Fr Pat Tumilty: The non-sectarian God
The message that God is not sectarian badly needs to be heard in Northern Ireland today, says Fr Pat Tumilty OP
"THE truth I have now come to realise," said Peter to the gentile Cornelius, "is that God does not have any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34).
When we read the history of Christianity there is one thing which we must note with sadness and that is that people who claimed allegiance to Christ often killed other people who differed from them in matters of morality.
It there is one trap into which any Christian can fall, it is to believe that God is somehow on his side and against the other, or that he has a claim on God's love which the Jew or the Muslim or even the unbeliever does not have.
The truth is that all that anybody has, and that includes existence and faith and God's gift to us of his only begotten son, comes to us through the generosity of God.
We ourselves have done nothing either to merit or to gain any one of God's gifts to us. He has given them out of love.
When St John wrote, "In this is the love of God, not that we loved him but that he has first loved us" (1 John 4:10), he was not simply confining his remarks to Christians.
His words were referring to every single human being born into this world and irrespective of colour, creed, class or nationality.
The truth is that God's love has willed every single human being into existence and when I meet the other, I must always realise that there must be much goodness or at least the possibility of goodness within him.
His very existence is a sign that God loves him and God cannot love what is evil.
The people of old used to say that "the devil can't be all bad since God made him". There is, believe it or not, some truth in that saying.
When one notes with sadness the many religious wars that have taken place over the course of history, one might be forgiven if one were to think that sectarianism and Christianity is coterminous.
Yet this could not be further from the truth.
The fact is, or at least should be, that the Catholic consciousness is open to whatever is true and noble, good and beautiful, irrespective of where and in whom that truth and goodness is to be found. Catholicism cannot be equated with the ghetto.
If Christians unfortunately propound the politics of sectarianism, they are misrepresenting the true faith of the Church which recognises God's presence and love in everyone and in every system which is sincerely attempting to discover truth.
Christians like these only succeed in presenting a caricature of their faith which is a gross distortion of truth.
They are bringing the very concept of religion into disrepute. God loves the Protestant as much as he loves the Catholic. God loves the black man as much as he loves the white man. God loves the Jew, Buddhist, Muslim and the non-believer - "He causes his sun to shine on the evil as well as on the good" (Matthew 5:45).
When we invoke the name of God as justification of sectarianism, we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees in the Gospel.
They felt that their so-called virtue gave them a right to 'own' God so that they could do what they liked in his name.
The truth is that no tiny little man or woman can ever hope to manipulate, as justification for his or her own selfishness or ignorance, the God who is truth and love itself.
In spite of all this, we still believe that outside of the Church there is no salvation. This is not a sectarian statement - it is simply the Christian consciousness reflecting on its own belief about itself.
Does this mean that those who are not Catholic cannot be saved? It certainly does not. It means quite simply that all salvation comes through Christ and that since Christ cannot be separated from the Church, which is his body, then salvation comes through the Church.
We believe that Christ redeemed everyone and that every good and sincere person even if he is not baptised and heard of the name of Christ, can and will be saved.
We do believe however that Christ's grace is or at least can be present in people who are not fully members of the visible and historical Church.
Perhaps many of these good people are closer to the heart of Christ and his Church than some of the baptised who allow self-interest rather than the Gospel, dominate their lives.
The Lord obviously approved of Peter's statement that he has no favourites for he immediately sent the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and the entire assembly.
Have we approved of his words or are we simply spiritual snobs who believe in an imaginary and non-existent God of sectarianism?
:: Fr Pat Tumilty OP is based in the Dominican Community in Newry. He is the author of Religion and All That.