Earlier this summer my wife and I became friends with a young person, about the same age as us, who let us know that they are beginning the RCIA process this year. This person is excited to join the Church and my wife and I were both surprised that she wasn’t already Catholic! We had run into each other several times at Theology on Tap events around the area.
Are All Religions Created Equal?
In our conversations, we found out that one priest had been giving some heterodox ideas on ecumenism. What the priest effectively told our friend (and all others in attendance) was that the Gospel did not need to be preached to non-Christians, let alone an undistorted version of the Gospel to non-Catholic Christians, because they would attain salvation by being “good Muslims,” or “good Hindus,” or “good Sikhs.”
My friend was appalled, as was I upon hearing this variation on the “mountaintop theory.” This theory of salvation posits that God sits at the summit of a mountain; there are many different paths to that summit, and those paths represent the various religions of the world. For a prospective convert to the faith, they should rightfully ask why they should even try to convert. If the mountaintop theory is right, and all religions are equal, then the Great Commission is nonsense. How do we respond to those that do not recognize the superiority of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular?
Already, some may balk at using the language of superiority when referring to Catholicism. But it’s true. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Truth is like this circle; it has 360 degrees. And that fullness [of the Truth] would be found in Christ’s Mystical Body.” So the Catholic Church has all 360 degrees of the Truth. But then he says, “We are to think of every religion under the sun having something good.” I agree. Islam, for example, acknowledges the Abrahamic God. Some of its teachings are virtuous. Sheen continues, “A religion that started in Los Angeles just this afternoon has some good in it. It only has 10 degrees, but it’s got some good.”
The Goal of Ecumenism
Obviously, we should focus on the good; that leads to good ecumenism. But what is the goal of ecumenism?
Ultimately, the purpose of ecumenism is to bring those outside the Church into the Church. Even recent Popes have said they respect the Muslim community, but this isn’t a wholesale approval of Islam itself. So eventually, if the discussion progresses far enough, we have to point out the differences to get somewhere. So let’s say that Islam, having more truth in it than a religion created today, has 90 degrees. Well, that’s not a full circle, but the Catholic Church with 360 degrees is a perfect circle. Which circle is superior? The circle with 360 degrees, as it possesses the fullness of being a circle.
To gloss over differences is intellectually dishonest. One of the best conversations I’ve had regarding faith and salvation was with a Jehovah’s Witness who knocked at my door. I have such profound respect for him because while we heavily disagreed on many fronts, we both realized that either one of us or both of us were on the wrong path. We both couldn’t simultaneously be on the right path as our belief systems contradicted each other. In all honesty, we could both be wrong, but we can’t both be right. We didn’t hold back the difficult truths from each other, and that is what true ecumenism does. It leads people to the truth.
Ecclesiam Suam and Non-Christian Religions
We would do well to look back at the writings of Bl. Pope Paul VI. We’ve heard a lot about Humane Vitae this year, but one of his papal writings that many are not familiar with came at the beginning of his papacy. It deals with this very question of whether or not we as Catholic Christians should encourage people to become Catholic.
Bl. Paul issued his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam on August 6, 1964. In this encyclical, the pope’s intent is to “demonstrate with increasing clarity how vital it is for the world, and how greatly desired by the Catholic Church, that the two should meet together, and get to know and love one another (ES 3).” Notice that what is said here is consistent with what would later be said in Lumen Gentium 16 regarding those that have not heard the Gospel. However, Bl. Paul’s words in this encyclical have a particular urgency when talking about the necessity of the Catholic Church. He makes it clear that the Catholic Church is not just one path among many to God, indeed, it is the only path to God. We will quote him at length, with my emphases:
Then we see another circle around us. … It comprises first of all those men who worship the one supreme God, whom we also worship. We would mention first the Jewish people, who still retain the religion of the Old Testament, and who are indeed worthy of our respect and love.
Then we have those worshipers who adhere to other monotheistic systems of religion, especially the Moslem religion. We do well to admire these people for all that is good and true in their worship of God.
And finally we have the followers of the great Afro-Asiatic religions.
Obviously we cannot agree with these various forms of religion, nor can we adopt an indifferent or uncritical attitude toward them on the assumption that they are all to be regarded as on an equal footing, and that there is no need for those who profess them to enquire whether or not God has Himself revealed definitively and infallibly how He wishes to be known, loved, and served. Indeed, honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that the Christian religion is the one and only true religion, and it is our hope that it will be acknowledged as such by all who look for God and worship Him. (ES 107)
Blessed Paul is making it known that we should admire non-Christians like Muslims insofar that they worship the one true God. But also notice that Bl. Paul also instructs us to not take an uncritical attitude towards Islam. If it only has 90 degrees of the truth, then there are many deficiencies in the religion, namely that Jesus is not recognized as God incarnate. It is not enough to be a “good Muslim” or a “good Hindu.” It’s not even enough to be a “good Baptist” or a “good Lutheran.” We must be open with others that Catholicism is the only true religion.
Ecclesiam Suam and Non-Catholic Christians
Blessed Paul goes on as he talks about the larger Body of Christ, encompassing all Christians:
And so we come to the circle which is nearest to us, and which comprises all those who take their name from Christ. In this area the ecumenical dialogue, as it is called, is already in being, and there are places where it is beginning to make considerable progress. …
We must stress however that it is not in Our power to make any concessions regarding the integrity of the faith and the obligations of charity. We realize that this may cause misgiving and opposition in certain quarters, but now that the Catholic Church has on its own initiative taken steps to restore the unity of Christ’s fold, it will not cease to exercise the greatest prudence and deliberation. It will continue to insist that the claims it makes for itself — claims which still have the effect of alienating the separated brethren — derive from the will of Christ, not from any spirit of self-aggrandizement based on the record of its past achievements, nor from any unsound theological speculation. Rightly understood, they will be seen to be for the good of all, for the common unity, liberty and fullness of the Christian life. The Catholic Church will never cease to prepare itself by prayer and penance for the longed-for reconciliation. …
Are there not those who say that unity between the separated Churches and the Catholic Church would be more easily achieved if the primacy of the Roman pontiff were done away with? We beg our separated brothers to consider the groundlessness of this opinion. Take away the sovereign Pontiff and the Catholic Church would no longer be catholic. Moreover, without the supreme, effective, and authoritative pastoral office of Peter the unity of Christ’s Church would collapse. It would be vain to look for other principles of unity in place of the true one established by Christ Himself. As St. Jerome rightly observed: “There would be as many schisms in the Church as there are priests.” (ES 109-110)”
Blessed Paul teaches us that the Catholic Church is absolutely necessary. It’s not simply one vehicle to travel up the mountain with. It’s the only vehicle! Notice how he points out that concessions can’t be made with our separated Christian brethren due to the fact that charity demands we be honest with them. It is not charitable to tell our Methodist or Presbyterian friends that they’re all right where they’re at. It is, however, supremely charitable to tell our separated brethren that the grace of the sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist, will sustain them as we sojourn on this earth. We must let them know that our Lord built the Church on the rock, on St. Peter, and that the unity that our Lord desires for all Christians can only be found in the Catholic Church.
It’s truly sad when we find out that our shepherds and pastors, as my friend described, have forgotten that the Catholic Church is set apart. By containing the fullness of the truth, it is qualitatively different from every other religion, whether it be Christian or non-Christian. Bl. Paul is clear, as have been popes both before and since that 1964 encyclical. If we want to see people on the summit with us at the end of our lives, we need to start telling them to look to the Catholic Church. To do any less is to be, by definition, uncharitable in the extreme.