis, LifeSite spoke with Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ committee on doctrine, about the controversy.

In 2017, Fr. Weinandy wrote a letter to Pope Francis (which was subsequently made public) saying his pontificate is marked by “chronic confusion” and warning that teaching with a “seemingly intentional lack of clarity risks sinning against the Holy Spirit.”

In our interview with the Fr. Weinandy on the Abu Dhabi statement, he identifies what he believes is its most problematic element, and offers his perspective on both on the Pope’s private clarification to Bishop Schneider and his public remarks at this week’s general audience. 

Fr. Weinandy says while he believes Pope Francis is motivated by a “noble desire” to “foster mutual understanding” and “undercut some Islamic factions that foster terrorism,” his signing the Abu Dhabi statement “has doctrinal consequences well beyond what he may have envisioned or desired.”

“What I find very sad and scandalously troubling” he added, “is that, in the midst of it all, Jesus is being insulted. He is reduced to the level of Buddha or Mohammed when in fact he is the Father’s beloved Messianic Son, the one in whom the Father is well pleased.”

Even with the Pope’s informal clarification at this week’s general audience, Fr. Weinandy points out that, “more than likely, the vast majority of the media and many other theologians and bishops will continue to interpret the original document in the manner that, as God willed Judaism and Christianity, so he also willed other religions – full stop.” 

“There still persists some lack of clarity,” he says, “since Pope Francis has not directly repudiated the original statement as it appears in the Abu Dhabi document. In the end it is still quite confusing, and unnecessarily so.”

Here is our interview with Fr. Thomas Weinandy.

LifeSite: Fr. Weinandy, recently Pope Francis signed a document during his visit to Abu Dhabi which stated that the “diversity of religions” is “willed by God.” What are your thoughts on such a statement?

Fr. Weinandy: There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years concerning the plurality of religions within the world.  Such a discussion involves the merit of various founders of these religions – such as Buddha, Mohammad, and Jesus. The motivation surrounding these theological discussions and the various religious dialogues that often accompany them partly springs from a desire to foster mutual understanding and respect among the various world religions.  Vatican II encouraged such mutual understanding and regard. So I think Pope Francis was equally motived by this noble desire. He wanted to affirm the Church’s desire that all religions should be respected. Also, in relation to Islam, Francis wanted to foster a friendship with the Islamic world so as to foster religious freedom within that world, a world that is often intolerant of other religions, particularly Christianity. I also think he wanted to undercut some Islamic factions that foster terrorism. Because of mutual respect for each other’s religious beliefs, there is no place for persecution or terrorist acts. So I believe Pope Francis acted with good intentions.  He was attempting to fulfill what the fathers of Vatican II stated in Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). Christians and Muslims should seek “to achieve mutual understanding” so as together they may “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (# 3). Pope Francis, in this week’s Wednesday Audience, reiterated this very point.  “What God wills is fraternity among us and in a special way — this is the reason for this journey (to Morocco) — with our brothers, who are sons of Abraham like us, the Muslims.”

What did Vatican II say about the truth contained within religions other than Christianity? Does the question of “truth” raise some knotty issues?

Well, again Vatican II wanted rightly to be conciliatory and respectful. So it said that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” It speaks of other religions having “a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.” Yet, the Council stated that the Church has the duty to proclaim that “Christ is the way, the truth and the life (Jn.14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life” (# 2). So while non-Christian religions may possess rays of truth, yet Christianity possesses the fullness of truth and life in Jesus Christ. Here some further distinctions are in order.

First, except for Judaism and Christianity, all other religions are gnostic. What do I mean by that? Buddha, Mohammad, or the religious texts of other religions merely provide “religious” knowledge as to what people are to do if they are to live “true” religious lives. That may differ from one religion to the next, but the principle is the same. Buddha is believed to provide the knowledge to obtain a proper religious life and Mohammad is believed to offer the means by which one can foster and obtain a right relationship with Allah.  What must be noted is that once Buddha or Mohammed provides the “knowledge,” their importance ceases.  Having provided the needed knowledge, their followers only need to obey it. This is not the case within Judaism and Christianity.

Second, unlike gnostic religions, within Judaism God does not simply provide previously unknown “knowledge,” but he distinctly acts so that the Jewish people are now able, through the divine covenantal act, to have a unique relationship to him that others do not share.  They are God’s “chosen people.”  

Third, moreover, Jesus, as the Father’s incarnate Son, is the fulfillment of what was anticipated within Judaism. Through his saving death and resurrection, all who believe in him are now able to have a new relationship with his Father through the Holy Spirit, a relationship that was not possible prior to Jesus’ saving acts. Christians do not simply receive new “knowledge,” but they are recreated through faith and baptism so as to abide in Christ and so to reap the benefits of the salvation that Jesus brings – freedom from sin and death, becoming holy children of the Father through the indwelling Spirit so as to rise gloriously when Jesus returns at the end of time. Note, and this is absolutely important, Jesus performs saving acts by which a new relationship with God is now possible, and moreover, Jesus’ importance never ceases.  Because Jesus does not simply give us knowledge, he is not merely a prophet whose importance ceases once the divine message is given. Rather, we only have communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit if we abide in him as our Lord and Savior.  We must continually live in the risen Christ Jesus!  This is accordance with the Father’s eternal will that all be united to Christ – things in heaven and things on earth (see Eph 1:3-14).  Moreover, Jesus, as the universal Savior and definitive Lord, is pre-eminent in every way (see Col 1:15-20).  In his name alone do we have salvation (see Acts 4:12).  Because the Son of God humbled himself in becoming man, and in his even greater humility in dying on the cross, the Father, “therefore, highly exalted him, and gave him a name “above every other name” such that at his name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus is unique both as to who he is and as to the manner of salvation he achieves. 

So, is it here that the statement that Pope Francis signed becomes problematic in your view?

Did I make it too obvious?! Yes, it is precisely in this divinely revealed gospel message that Francis’ signed document is doctrinally sticky.  While other religions, except for Judaism, may have “rays” of truth, only Christianity has the full light of truth. As Jesus himself declares: “I, I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).  We must live in Christ if we are to live in the light of truth. While other religions may have rays of truth, they also contain the darkness of error (except for Judaism, which while not possessing the fullness of truth, does not contain any error).  This darkness can only be overcome in the fullness of light, the fullness of truth that is Jesus Christ.

During the recent ad limina visit of the Kazakh bishops to Rome, Bishop Athanasius Schneider raised some of these same concerns with Pope Francis. He wanted to make a distinction between “God’s permissive will,” and “God’s positive will.” Would you agree with this sort of distinction? 

Yes, this is a traditional theological distinction.  God may permit the existence of other religions, since they arise out the natural human search for God; yet he did not positively will them as saving means of salvation. While these religions may aid those who hold their beliefs, those beliefs are not in themselves saving. A Buddhist or Muslim may achieve salvation, but ultimately they do so because Jesus died for their sins and they will rise to glory only because Jesus is their risen Savior and Lord.  The only religions that God positively willed are Judaism and Christianity for he himself founded these religions through his own positive divine actions and revelation.

Pope Francis told Bishop Schneider that the documents he signed could be interpreted in that manner. What are your thoughts on the content of Pope Francis’s “private clarification?” 

I think Francis is willing for people, such as Bishop Schneider, or myself, or many others, to give the document this interpretation.  He is happy to let others interpret it in that manner because, I think, he recognizes that it is a legitimate interpretation.  Actually, in this week’s General Audience, Pope Francis does appear to make this point. He said: “God willed to allow this: the Scholastic theologians referred to the voluntas permissiva [permissive will] of God. He willed to allow this reality: there are many religions; some are born of culture, but they always look to heaven, they look to God.” Although he refers to “the permissive will,” of God with regards to other religions, Pope Francis does not contrast it with God’s “positive will.” Unlike other religions which are of human origin, God positively willed and so directly acted in the founding of Judaism and Christianity.  The problem is that, more than likely, the vast majority of the media and many other theologians and bishops will continue to interpret the original document in the manner that, as God willed Judaism and Christianity, so he also willed other religions – full stop.  There still persists some lack of clarity since Pope Francis has not directly repudiated the original statement as it appears in the Abu Dhabi document.  In the end it is still quite confusing, and unnecessarily so, but that is the normal state of play these days.

What I find very sad and scandalously troubling is that, in the midst of it all, Jesus is being insulted. He is reduced to the level of Buddha or Mohammed when in fact he is the Father’s beloved Messianic Son, the one in whom the Father is well pleased. Ultimately, this insult is also an attack on the Holy Spirit and God the Father himself. “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (Jn. 5:23). Moreover, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 Jn 2:22-23).  This insult, this attack on Jesus, whether intentional or not, can only please the devil and his earthly collaborators.

So, while I believe that Pope Francis may have been well intentioned in signing such a document that states that God willed all religions, his doing so has doctrinal consequences well beyond what he may have envisioned or desired.  What can we do?  We can proclaim, on bended knee, with all of the Saints that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and that his singular reign alone is now and will be forever.  

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