by Will Deatherage, Executive Director
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,Is 45:1, 4-6
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
God often works through the most unexpected people. In the above passage, Isaiah describes the relationship between God and Cyrus, the king of Persia who liberated the Jews from their Babylonian oppressors. Cyrus, who received the epithet “anointed one” (a title later given to Christ), certainly was no Israelite. In fact, he was a devout Zoroastrian, an ancient Persian pagan religion that rejected many tenants of Judaism. If anything, Cyrus’s liberation of Israel and allowance of Jewish practice in his kingdom stemmed from his desire to govern effectively, not because he recognized Judaism’s legitimacy. Despite this, Isaiah elevates Cyrus above most Hebrew Kings from the Old Testament. But how could someone who was not one of God’s chosen people attain such incredible honor?
Last year, Pope Francis urged Catholics to not be afraid of other religions, affirming that they play a role in God’s plan. Because He is the source of all goodness, God can act through the goodness of all people, regardless of their faith. After all, the roots of Judaism are found in several ancient pagan religions, having inherited many beliefs, customs, and rituals from their Canaanite counterparts (see Dr. Mark Smith’s Early History of God). Though this might seem unnerving, it is important to recall that we believe in a God whose attributes can be discerned by both faith and natural reason. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved,” (CCC 483). God’s presence and goodness is etched into our very being. To suggest that God acts through other religions is nothing revolutionary. Remember that Cyrus was no Jew, yet the authors of Scripture believe that God acted through Him.
The Gospels present us with an excellent point of juxtaposition:
The Pharisees went offMt 21:15-22
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
In this passage, Christ rebukes Pharisees, trained scholars of Jewish law. Here, we see that the very people who were entrusted with protecting God’s law distorted it and weaponized it for their own advantages. The scene is unfortunately not a distant relic from the past but is rather a constant reality that haunts the human condition. At times, we all can be Pharisees, and even the judgment of our religious leaders can fall into error. This does not make Catholicism erroneous. Indeed, the Catholic Church is the primary mechanism of salvation. Instead, it is important to recognize the merits of other religions, compare our ways to theirs, and even consider integrating their perspectives into ours (as St. Augustine would say in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, we must “despoil the Egyptians”). After all, without pagan philosophy that was preserved by Muslims, we would not have Thomism.
Worship the LORD, in holy attire;Ps 96:9-10
tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The LORD is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.
God’s goodness shines through those whom we least expect. Whether they be ancient pagan kings or modern loud-mouthed presidents, scripture shows us that we should not measure the goodness of a person based on creed alone, but should look to how their actions reflect a participation, regardless of awareness, in God’s holy plan. President Donald Trump, for example, is no Catholic. He is, like all of us, an imperfect person whose behavior often does not reflect the values of Christianity, but his policies against horrific practices like abortion should be recognized and praised. While this is not a call to vote for him, his presidency provides a valuable exercise in understanding how God can work through even the most controversial of figures today. On the other hand, the sex abuse crisis has shown that there are religious leaders in our own Church who have spoken greatly of their faith while their actions have shown a disregard for everything the Church stands for.
I have little doubt that many non-baptized (on Earth) persons will be saved while many baptized will be damned. I reiterate that all goodness comes from God. A participation in the goods we arrive at through reason is not acting through the goodness of another deity; it is God’s goodness alone (though it cannot be equated to saving grace). If actions speak louder than words, then a tacit orthopraxy is miles better than a distorted orthodoxy. Other religions laid the groundwork for Judaism, liberated Israel, and inspired Thomism. Clearly, God has worked through them many times. It is therefore important to recognize and commend the merits of our non-Christian brothers and sisters, as we identify areas of commonality that will ultimately yield a singular, unified, Catholic Church.