Q: Dear Father John, The Church has clearly taught that there is truth and good in other religions – so why then is it a problem to integrate the truths found in prayer traditions outside of Christianity with Christian prayer methods?
A: This is a great question, especially for today’s world, in which religious tolerance is spoken about by so many different groups (though not all) as a universal value. Sometimes we can confuse openness and respect for believers in other religious with the sin of religious indifference Religious indifference can consist either in ignoring the authentic demands of religion, or in believing that all religions are the same. This question is also a good one because it shows the connection between doctrine and practice. What we believe about God, ourselves, and the world affects how we behave and the choices we make. So let’s start by clarifying the doctrine a bit, and then finish with some comments on the practical side.
Starting with Some Doctrine
Here is what the Catechism actually says about the “truth and goodness” found in non-Christian religions (#843):
The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.
In other words, human nature is the same for all people, and so all people experience, even in this fallen world, a yearning to reconnect with God, to live in communion with God. And this is why all people also experience the difficulty, the challenge, the obstacles involved in that search: our common human nature is fallen, and we need a savior. These are common elements in every religion. This is why different religions have so many things in common, and why many aspects of non-Christian religious are in harmony with Christianity.
In the very next paragraph, the Catechism makes a clarifying statement (#844):
In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them: [quoting the Second Vatican Council and referencing St Paul’s Letter to the Romans] “Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.
In other words, although our common, fallen human nature universally searches for the way back to God, that same wounded nature creates a tendency for us to get lost and take dangerous and dead-end paths.
The Christian Difference
This is precisely why God himself intervened. His love and mercy moved him to come to our aid, to lead us along a sure path of return to communion with him and the happiness that we were created for. He did this through what is called revelation: God’s own explanation of himself, the world, and how we can attain salvation. Revelation culminated in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Christ’s work and teaching differs essentially from every other religion. It is God’s effort to reach out to man, not just man’s effort to reach up to God.
Consequently, the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church is unique, qualitatively different from those of other religions. Jesus is our standard, our sure standard, by which we judge the truth, goodness, and utility of all other doctrines and traditions. The spiritual life, in other words, is not a smorgasbord. If we just pick and choose whichever practices we happen to like, we have no guarantee that we will avoid dangerous pitfalls (the “limits and errors” referenced by the Catechism).
Prayer traditions from other religions, therefore, may be able to harmonize with Christianity, but in order to do so they need to be purified and appropriately grafted into the authentic spiritual vine, Christ himself. That can only happen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his chosen instrument, the Church.
A final observation. It is often frustrating to find Catholics searching energetically for exciting new spiritual practices, but searching everywhere except within the incredibly rich and abundant traditions of their own Catholic Church. This is one reason we started this website, to make at least a small effort to expose some of our Catholic treasures to modern Catholics who feel spurred on to a deeper spiritual life, but don’t know where to find tools that can help them respond.