I had a religious discussion recently with someone who does not share my Catholic faith. The topic was comparative religion and the relative merits of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and so forth. I made the point that many religions acknowledge one God (or one source, or origin, or ground of all being) from which moral and spiritual demands flow. I noted that sometimes these religions come to remarkably similar conclusions about those moral and spiritual truths. This common heritage is what we call the Natural Law: the ethical and spiritual truths we can discover by reason alone.
My reason for raising the point was to counter an amoral, atheistic, or materialistic view of the world. The common witness of humanity points to a transcendent dimension to human life. Meaning, mind and morality are not mere accidents, but true features of reality that must be accounted for. But my companion quickly arrived at another interpretation: “If natural reason can arrive at these philosophical and moral truths, then why not stop there? What’s the point of adding in all the dogmatic content of Christianity? The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and what not?”
Underlying his question was an unspoken assumption: All this “extra stuff” about Christianity makes it literally “bad news.” For my friend, Christianity is “bad news” precisely because it is not part of that common human witness. It is unique and takes its origin in a particular historical and cultural context. This would make Christianity seem like a message of exclusion. If the common philosophical core of humanity is not enough, if you need that “something else” that Christianity offers, then doesn’t that count as bad news for people who don’t get the memo?
There are many things we can answer. The most important response is that the Gospel is good news because it promises something beyond the natural capacity of man. Reason alone may be able to learn that there is a God and a moral law. But we have no natural capacity to enjoy that God forever, much less to “know him fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Reason may point to a transcendent horizon, but reason promises nothing of the sort. Hope is not a natural virtue.
But what of the problem of exclusion? “Yes,” my friend might say, “but what of those who don’t attain to that vision of God? Doesn’t Christianity propose hell as the alternative? How, in God’s name, can this be Good News for humanity unless everybody makes it? And doesn’t the actual history of Christianity reveal exclusionary tendencies in practice? A tendency to take one’s spiritual status for granted, and to look down on one’s ‘unenlightened’ neighbor?”
My friend’s thoughts on these questions are informed, to a large extent, by a version of Protestantism (Calvinism) that presents the Gospel in exactly this way. In our shared Presbyterian/Calvinist background, we once divided the world into two – the saved and the damned – and we clearly identified “the saved” with “our set,” those who believed like us. The Division was not along moral or ethical lines, but along ideological or creedal ones. And evangelism meant, above all, “making everyone think like me.”
Against this background, I took up the Pope’s new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I was surprised at how directly the Pope addresses my friend’s concerns. The Pope avoids the relativistic tendency to reduce all religions to a generic core, but he also rejects the Calvinist tendency to write off the rest of the human race. Above all, the Pope reminds us that salvation is not just about accepting a doctrinal proposition (however important that doctrine may be), but about “an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The Gospel is about rising to a new, supernatural quality of life, to “become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.”
With that end in view, the Pope proposes the Church and the Catholic faith as the “Sacrament of salvation offered by God.” In the Church, the truth and clarity of doctrine shines forth, and her sacraments possess a “meaning and efficacy” which is not found in other religions. But at the same time non-Christians may, in a way known only to God, be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.” “When they are faithful to their own consciences,” the Pope says, they “can live justified by the grace of God.” This has implications for how we evangelize. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, says the Pope, but “by attraction.”
The Gospel is “Good news” because it proposes a supernatural end to man. It offers something that we could never attain by our own resources. The Sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church are ordered to that end in a unique way – in a way given by divine authority. And the gospel is good news for all of humanity because it proposes a supernatural vocation for everyone. This is the foundation for the dignity of the human person. And so the Gospel brings us back around to the Natural Law. In the light of the Gospel, this “common witness of humanity” takes on an even greater depth and beauty. As St. John says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)