A proper pluralism: balancing the truth with freedom of conscience

by Omar F.A. Gutierrez

To answer the question that ended Joanna Bratten’s article “Pluralism and Orthodoxy” (Vol. IV, issue 1) a good and faithful Catholic must definitely answer, “No.” Ms. Bratten’s question reads, “We are called, yes, to make believers of all the world; but are we somewhere, somehow, permitted to make exceptions?” She asks in effect whether we might accept the pious Muslim as a good and faithful follower of his conscience and then leave him there as a Muslim. The idea, as she illustrates, is that the Lord will have mercy on the Muslim, much like Aslan had mercy on the young Calormen soldier in Lewis’ The Last Battle. Aslan deemed the soldier’s worship of a false god as being, ultimately, worship of Himself, since the soldier was “pure of heart and devoted entirely to what he believed to be right and good,” as Ms. Bratten put it.

What more can one ask of a human being than that he follow his conscience? The answer to that question depends greatly on the view of the relation between the person and truth.

The question of religious freedom and of the related issue of the liberty of conscience has been a hot topic in and outside the Church since the early to mid-1800’s. Four years after the 1870 Vatican I declaration on Papal infallibility, John Henry Cardinal Newman penned a two hundred page open letter to the Duke of Norfolk (then the ranking Catholic in England) in response to former Prime Minister Gladstone’s publicly calling into question the ability of Catholics to be loyal subjects of the English Crown. As Gladstone saw it, if a Catholic was obliged to follow the will of the Pope, he was not free to vote according to England’s best interests. Gladstone was in part reacting to the then-infamous Syllabus of Errors, published in 1864 by Pope Pius IX. The Syllabus explicitly stated, among other things, that in a Catholic State one cannot think it correct to allow other faiths to express themselves freely and openly. Error number fifteen reads, “Every man is free to embrace and profess the religion which he, led by the light of reason, thinks to be the true religion.” That statement is an error. So, phrased differently, Pius IX is saying that no man has the right to choose “by the light of reason” any religion but the Catholic religion. This would seem to eliminate the possibility of a Catholic’s believing in religious freedom. As Gladstone and many others saw it, the Pope was calling the faithful to ignore their consciences and blindly follow the word of the Pontifex Maximus.

Canon fifteen and many others in the Syllabus are sometimes hard to swallow. But they become down right baffling when we contrast them with what the Fathers of Vatican II wrote in Dignitatis Humanae: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has the right to religious freedom.” The apparent contradiction with earlier Church teaching is among the things that led many—now no longer with the Church—to consider the Council invalid. It does seem, does it not, that the Church altogether changed her position on religious freedom between 1864 and 1965? But I assure you she did not, and the explanation of this seeming contradiction sheds much light on how we can balance the belief in the truth of our Faith with respect for other faiths, or more accurately persons of other faiths.

Islam is wrong. Jesus was not just another prophet. In light of the fact that Islam is wrong no man anywhere has the right to adhere to it. And I know that Islam is factually erroneous because faith, as Josef Pieper tells us, is “an unrestricted, unreserved, unconditional assent,”1 and I have faith that God, the very sustainer of all being, has revealed Himself more completely in the Catholic Faith. Faith is an action of the will. It must be unwavering and “unreserved,” because, as Newman writes, “A person who says, ‘I believe just at this moment…but I cannot answer for myself that I shall believe tomorrow,’ does not believe.”2 I do not trust that what is revealed is true; I know it is true, and this type of knowledge is referred to here as faith.

Looked at from this perspective, there is no such thing as religious freedom. Freedom is often thought as being freedom from acting. It is more accurately understood as freedom to act rightly. Therefore, insofar as the Islamic religion (or any other religion) is wrong, no one is free to hold it. No one is properly free to think that a thing can be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. No one is free to hold true something that is not true. No one is free to think that erroneous notions are accurate ones. To think such a thing would be an act of violence towards one’s nature, a nature directed towards truth. To think such a thing is to attempt to create truth.

While the Church most assuredly states that no one has the right to follow error, she also states that all men are bound to follow their conscience. The Pope quotes St. Bonaventure when he writes, in Veritatas Splendor: “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force”(58). Gaudium et Spes says, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths”(16). If a man’s conscience, formed in a Muslim society by Muslim parents, tells him to be Muslim, then he must be a faithful and dutiful Muslim.

Conscience is not infallible, but each person is, regardless, bound to follow it. I accept the pious Muslim for being a follower of his conscience. In fact I commend him for it. He may very well be a better follower of his conscience than I, a Christian, and consequently might please God more. However, at the same time, I am bound by Christ’s words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”3   I find it necessary, then, to attempt to better inform his conscience of the full truth of Jesus Christ our Lord. I cannot condemn him for being Muslim, if he is following his conscience, but I most certainly can condemn his erroneous religion.

Pius IX and Vatican II are not at odds with each other. They merely approach the question of Truth from two different standpoints. No one has the right to claim that they have arrived by reasonable deduction to the fact that any other Faith but the Catholic Faith is true, because no other Faith is as true as the Catholic Faith. But all have the duty to follow their consciences, even if their conscience leads them away from the truth, so long as they are ignorant of its doing so. That right and responsibility is granted to them by virtue of their dignity as human persons.

With C.S. Lewis, I think it very likely that, when the Judgement arrives, non-Christians who attempted to mold their consciences in truth, and followed them faithfully throughout their lives, will be looked upon with much mercy by our Lord. St. Justin Martyr spoke of the “spermatic Logos” the “seeds of the Word” that are part of all creation by virtue of the fact that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”4 Other faiths have truth in them, and so the believer of Islam can direct his conscience towards the truth in Islam without ever learning of their foundation in the Word.

In short, errors do not have rights but the erroneous do. And so finally to answer Joanna K. Bratten’s question: No, we may not make exceptions. But yes, we may make allowances.

Omar Gutierrez graduated from FUS in 1997. He is presently a lay student of theology at the Angelicum in Rome.

  1. Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius, 1986), 28 ↑
  2. John Henry Newman, “Faith and Doubt,” in Discourses to Mixed Congregations (London, 1881), 216 ↑
  3. Matthew 28:19 (RSV) ↑
  4. John 1:3 (RSV) ↑