The Holy Father offers an explanation that calls on a distinction made by the Scholastics
One might ask: But why does the Pope go to Muslims and not only to Catholics? Why are there so many religions; how come there are so many religions?
The Holy Father began his answer by noting that with Muslims (as well as with Jews), Catholics share a common tradition. “With Muslims, we are descendants of the same Father, Abraham.”
Still, he continued, “Why does God permit there to be so many religions?”
Francis then took up a classic distinction made in the understanding of God’s will: The difference between what God permits and what he would want for us, his permissive will versus his ordaining will. For example, God permits us to sin, but he doesn’t want us to. And God permits us to suffer, but he doesn’t wish that for us. The many and multi-faceted consequences of sin in our world are all part of God’s permissive will, but not his original plan for us.
So, the plurality of religions is something that “God wanted to permit,” the pope said. He continued:
The theologians of the Scholastica made reference to the voluntas permissiva of God. He wanted to allow this situation: There are many religions; some are born of culture, but they always look to heaven, they look to God.
And what God wants of us is “fraternity,” the pope said, and “in a special way – here is the reason for this trip – with our brothers, sons of Abraham like us, the Muslims.”
“We must not be afraid of difference,” he said. “God allowed this. We must be afraid if we do not work in fraternity, to walk together in life.”
The Hoy Father said that “serving hope” — in reference to the theme of his trip — means in our time “first of all building bridges between civilizations. And for me, it is a joy and an honour to be able to do so with the noble Kingdom of Morocco, encountering her people and her governors.”
The pope’s concluding words also provided a reflection on this journey, as he spoke about the Mass he celebrated in Morocco:
And the joy of the ecclesial community found its foundation and its full expression in the Sunday Eucharist, celebrated in a sports complex in the capital. Thousands of people of around 60 different nationalities! A unique epiphany of the People of God in the heart of an Islamic country. The parable of the merciful Father made shine in our midst the beauty of the plan of God, who wants all His children to take part in His joy, in the feast of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this feast, there may enter all those who are able to acknowledge they are in need of the Father’s mercy, and who are able to rejoice with Him when a brother or a sister returns home.
It is not by chance that, where the Muslims invoke every day the Compassionate and Merciful, the great parable of the Father’s mercy resonated. It is thus: only those who are reborn and live in the embrace of this Father, only those who feel they are brothers, can be servants of hope in the world.
Read some reflections on God’s perfect versus permissive will here:
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