“Ask a Priest: Is the Spirit Behind Non-Christian Religions?”

Q: Can you say something about the Second Vatican Council and the “Nostra Aetate” document (on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions), in the light of, for example 1 John 4? This is very much a stumbling block for Protestants to come into the Church (as well as for me). Is the Spirit behind other world religions, like Islam or Hinduism, that don’t recognize Jesus as savior? Why then would we think that salvation is possible within those faiths? We do not dialogue with New Age movements, for example. – D.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: As for Nostra Aetate and 1 John 4, I think the key is that non-Christian faiths can contain some elements of truth. Judaism is a special transmitter of truths, of course; but that is a topic best left for another moment.

1 John 4 starts out, “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

Vatican II, speaking of non-Christian faiths, says in No. 16 of its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, “Whatever good or truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”

The Church indeed teaches that salvation is possible for non-Christians. Lumen Gentium continues, “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. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”

So if a person tries to follow his conscience and live well, he can attain salvation. This salvation still comes through the Church and Christ. No. 846 of the Catechism reaffirms that there is no salvation outside the Church — and so, the ordinary means for salvation remain faith in Christ and receiving the sacraments. For this reason the Church continues to engage energetically in works of evangelization.

Could we say, then, the Spirit is behind these other world religions? To the extent that they embrace truth and to the extent they lead their followers on a sincere journey closer to the Creator, we could say that the Spirit is at work in them, but only indirectly (in other words, these religions didn’t come from the Holy Spirit) and in spite of their false or incomplete teachings. To the extent that their doctrines contradict what Jesus has revealed about God, creation, the human family and salvation, we definitely can say that they are not the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is good to remember, too, that not all religions are on the same level. Each has to be approached in a particular way. Many people seem to think that all religions are basically the same, simply because they all try to answer the same questions about the deeper meaning of life and what happens after death. But this view is hard to defend, given the profound differences in the answers the religions give.

And lest anyone think the Church naïve about embracing everything as praiseworthy, Lumen Gentium warns, “But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.”

Here, too, it helps to remember that not everything that thinks of itself as a religion is worthy of the same serious attention.

New Age could fall into this category. In some ways, it rehashes old heresies. But then, even old heresies tended somehow to be rooted in the truth. It is just that they took a wrong turn and exaggerated or misunderstood a certain point and then moved into heretical ground.

While we should still try to evangelize people who are caught up in New Age, I don’t think the Church will be try to dialogue with New Agers the way that it might dialogue with Muslims. New Age is more of a passing phenomenon, with little in the way of a core of beliefs, even if its basic ideas resurface in another form in the future.

(For more reading, see “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian reflection on the ‘New Age.'”)

As for the difficulty of non-Catholic Christians in this whole area, it is good to remember that some of the prominent figures in the Gospels were neither Jewish nor obvious disciples of Jesus. Think of the magi who journeyed to Bethlehem, or the Roman centurion whom Jesus praised (“Not even in Israel have I found such faith” [Luke 7:9]). Yet they had important roles in the Gospels. So there is a precedent for “non-believers” to have a role in God’s plan of salvation.

In any case, the Church has no intention of compromising its proclamation of Jesus as savior. For further reading see the document “Dominus Iesus.” I hope some of this helps.

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