Catholic Teaching on Non-Christian Religions

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The following was a college essay written by Juliet Mattingly. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Juliet Mattingly, Benedictine College

There are a variety of possible attitudes one can hold towards other religions. These each deal with two things – where one can find divine revelation and whether or not one can find salvation outside of Christianity. Divine revelation is split into two categories: cosmic and historical. Cosmic revelation is the revelation that can be found hidden in the world around oneself, such as in the beauty of snow. Historical revelation is when God made himself present in history, such as when Christ came or when the Scriptures were inspired and written. The first possible mindset is that of exclusivism. In an exclusivist mindset, Christianity is the only place in which you can find divine revelation – cosmic or historical, and the only place in which you can find salvation. Jan Van Wiele, in her article “Neo-Thomism and the Theology of Religions: A Case Study on Belgian and U.S. Textbooks,” defines exclusivism as “the model that sees Christianity as holding the exclusive monopoly on truth and salvation” (1). The second possible mindset is inclusivism. With this way of thinking, the understanding is that one can find knowledge of God within cosmic revelation, and salvation can sometimes be found outside of Christianity. Van Wiele defines inclusivism as “the interreligious model that recognizes other religions as possibly possessing partial truth and a certain possibility of salvation” (1). The final mindset is that of pluralism. Pluralism believes God left other historical revelations outside of Jesus etc. – as in God entered into history with these other religions also. With this line of thinking, it naturally follows that salvation is available outside of Christianity. Pluralism has two forms: all of the varying paths and religions ultimately lead to the same end or where other religions disagree, Christianity is the norm (Salzmann, 30 Jan 2020). The Catholic Church teaches inclusivism as the proper mindset.

Prior to Vatican II, there were a couple problematic ideas floating around society. One of these was modernism, which is the idea that religion does not communicate any absolute truth, but rather simply communicates differences in people and societies (Salzmann, 30 Jan 2020). “Within this field were authors who challenged the uniqueness of Christianity on the basis of alleged parallels between Christianity and other religions. This tendency was regarded in Catholic circles as a typical and dangerous expression of modernism, an expression that threatened the traditional Catholic claims about the truth and uniqueness of Christianity and that, in the opinion of many Catholic apologists of that period, needed to be refuted vigorously” (Van Wiele, 2). Another was indifferentism, which is the idea that all religions come from the same place and are equal, so it doesn’t matter which religion you are (Salzmann, 30 Jan 2020). Prior to Vatican II, the Catholic Church was focusing on trying to strongly refute these concepts via being actively anti-relativist and striving to avoid the scandal of appearing to give into these concepts. For instance, Catholics would rarely – if ever – attend a service at another Chrisitan church (Salzmann, 30 Jan 2020). At first glance, these ideas and this conduct seem as if Catholicism took an exclusivist stance on other religions. However, this was not the case – these characteristics were simply the side effect of protecting the Church and her true teachings. Even before Vatican II, Catholicism has taken an inclusivist stance. This, as researched by Van Wiele, can be seen in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. She states about the Summa Theologiae, “Two… important universal principles concerning God’s salvific economy can be distilled: (1) The whole human race needs a divine revelation that opens the way to eternal salvation, and (2) God makes Godself known without exception to all humans from the beginning of the world” (Van Wiele, 5). Van Wiele explains that God’s salvific will and love would lead to the conclusion that all people are a part of God’s plan of salvation: “One finds the affirmation that all people have the same origin – and hence belong to the same community -and have the same final destiny because they, without exception, are the object of God’s providence, goodness, and salvific will” (4). St. Robert Bellarmine reaffirms this stance by stating, “People to whom the Gospel has not yet been preached can know through creatures that God exists, and then can be moved by God’s prevenient grace to believe that God exists and rewards those who seek him, and from such faith they can be further led to God directing them and helping them, to prayer and works of charity, and in this way they can obtain, through prayer, a greater light of faith” (Salzmann, 28 Jan 2020). Popes Alexander VIII and Clement XI also supported the words of Bellarmine (Salzmann, 28 Jan 2020). Although at first glance it may seem like the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church was rather exclusivist, it is clear after a small amount of digging that the Catholic Church was, and always has held inclusivism as correct.

Post-Vatican II, the Church’s inclusivist stance becomes more apparent. Jesus Christ is the only instance of historical revelation from Christianity. He came to show humanity through word and deed how to live and to bring humanity to the Catholic Church, as well as to open the way of God’s grace and salvation (Salzmann, 16 Jan 2020). The Holy Spirit and Christ work together in one economy to give grace and salvation to the world (Dominus Iesus, 12). This is done through baptism and the Holy Spirit. In order to be saved, one must be in God’s grace and thus also a member of the Church family. There are many types of baptism. Some offer a hope of salvation for those outside of the Church, such as the implicit desire for baptism. This leaves the door wide open for an appreciation for other religions over atheism, as well as for the mindset of inclusivism (Salzmann, 30 Jan 2020). “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (Nostra Aetate, 2). Some religions are more closely related to Catholicism than others, and so thus some have more of the fullness of truth contained in Catholicism. “From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense” (Nostra Aetate, 2). Another movement of Vatican II was to impress upon the world the idea that religion is better than atheism. After all, other religions do hold some amount of the truth. “Dominus Iesus” discusses the idea that books of other faiths may have revelation in them, although none are inspired like the books of the Bible (8). The Church also strives to avoid pushing the mindset that all religions are equal or that religious differences are irrelevant. “With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifference characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another” (Dominus Iesus, 22). The Church is striving to present a mindset towards other religions that offers a hope for salvation and an acknowledgement of what is true in them while still upholding the unique truth of Catholicism – a mindset that is found in inclusivism.

Interreligious dialogue is a key part of evangelization, although when one engages in interreligious dialogue, one cannot expect any change out of the other person but must instead seek to understand. However, this by no means lessens the need for other forms of evangelization. “Dialogue and Proclamation,” a church document on the topic of evangelization and interreligious dialogue, warns of taking an extreme stance on the need for only dialogue or only proclamation, but explains how both are needed. Pope John Paul II stated, “Just as interreligious dialogue is one element in the mission of the Church, the proclamation of God’s saving work in Our Lord Jesus Christ is another… there can be no question of choosing one and ignoring or rejecting the other” (Dialogue and Proclamation, 6). Interreligious dialogue allows Catholics to understand others and allows others to understand Catholicism, which leads to a deeper sense of unity and cohesion, making this an extremely important part of evangelisation – after all, if one does not understand well who they are speaking to, how can they expect to evangelise well? One must come to understand the traditions of others. “These traditions are to be approached with great sensitivity on account of the spiritual and human values enshrined in them” (Dialogue and Proclamation, 14). Understanding others is the first step to understanding how to bring them home to the Catholic Church, making interreligious dialogue an important part of evangelization. Interreligious dialogue, through leading us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures, both enables people to better evangelize, as well as just grow in knowledge of our brothers and sisters.

Works Cited

Salzmann, Andrew. Christianity and World Religions. Benedictine College. 16 January 2020 Atchison, KS. Course Lecture.

Salzmann, Andrew. Christianity and World Religions. Benedictine College. 28 January 2020 Atchison, KS. Course Lecture.

Salzmann, Andrew. Christianity and World Religions. Benedictine College. 30 January 2020 Atchison, KS. Course Lecture.

Salzmann, Andrew. “Proposed Agenda for Day 4”. Christianity and World Religions Benedictine College. 28 January 2020. Atchison, KS. Course Lecture.

Van Wiele, Jan. “Neo-Thomism and the Theology of Religions: A Case Study on Belgian and U.S. Textbooks”. Christianity and World Religions. Benedictine College. 28 January 2020. Atchison, KS. Course Lecture.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

One Response

  1. The only way to be in God’s grace and thus also a member of the Church family is to have the Spirit of Christ within us. This is what Christ came to show humanity through word and deed; and He came to show us how to live and to bring humanity to the Catholic Church. Rays of truth in other religions are not enough for salvation unless they result in the presence of Christ within the members.
    Scripture instructs us on how this comes about. This is the fundamental uniqueness of Christianity.

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