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Does the Pope intend to make a ‘supermarket of religions’?

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Pope Francis reiterated the need for interfaith communication on Thursday in opposition to the “folly of war,” despite a warning from one of his bishops that Francis’ attendance at a significant interfaith peace summit in Kazakhstan would be seen as the church endorsing a “supermarket of religions.”

Approximately 80 Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Taoist religious leaders attended the triennial conference of traditional religions hosted by the Kazakh government. Francis gave the conference’s concluding address and urged greater interfaith cooperation in the fight against war, poverty, climate change, and other global ills.

Francis praised the summit and emphasized its finding that religion cannot be used as a justification for war. This remark came in the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s endorsement of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The final version of the document states that “true religion has nothing to do with extremism, radicalism, terrorism, and all other forms of violence and warfare, whatever their objectives.”

The final declaration urges world leaders to “abandon all aggressive and destructive language which contributes to the instability of the globe and to desist from fighting and carnage in all corners of our planet,” without specifically mentioning Russia or any other warring nation by name.

In difficult times like our own, when the issues of the pandemic have been made worse by the sheer foolishness of war, Francis reminded the crowd that ecumenical gatherings like the Kazakh summit are “more necessary than ever.”

Francis declared that peace was “urgently needed” while a group from the Russian Orthodox Church was present.

“Work for peace, not armaments, we beg you, in the name of God and for the welfare of humanity! You will only become famous in the history books by advancing the cause of peace,” he added.

Bishop Athenasius Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana and one of Francis’ most outspoken critics, issued a word of caution, nevertheless. Along with other traditionalist and conservative cardinals and bishops, Schneider has criticized some of Francis’ trademark actions and what they claim is his theological uncertainties on topics like divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and interfaith outreach.

In 2019, Francis signed a historic statement with the grand imam of the al-Azhar university in Cairo. In it, they said, among other things, that all religions are “willed by God.” Schneider has joined American Cardinal Raymond Burke in denouncing the pact.

While the Vatican maintains that Catholicism is the one genuine way to salvation, some Catholic critics have said that the notion that God actively desired diversity of religions may lead to relativism, which would accept that all religions are equally viable paths to God.

Schneider praised the pope’s visit to Kazakhstan but expressed concern that his involvement in such a significant worldwide interreligious gathering may cast doubt on the Catholic Church’s special position as the one source of the one and the only way to salvation.

“The conference as a whole has a laudable goal: to foster understanding and respect among people in the modern world. The Catholic Church, which was established by God himself, is the only real religion, thus there is a potential that it may appear to be a “supermarket of religions,” which is incorrect, according to Schneider.

He urged the Vatican to forego its future involvement in such multinational events in favor of forging connections at a more local level.

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