Many people are concerned that Pope Francis's recent signature onto a document at the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan has embraced the concept of religious pluralism and has denied the fact that Christianity as espoused by the Catholic Church is the one true religion.
This criticism has made its way up to high ranks in the Church such as from Bishop Athanasius Schneider, currently an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana (Kazakhstan).
He stated that Pope Francis's actions were dangerous because it could "undermine the uniqueness and absoluteness of Jesus Christ as savior and of our mission to preach to all nations, to all religions, Jesus Christ."
In other words, it could create the false impression that Pope Francis, and therefore the Catholic Church, supports '"a supermarket of religions” that people could choose freely from."
Bishop Athanasius Schneider belongs to the traditional side of Catholicism and his goal has been to keep a check on the changes done by our current and less traditional Pope.
Over the years, he has stood up for Traditional Latin Mass and has criticized those wishing to restrict it, has promoted the traditional form of receiving the Eucharist while kneeling and having the Eucharist placed in your mouth, has preached against the talks and actions to lesson the restrictions placed on divorced and remarried people and their abilities to receive the Eucharist, has criticized recent changes to Catechism such as with the changing of the Catholic view to one fully against capital punishment, has preached against the Amazon Synod's attempt to incorporate what he sees as their pagan rituals into Catholic worship, as well as the calls for married priests there, and has greatly preached an openness to SSPX, even stating it is okay to attend their masses.
As you can tell, Bishop Anthanasius Schneider is critical of a lot of the new presentation of Catholicism.
But, with regards specifically to the Kazakhstan Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, are Bishop Athanasius Schneider's criticisms correct?
The answer is no.
Pope Francis simply signed a document that states that religious pluralism as in the freedom of religion is enshrined and put forth by God to exist in this world. The leaders at this event were not stating that their God was the one true God, rather they were advocating for more peace and dialogue.
Understandably, people like Bishop Anthanasius Schneider can twist the Pope's words to mean something different and I truly believe that he is correct in raising these questions.
Unfortunately, under Pope Francis, and also, the wider Jesuit community, we are often so worried that they will change the Church away from God to create more wealth, whether that be acceptance by the media or popular culture, or vast sums of money from the government.
But, at the same point in time, there is a group of traditional Catholics whose allegations stir up division among the religions and create unnecessary rules that hold our Church back as well as society.
They often try to present any newer forms of Catholicism as heretical, but using this description to label anything you dislike in the new Church is quite an awful approach because one, it is lying, and two, it is watering down the heretical claim. We need to save this for real absurdities that certain clergy are calling for in places like Germany and Luxembourg.
But, calling for the world to embrace freedom of religion is not a heretical stance. We should missionize and hope everyone converts to Catholicism, but we should not condemn those who do not to death or imprisonment or other penalties.
One of the best masses I have ever witnessed was in the United Arab Emirates and it was only made possible because of deals that our current Pope wishes to continue to go into to spread religious dialogue across communities in order to increase safety for Christians all over the world. If he created relations with the top Muslim clerics for example, Christians are far less likely to be persecuted in these regions because these clerics hold so much influence to stop the spread anti-Christian stances across society.
And, by spreading more and more religious freedom, we are really trusting the Holy Spirit to guide our Faith in the right direction to bring in new followers, and should be able to comparatively to other religions. When looking at those who actually have a choice to be religious or not, most free people choose Christianity and specifically Catholicism. We should trust that this will continue.
Currently, the movement away from the Church is serious, and there are many traditional remedies for this. Pope Francis has made way too many unnecessary restrictions on these.
But likewise, we cannot allow the proponents of traditional Catholicism to blind us from the fact that our best Pope possibly since Saint Peter was Pope Saint John Paul II who pushed for many of the freedoms possessed in many Western democracies. And it was under his reign that we would see the Church open up so often in appropriate matters.
Our issues should not become manufactured lies. When Bishop Athanasius Schneider criticizes the Pope's actions, it is coming from a place of concern. But, many of his leaders are quick to jump on the anti-Pope Francis bandwagon that even he is not on.
The issues created with religious pluralism are semantic and if one wishes to interpret it into the worst possible meaning, then maybe you could have a case. But, if we act in good Faith and we are truthful, we will understand that Pope Francis signed unto nothing that we did not already know as Catholics, and that is that we have free will to choose any religion. It is not saying we should do this, but just that we have the ability to.
This anger towards religious freedom often stems from the idea that religious freedom has brought about a destruction of the Catholic Faith. But, in reality, it has merely rooted out many who were not really Catholic to begin with, investing more decision making powers with those who truly care.
We cannot allow the Church to revert back to the days when many clergy preached the prevalence of hell to anyone not Catholic. This is not only wrong, but it creates an inability to fully engage with the outside world.
And we must remember to understand that this document also helps us out the most. There are no Catholic nations where people that are not Catholic cannot worship in their religion, but for non-Catholic countries, there are many examples where Catholics cannot worship, at least independently. Simply from a pragmatic point, this is a good signing.
In the end, growing closer to those that head the Islamic world and those that head other religions creates human relationships that transcend religious bigotry, leading to more Catholics around the world having the ability to worship.
We always must be careful how documents are worded, but instead of preaching falsely that Pope Francis signed unto a document promoting a cafeteria of religions to choose from, we should be promoting that Pope Francis signed onto a document giving the Catholic Church more independent liberties abroad. After all, you do not want the Church to become state-run in order to keep it legal. The Church must run itself and more religious liberty enshrines the ability of the Church to do this.