Question: Frequently when talking about religion, somebody who is not Catholic or has no religion at all will say, “There is only one God, so what difference does it make what you believe or don’t believe or do?” Please comment on this.
— Hugh F. Sweeney, Stoneham, Mass.
Answer: In all the major religions there is some connection between belief in God and ethical behavior. I doubt that anyone who says he or she believes in God feels no inclination to organize and live his or her life according to some set of principles.
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to the Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, identifies in all religions an ethical dimension.
We read: “From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history. ... This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. ...
“Thus, in Hinduism men ... seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.
“Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites” (No. 2).
Vatican II was equally complimentary toward Islam and, of course, toward Judaism, which it recognized as holding a unique relationship to Christianity. But most noticeable for our purposes is that in the Vatican II declaration, there is a finely tuned recognition that all traditional religions involve an ethical dimension.
While Catholicism approaches the beliefs in God of other religions — and their ethical underpinnings — with respect, and affirms some commonality between the various religions, it holds a fundamental belief that the one true God is that revealed first in the Old Testament and then uniquely in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Vatican II did not suggest a relativism of religions. It stated that the Catholic Church “proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself” (Ibid). The one, true God, is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of ethical principles, it is nevertheless a highly ethical religion, and those who espouse it are called to live according to a definite set of commandments. Following Christ is not merely a matter of holding a positive attitude toward life and the world; it is a matter of following the way of Christ, of being incorporated into Christ so that he lives in us and we in him. The kind of religion you describe — of a general positive outlook without ethical principles — is very much a modern phenomenon and suggests a kind of residual Christianity without much substance.
The fact is, what we do with our lives — and how we treat our neighbors — is of the greatest importance.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.