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Pope Francis: an eyewash or a new beginning?

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Pope Francis: an eyewash or a new beginning?
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The office of the Pope is inarguably one of the most influential in the world. His words and actions have an effect on not only the ardent followers of the Catholic Church but also on millions of non-Christians across the world. It is in this background that Pope Francis’s announcement at the end of the Third Vatican Council that all religions are true, assumes great significance.

The Third Vatican Council concluded on 5 December 2013 after six months of deep deliberations by cardinals, bishops and senior theologians on Christian theology and its doctrines and dogmas. The Third Vatican Council is undoubtedly the largest and the most important since the Second Vatican Council was concluded in 1962. Pope Francis convened the new council with the objective to “finally finish the work of the Second Vatican Council.”

It was at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that the doctrinal document, “Lumen Gentium” was laid out. Thus far, it was the most generous official posture of the Vatican towards non-Christians. This document, which is now part of the official teaching of the Church, makes a highly qualified concession to other faiths:

Those also can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

In other words, it is a fault to not be a Christian. But those of you who are not Christians, owing to your ignorance about the greatness of the Faith, can still attain salvation if you sincerely seek (the Christian) God through the dictates of your conscience.

This doctrinal posture of the Vatican against non-Christians, emerging out of its Second Vatican Council, was one of the most generous ones given its long history. But even this position suffered, when Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) issued an updated doctrine called “Dominus Jesus.” This clarified that the “truth of other religions” was limited compared to Catholicism, and no others could be considered its equals.

With the Vatican taking a posture like this one, it becomes impossible for any sort of meaningful inter-faith dialogue. Apart from the woefully limited influence of the church on the lives of people in the West, its conservative Biblical positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex and other such issues has led to great confrontations between the church and the so-called progressives and liberals in recent times. It was felt, and rightly so, that the church was n0t accommodative and inclusive.

It is because of such a background that Pope Francis’ statement appears significant. Unlike earlier exhortations of the Church, Pope Francis did not encrypt his message in ambiguous lingo. He said:

All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.  

But what about the fact that the Bible condemns all non-believers to eternal hell? Here’s what the Pope said:

The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.

What was more courageous— if we may use the word— was the admission by Pope Francis that many portions of the Bible were outdated and they need to be reviewed:

The Bible is a beautiful holy book, but like all great and ancient works, some passages are outdated. Some even call for intolerance or judgement. The time has come to see these verses as later interpolations, contrary to the message of love and truth, which otherwise radiates through the scripture.

But what stands out, in my personal opinion, is this declaration by the Pope, which is in line with the millennia old Hindu thought:

…because Muslims, Hindus and African Animists are also made in the very likeness and image of God, to hate them is to hate God! To reject them to is to reject God and the Gospel of Christ. Whether we worship at a church, a synagogue, a mosque or a mandir, it does not matter. Whether we call God, Jesus, Adonai, Allah or Krishna, we all worship the same God of love. This truth is self-evident to all who have love and humility in their hearts!

Sadly, this self- evident truth was not evident to the Church for more than two thousand years, and the less said about the Muslims the better. Both the Christian and Muslim Gods, unlike Krishna, are jealous Gods. Abrahamic faiths presuppose the non-worship of other Gods as one of the primary tests of their respective faiths. Therefore, this admission by the Pope is quite noteworthy.

At this point, it is important to appreciate the Vedantic approach. When a Vedantist studied even an Abrahamic God, he did so in the light of the Vedantic truth. A case in point can be found in Swami Vivekananda’s lecture on Christ, The Messenger delivered at Los Angeles, California, in 1900.

As it has been said by the same Messenger, “No man hath seen God at any time, but through the Son.” And that is true. And where shall we see God but in the Son? It is true that you and I, and the poorest of us, the meanest even, embody that God, reflect that God.

Swami Vivekananda further says:

He had no other occupation in life; no other thought except that one, that he was a Spirit. He was a disembodied, unfettered, unbounded Spirit. And not only so, but he, with his marvelous vision, had found that every man and woman, whether Jew or Gentile, whether rich or poor, whether saint or sinner, was the embodiment of the same undying Spirit as himself. Therefore, the one work his whole life showed, was calling upon them to realize their own spiritual nature….

You must remember that humanity travels not from error to truth, but from truth to truth; it may be, if you like it better, from lower truth to higher truth, but never from error to truth. Suppose you start from here and travel to the sun in a straight line. From here the sun looks only small in size. Suppose you go forward a million miles, the sun will be much bigger. At every stage the sun will become bigger and bigger. Suppose twenty thousand photographs have been taken of the same sun, from different standpoints; these twenty thousand photographs will all certainly differ from one another. But can you deny that each is a photograph of the same sun? So all forms of religion, high or low, are just different stages towards that eternal state of Light which is God himself.

The more significant part of his talk was however, this:

One more point. All the teachers of humanity are unselfish. Suppose Jesus of Nazareth was teaching, and a man came and told him: “What you teach is beautiful. I believe that it is the way to perfection and I am ready to follow it; but I do not care to worship you as the only begotten Son of God.” What would be the answer of Jesus of Nazareth? “Very well, brother, follow the ideal and advance in your own way. I do not care whether you give credit for the teaching or not. I am not a shopkeeper. I do not trade in religion. I can only teach truth, and truth is nobody’s property. Nobody can patent truth. Truth is God Himself. Go forward.” But what the disciples say nowadays is: “No matter whether you practice the teachings or not, do you give credit to the Man? If you credit the Master, you will be saved; if not, there is no salvation for you.” And thus the whole teaching of the Master is degenerated and all the struggle and fight is for the personality of the Man. They do not know that in imposing that difference they are, in a manner, bringing shame to the very Man they want to honour—the very Man that would have shrunk in shame from such an idea.

But the church practiced in letter and spirit, the very opposite of what Swami Vivekananda had wished. The church essentially became a shopkeeper. It started marketing and selling its prized commodity: Jesus Christ. It used every trick in the trade—moral or immoral—to maximize its profits, in this case, to maximize converts to its faith. Successive Popes gave calls to ‘harvesting’ more and more souls. And it took more than a century for the church to merely say the very same truth that Swami Vivekananda had earlier said.

It was not easy for the Church to acknowledge this truth. Because the natural consequence of acknowledging the validity and equality of all religious systems is that the Church will have to stop its missionary proselytizing activities. If all religious faiths are true and reach the same God, why must one convert to the faith of the church to reach God? Therefore, the church had only conceded ‘tolerance’ for all, but had shied away from acknowledging ‘equality’ and ‘mutual respect’ for all.

Rajiv Malhotra in his article, Hypocrisy of Tolerance, explained how difficult it was for the church to agree to even ‘mutually respect’ other faiths at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit in 2000. The Hindu delegation was led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati and it insisted that in the official draft the term “tolerance” be replaced with “mutual respect.” And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict), who led the Vatican delegation, strongly objected to this. The reason: if religions deemed “heathen” were to be officially respected, there would be no justification for converting their adherents to Christianity.

Rajiv Malhotra narrates:

The matter reached a critical stage and some serious fighting erupted. The Hindu side held firm that the time had come for the non-Abrahamic religions to be formally respected as equals at the table and not just tolerated by the Abrahamic religions. At the very last minute, the Vatican blinked and the final resolution did call for “mutual respect.” However, within a month, the Vatican issued a new policy stating that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” Many liberal Christians condemned this policy, yet it remains the Vatican’s official position.

Seen in the light of this long held rigidity, Pope Francis’s statement assumes great significance. For all these years, the Church has caused immense bloodshed and pain on humanity by its dogmatic belief in the superiority of its own faith. One only wishes that this exhortation by the Pope will lead to the natural consequence of the Church putting an end to its conversion activities. Also, the church must acknowledge the right of its followers to follow the faith of their choice. This will be a good starting point for a meaningful inter-faith debate.

But this task is not going to be easy. There will be severe opposition mainly from within the church organization. Serious rebellions against the Pope’s position from within the fold of the Church have already been reported. It is not easy to change overnight what was believed and practiced for millennia. The Pope must take measures to put into practice, in real spirit, his historic declaration throughout his mammoth organization; else it will only be an empty statement that will once again show the hypocrisy of the Church.

But if the Pope courageously follows his bold words by earnest deeds, he will be heralding a new beginning in the realm of inter-faith relations in the world. Rajiv Malhotra explains how:

If the Vatican would drop claims of exclusivity over religious truth, and reexamine dogmas such as the Nicene Creed, it would pressure other denominations of Christianity to follow suit. The Vatican, after all, is the single largest corporate institution of any religion in the world. The moral pressure on others would be huge if the Pope were to champion a new world order among all faiths in earnest, and not as a gimmick to increase his own flock. Once Christendom becomes genuinely pluralistic, Islam and other exclusivist religions would be under pressure to follow suit. The leader of the Catholic Church can thus change the world.

Like I said earlier, it will only be a starting point in a long inter-cultural debate, because Abrahamic faiths need to understand one other truth.

All Abrahamic religions believe in the finality and superiority of their faiths because they believe that their prophet was the final one. In the same lecture on Christ, Swami Vivekananda points at this dogmatic belief:

…What is the origin of this superstition, this ignorance? The disciple thinks that the Lord can manifest Himself only once. There lies the whole mistake…But throughout nature, what happens once must have happened before, and must happen in future…  Let us, therefore, find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth but in all the great Ones that have preceded him, in all that came after him, all that are yet to come.

IndiaFacts Staff Update: As a departure from the usual IndiaFacts tradition of providing you with high-quality commentary, fact-checks and distortion exposes, we have tried to indulge in a bit of well-researched humour as 2013 draws to a close. For those of you who took this piece seriously, the dead giveaway occurs in this sentence: The Third Vatican Council concluded on 5 December 2013. No Third Vatican Council has ever occurred. 

Also, the piece that mentions the Pope saying all religions are true is in itself a spoof. And so we dispatched Tejasvi Surya, our resident research scholar to out-spoof the original spoof. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

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Tejasvi Surya

An alumnus of IndiaFacts, Tejasvi Surya is an Advocate practicing at the High Court of Karnataka, at Bangalore. He is also the co-founder of Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence, an organization running projects in the spheres of education, employment and entrepreneurship. Tejasvi is currently the State Secretary for Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Karnataka.