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November 2010

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger



 The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have recently published a document called Meeting God in Friend and Stranger: fostering respect and mutual understanding between the religions [CTS, 2010]. It is described as a "Teaching Document"(1) that has been "approved unanimously by all the bishops of England and Wales" (p. 12).

It is with regret that I say of a document coming to us on such authority that it appears to me likely to weaken yet further the Catholic cause in our country.

I offer the following 'critique' of Meeting God in Friend and Stranger in accord with canon 212:3, which states that Christ's faithful, "have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church," and "the right also to make known their views to others of Christ's faithful, provided the integrity of faith and morals is preserved and reverence is shown toward the pastors." 

Not relativist

Before beginning my critique, I should clearly state that Meeting God in Friend and Stranger is not doctrinally "relativist." It does not suggest that all religions are equally true or useful. On the contrary, from Dominus Iesus, the Declaration published in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it quotes a passage which expressly combats relativism, and affirms "the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ" (26).(2) The bishops note that in inter-religious dialogue, "we may have to confess that what we are meeting is simply false, and not a glimpse of God's truth or holiness" (5).

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger even expresses, in a footnote, the hope that "all people, in their great diversity of race, culture and giftedness, will acknowledge Christ as our one God and Saviour" (36, n.16). Elsewhere, it distinguishes between people and their beliefs, declaring that the term "equality," as applied to inter-religious dialogue, "refers to the equal dignity of the participants, not to equality in the content of what they believe" (59).(3) There is no intention, the bishops add, of making "a comparison between the notable men and women of the world's religions and Jesus Christ, the divine Word made flesh" (ibid.).

All these things are very welcome. 


Nevertheless, the bishops' document appears to suffer from serious omissions, ambiguities and even errors, and to offer dangerous practical suggestions. I shall consider these four categories in turn.

The most obvious omission is that of the Church's teaching before the Second Vatican Council. Meeting God in Friend and Stranger includes thirty-one Church documents in its bibliography; none dates from before 1964. In particular, there is no mention of the all-important teaching of the Council of Florence, which solemnly declared that all "Jews and pagans," that is, all people on earth practising non-Christian religions, need to be joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives in order to find salvation.(4)

The bishops certainly speak of the "importance" of an explicit faith in Christ and membership of the Church (51), but nowhere do they mention this solemn teaching of an Ecumenical Council that those practising non-Christian religions need to leave their religion to be saved, and that faith in Christ is not merely "important" but essential. This teaching of the Council of Florence is not even 're-interpreted' by the document; it is passed over in silence. Yet it remains binding and cannot be changed.

Another important omission in Meeting God in Friend and Stranger concerns Dominus Iesus. Although the bishops quote several times from this Declaration, they do not refer to the very important paragraph 7. This section of Dominus Iesus requires Catholics to make a clear distinction between the divine gift of faith, exercised in the Christian religion, and belief, which is found in the other religions, and which is the product of human tradition or endeavour.(5) In a document that purports to describe the relationship between Christianity and other religions, this is an unfortunate omission.

Finally, the bishops' document does not mention other highly relevant modern texts which re-affirm, though in less trenchant language, the teaching of the Council of Florence on the need for non-Christians to come to faith in Christ. One such text is paragraph 161 of the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church: "believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation." Another is the "Prayer for those who do not believe in Christ," in the Good Friday liturgy of the Missal of Pope Paul VI. This prayer asks for non-Christians that "illumined by the light of the Holy Spirit, they too may be able to enter the way of salvation;" which clearly implies that they are not yet in that way.

In other words, Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, by its omissions, lends support to the common, modern opinion that Christianity is only one way to heaven among others, even if it is the best way. 


As well as omissions, the bishops' document suffers from ambiguities. A famous phrase from the Acts of the Apostles adorns its title-page: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:35). In their original context, these words of St Peter mean that salvation in Christ is available to all, both Jews and Gentiles. Placed at the head of a document about "the religions," they inevitably suggest that salvation is available through any form of worship. The impression is thus created that belief in Christ is not, in fact, necessary for salvation. From the start, then, we find ourselves under the sway, not of heresy, but of ambiguity favouring heresy.(6)

This impression is sustained throughout the document by the use of ambiguous language. In speaking of 'ambiguous language' I do not mean to imply that the authors intended to conceal their true meaning, but simply that distinctions necessary to discuss the subject adequately, distinctions long familiar to theology, are not drawn. I shall summarise these missing distinctions under five partially overlapping titles. 

1. God's presence by grace and his presence by nature

Since God is the cause of all created being, he is present in all things, including all human souls, in the way that a cause is present in its effects. In this sense it is true to say that God is present in people of all religions. Entirely different from this, however, is God's presence within a soul that is in the state of grace. Such a soul has the three divine persons dwelling in it as the objects of its supernatural knowledge and love. This presence of the Holy Trinity giving itself to be known and loved is the privilege of the Christian. If any one love me, Christ told the apostles, my Father will love him, and we will come to him and will make our abode with him (Jn. 14:23).

The bishops do not make this distinction between presence by nature and by grace, but repeat a perhaps unfortunate phrase of Venerable John Paul II about "the Holy Spirit who is mysteriously present in every human heart."(7) I say 'perhaps unfortunate' because the reference to the Holy Spirit tends to suggest God's presence by grace rather than by nature; its repeated use by the bishops, especially when put in conjunction with St Paul's description of the prayer of the believer (133), suggests that all people, or at least all who pray, are already in the state of grace and on the path of salvation.  

2. Natural and supernatural knowledge of God

This distinction is closely related to the former one. The bishops quote the reference in Nostra Aetate to teachings and practices of non-Christians which "reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens everyone" (61, quoting NA 2). For example, by natural reason, which is a far-off reflection of the divine Word, human beings can know the existence of one God and his right to be worshipped. But this natural knowledge is essentially different from divine faith, which is a supernatural participation in the knowledge that God has of himself.

I have already mentioned the passage in Dominus Iesus stating that the distinction between Christian faith and the ideas about God present in other religions, "must be firmly held" (DI 7). Not only does the present document not quote this passage, it also 'muddies the waters' by mentioning the faith of the centurion and of the Syro-phoenician women and commenting that "the gospels clearly take it for granted that saving faith was already at work outside the Chosen People" (121). The unspoken implication is that saving faith can be at work today in those who are not Christians - whereas, obviously, the gentiles mentioned in the gospel were justified precisely by their faith in Christ! 

3. Elements of holiness and justifying power

The document frequently alludes to a phrase in Nostra Aetate which mentions "those things which are true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions" (NA 2).(8) The conciliar phrase in itself is not erroneous: it can refer to naturally-known truths about God, or to beliefs and practices borrowed from the Church, for example the Muslims' veneration for the blessed Virgin. It does not follow, however, that these "elements of truth and holiness," separated from faith in Christ, have the power to justify fallen men.(9)

4. Actual and sanctifying grace

Individual non-Christians can certainly receive actual graces, the purpose of which is to prepare them to come to faith. But sanctifying grace, by which the soul in original and actual sin is cleansed and made into a temple of the holy Trinity requires faith in the Mediator. This follows from the teaching of the Council of Florence already quoted.

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, however, simply speaks of "the active presence of the freely given, saving power of Christ ('grace') outside the visible, institutional confines of the Church" (68), but does not distinguish the actual graces which can lead a non-Christian in the right direction from the grace of justification itself.  

5. Two senses of the word "deficient"

The Bishops' document quotes Dominus Iesus 22 about the "seriously deficient" situation of those in other religions (66, footnote 30) and speaks of the need for "an honest confession of what our faith sees as lacking (that is, needing to be completed) in those religions" (65).

But something can be "deficient" in two senses: either because it lacks something useful, or because it lacks something essential. A man without an eye is "deficient"; so is a man without a head. The document does not make this distinction; but the generally positive tone which the bishops adopt towards other religions, their insistence that this positive attitude is required by obedience to God (115), their repeated reference to elements of holiness in other religions and to the presence of the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit, in the hearts of all - all these things induce the reader to suppose that other religions are "deficient" only in the former sense, and that they will in the end be enough to get their adherents to heaven. But according to St Paul, a man without faith in Christ is a man without his Head - "for the head of every man is Christ" (1 Cor. 11:3). 

Apparent errors

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger seems sometimes to go beyond ambiguity into the realm of error. I shall mention three statements which I claim are erroneous.

 1. The first error is the thesis of the "positive relationship" between the Church and other religions. We read:

The Spirit, then, who is at work in other religions, and supremely in Christ himself, is one and the same Spirit who gives life to the Church. Because it is the same divine Spirit who is at work in both, the Church and the religions have a positive relationship to each other. (73)

How can this be reconciled with the teaching of the Council of Florence, that men must be liberated from non-Christian religions in order to find salvation? Here it is no longer a question, as in Nostra Aetate, of considering non-Christian religions in the abstract, and noting that they can include things which are true or even, considered in themselves and not in a supposed power to justify their adherents, holy. Rather, this passage from the bishops' document considers other religions 'concretely,' insofar as they exist in the world as distinct ways of life incompatible with the following of Christ, and it judges them to be good; for we are told that the religions themselves have a "positive relationship" to the Church.(10)

In fact, whatever "true and holy" things there might be in a non-Christian religion, nevertheless, considered as a unified, active thing which leads its adherents along a definite path, we are obliged to pronounce it bad, since it falsely claims to lead them to the goal of human life. This was what led John Henry Newman to declare, "the Catholic religion is given from God for the salvation of mankind, and all other religions are but mockeries."(11) This is the reason also for the stern language contained in the traditional Roman ritual for the baptism of adults. According to this ritual, the bishop or priest says to an adult convert from idolatry, Hold idols in horror, reject graven images. To an adult Jewish convert he says, Hold Jewish unbelief in horror, reject Hebraic superstition. To an adult convert from Islam, he says, Hold Moslem unbelief in horror, reject the wicked sect of infidelity.(12)

Even if this stern language were one day to be softened for the sake of public relations, as was done for the traditional Good Friday prayer for the Jews, it will always have been contained in the liturgical books for centuries; and any description of the other religions which is incompatible with it is therefore excluded.

 2. The next error concerns the prayers offered by adherents of other religions. We read:

All genuine prayer is in fact the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one God at work within us. It is the Father, through the risen Christ, who bestows the Spirit when we are moved to pray, and when we pray it is in fact the Spirit prompting us to pray to the Father through the Mediator, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. It follows then that although other religions are not Christian, and we must not call them such, they are in the Spirit related to the Church in one and the same movement of prayer, prompted by the Spirit, through Christ to the Father. (136).

This passage first of all fails, as the document consistently fails, to distinguish the natural from the supernatural. There are prayers that are purely natural, which proceed from man merely as a rational being and not as a child of God. These prayers have their own value, but are not salvific. Having failed to make this distinction, it affirms that all prayers are, in effect, supernatural, and that even those who do not call upon the name of Christ are praying in the Holy Spirit with access to God the Father. At the Last Supper, our Lord solemnly declared: No man comes to the Father but by me. But this passage implies that even those who do not know Christ, or who consider him to be merely a prophet, or who even presume to think that he was an impostor, or deluded, also come to the Father, being caught up "in one and the same movement of prayer" as the Church. Where is this in Scripture or Tradition?

 3. The third error concerns Judaism. The document says that "the division between the Jewish community and the Church of Christ… is the deepest wound within the whole People of God of the old and new Covenants."

This implies that the "whole people of God" is composed both of Jews and Christians, rather than of Christians alone. But this is contrary to the teaching of the Council of Florence, that "all those who after that time [of the initial promulgation of the gospel] observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other legal observances are alien from the faith of Christ and can in no way share in eternal salvation unless they come to a right frame of mind and withdraw from these errors."(13)

It is also contrary to the teaching of Venerable Pius XII in Mystici Corporis that "on the Cross, then, the Old Law died, soon to be buried and to be a bearer of death" (MC 30).(14)

 A new teaching?

The bishops are aware of the possibility that Meeting God in Friend and Stranger may seem to be in rupture with Catholic tradition. A section called How new is this teaching? offers two different responses to this accusation.

The first frankly admits the novelty of what is being offered to the faithful. The bishops write, "the present day Catholic Church's promotion of inter-religious dialogue has marked a new departure" (115). They even suggest that this "new departure" enjoys a special divine mandate, affirming that "God is thus inviting the Church to re-consider her relationship to those religions hitherto regarded in a negative or very distant way."

Is this the thesis of continuing revelation?(15) The bishops would, I think, deny this. They appear to mean not that God is telling the Church something new about Islam, say, or Shintoism, but that He is telling us that by talking to Muslims and Shintoists we will understand better what He has already told us about Christ. By dialogue with other religions, they write, God wishes us to "enter more deeply into the riches of the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (ibid.).

Yet this is, after all, a claim to continuing revelation: the bishops are claiming that they, or the Church as a whole since Vatican II, have received a revelation about God's will for dialogue to take place: "God is thus inviting the Church to re-consider her relationship to those religions hitherto regarded in a negative or very distant way." Even if this were true, which for the reasons already suggested I find implausible, would the bishops have the authority to assert it in a "teaching document"? By their office, they are custodians of the revealed deposit, not prophets of new divine dispositions.

Secondly, and contrastingly, the document seeks to anticipate misgivings by asserting its continuity with tradition. We read that that "even though this more positive attitude is new, it still has its roots in Scripture" (115), and that "the truths on which today's Catholic Church builds its teaching are quietly present in its Scriptures, in its Tradition and its history" (127); such truths, for example, as God's love for all people and the presence of righteous Gentiles in the time of the Old Testament.

In response to this, one can say that the Catholic magisterium is not charged with 'building on' truths contained in Scripture and Tradition, but rather with teaching those very truths, and any others which are necessary for them to be adequately taught. So even if the newer, 'built-on' teaching were consistent with Scripture and Tradition, it would not be binding on the faithful.(16) In fact, I have already argued that this 'built-on' teaching is either ambiguous, or else favours or even inculcates things contrary to Scripture and Tradition.

Dangerous practical suggestions

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger contains various suggestions for fostering respect and mutual understanding between people of different religions. Some of these suggestions are surely admirable, for example, that Catholics could work with non-Christians "to protect human life from conception to death"; this in fact is already happening. But others appear dangerous, as tending in practice to foster indifferentism, the view that 'one religion is as good as another.'(17)

For example, the authors recommend that Catholics send their good wishes to non-Christians when the latter celebrate their feast-days (31). Good wishes, or rather good-will, we should have for all people at all times; but what is supposed to be achieved by sending special messages "to Muslims at the time of Eid, to Hindus at Diwali, and to Buddhists at Vesakh" (195), as the document suggests could be done by a bishop or by a parish priest in the name of his parishioners? A feast day is a means by which a given religion publicly manifests and celebrates its inner nature. If we hold that a non-Christian religion is something from which its adherents need to be liberated through the grace of our Lord - and from the Council of Florence, the traditional baptismal ritual, Vatican I and Dominus Iesus, we must conclude that this is the case - how can we promote its feast days by sending along glad messages of solidarity?(18) The recipients of such messages could certainly be excused for concluding that their senders did not think it important for them to become Christians.

Another practical suggestion concerns inter-religious weddings. The authors propose that a priest who conducts such a wedding "can help to adapt the ceremony within canonical and liturgical limits, for instance by using appropriate symbols" (166). One shudders to think what this could lead to at a marriage of a Christian with a Hindu, or with a self-proclaimed 'pagan'.

The dominant practical suggestion of the document, however, is of "multi-religious prayer." This deserves a section to itself. 

Multi-religious prayer

We have already seen the doctrinal principle which the document will use to encourage "the religions," no exceptions made, to perform their rites alongside the Church. This doctrinal principle states that just as Christians pray to the Father through the gift of the Holy Spirit received from the risen Christ, so also "the religions," no exceptions made, "are in the Spirit related to the Church in one and the same movement of prayer, prompted by the Spirit, through Christ to the Father" (136).

To implement this principle, the bishops look to the multi-religious prayer meetings arranged by Pope John Paul II in Assisi. "In 1986, 1993, and 2002, he [the Pope] was joined at Assisi by leaders of the world's religions, and by other Christian leaders, in order to pray for peace" (38). We are informed that "at Assisi, in an extraordinary way, there was the discovery of the unique value that prayer has for peace" [italics added] (133).(19) They insist that "the meetings at Assisi remain a model and an inspiring example of what we can do" (138) and earnestly recommend that "the form of… multi-religious prayer follow that of Assisi" (152).

The bishops mention more than once their wish to avoid "syncretism," that is, the mixing together of religions. "We cannot literally pray together, because prayer is an expression of faith, and we do not share one faith" (137).(20) "No prayer is voiced in common, and the integrity of each tradition is respected" (152). Nevertheless, they recommend that "the religions come together" either in a place of worship belonging to one of them or on neutral ground (144), using "symbolic gestures" to create "the right sense of unity" (152), and they say that those who do this, "in the one Spirit beyond the reach of our understanding, pray in solidarity with one another" (137).

What is wrong with this? First of all, even if the distinction between "coming to pray together" and "coming together to pray" (138) could be maintained in practice, "multi-religious prayer" would inevitably sow grave errors in the minds of the faithful.

Let us imagine a scene. A parish priest invites his parishioners to come to a multi-religious prayer service. He begins by reading from Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, telling his flock that the Holy Spirit dwells in everyone's heart (135), that we are united in one Spirit beyond the reach of our understanding (137) and that God is inviting the Church to re-consider her relationship to other religions (115). He then invites a Muslim, a Jew and a Hindu to offer prayers which naturally make no mention of Christ, and bids his parishioners "silently give encouragement to those who are praying" (138), since they are "prompted by the Spirit" (136). He concludes by repeating that the Holy Spirit dwells in everyone's heart, and then dismisses his flock, telling them to think over what they have experienced.

Would this prayer-meeting make the parishioners more or less likely to hold that Jesus Christ is the one Mediator, that we can only be saved by faith in Him, and that we should be willing to face death rather than deny a dogma of the faith? Or if one of the younger members of the parish were attracted, let us say, towards a Muslim of the opposite sex and was being openly or subtly pressurised by the Muslim family to convert to Islam, would this experience make him more or less likely to apostatise?

Secondly, will the wafer-thin distinction between "coming together to pray" and "coming to pray together" be observed in practice? Is it not much more likely, especially if the groups are within the same building, as Meeting God in Friend and Stranger envisages, that a natural (and not supernatural!) instinct of 'solidarity' would prompt Christians to add their "Amen" to the prayers of a rabbi or an imam? And what would this be, but engaging in non-Christian worship?

And with who or what would the faithful be in "communion" if they joined in the prayers of the Hindus? 


I do not question the good intentions of this document's authors. But I do question their doctrine and prudence. A bishop is charged with being, in the beautiful phrase of the prophet Isaiah, 'a restorer of the breach' (Is. 58:12). But in my judgement this document is liable to put yet further breaches into the City's walls.



(1) Foreword (p. 7) and preface (p. 12). 

(2) All numbered references henceforth are to sections, not pages. 

(3) This important distinction, however, is absent elsewhere. The bishops often speak of respecting religions, as opposed simply to respecting their adherents: for example in paragraphs 146, 152, 159, 166, and in the document's subtitle. 

(4) 'The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics and schismatics can share in eternal life unless they are joined to her before the end of their life' (Denzinger 1351). The Council of Florence did not say that the non-Christians could only be saved by entering the Church publicly, which leaves open the possibility of a 'death-bed illumination' for one who has sought to follow the natural law; but it does deny that they can be saved in their present religious state (for the idea of a 'death-bed illumination', see, e.g., the important letter of Fr Brian Harrison OS published in First Things in May 2008.)

(5) Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. Faith, therefore, as "a gift of God" and as "a supernatural virtue infused by him", involves a dual adherence: to God who reveals and to the truth which he reveals, out of the trust which one has in him who speaks. Thus, "we must believe in no one but God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit". For this reason, the distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions, must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which "makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently", then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute. This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself (Dominus Iesus, 7).'

(6) It is instructive to contrast this use of a scriptural text with the comment appended by an earlier English bishop, the Servant of God Richard Challoner, to the same verse. In the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, revised by Challoner, we are warned in regard to Acts 10:35, 'Beware… of the error of those who would infer from this passage that men of all religions may be pleasing to God. For since none but the true religion can be from God, all other religions must be from the father of lies, and therefore highly displeasing to the God of truth.'

(7) Pope John Paul II used this phrase in a 1986 address to the Roman Curia; he cites it in Redemptoris Missio, 29, where, significantly, he describes it simply as 'my conviction' [Nostram persuasionem], not as a teaching of the Church. The bishops use the phrase without any such qualification (104, 133, 135).

(8) For example, paragraphs 61, 62, 71, 116, 126.

(9) Vatican I taught that 'without faith no one has ever attained justification' (Dz. 3012). This statement should be juxtaposed with the teaching of Dominus Iesus 7 already quoted, that the belief-systems of other religions must be clearly distinguished from faith.

(10) In scholastic parlance, the document is apparently considering the non-Christian religions 'formally,' as unified things, not 'materially,' that is, not looking simply at their component parts, as one can argue that Nostra Aetate was doing.

(11) 'The Salvation of the Hearer the Motive of the Preacher,' in Discourses to Mixed Congregations, Discourse I, 1849.

(12) 'De Baptismo Adultorum' in Rituale Romanum, Rome, 1944. This ritual can be used by any priest of the Latin rite when administering adult baptism, as confirmed in 2007 by Summorum Pontificum.

(13) Dz. 1348.

(14) The bishops' document singles out for praise the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion (194), a congregation founded in the 19th Century to work and pray for the conversion of the Jews. A member of the congregation who was working for the Bishops' Conference told the present writer in a private letter in 2005 that the Church's "attitude" toward Judaism had "undergone a revolutionary change" since Vatican II, and that the Sisters no longer have "a proselytising mission to the Jews."

(15) Condemned by St Pius X in Lamentabili, 21.

(16) Perhaps the authors of the document would argue that this 'built-on' teaching is necessary in order to preserve the deposit of faith, for example to teach the doctrine of God's love for all men. But that 'God is charity' certainly does not imply that Islam has a 'positive relationship' to the Church or that all prayer, even when made at the shrines of Hindu deities, is offered by Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

(17) We have already seen that the document disavows indifferentism considered as a doctrinal position, e.g. in sections 25-7.

(18) The document cites the example of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, but this body is hardly an organ of the magisterium.

(19) Did Assisi promote the peace of the Church? The 1986 prayer meeting was one of the chief causes that led Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer to consecrate bishops without papal mandate in 1988.

(20) This principle would also seem to preclude prayer with non-Catholic Christians, since the things that separate us are also matters of faith, not merely of opinion.



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