The following article appeared in the Catholic Digest in February 2000. It was reprinted from The Dallas Morning News.

Is One Religion as Good as Another? No, says, Cardinal Francis Arinze, but God did give us religious freedom

Is there more than one way to heaven? Does respect for other religions mean that one is as good as another?

Such questions arose again and again at an international gathering of religious leaders in Dallas last March. They came into particularly sharp focus during a small-group discussion led by Cardinal Francis Arinze, considered a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. Arinze, the pope's spirited 66-year-old deputy for outreach to other religions, was born into Nigerian tribal faith and converted to Roman Catholicism at age 9. He served as priest, bishop and archbishop in his home country before being called to the Vatican in the mid-1980s.

He has traveled the world since then, meeting everyone from Anglicans to Zoroastrians, winning friends if not necessarily converts. His style is frank and nonbureaucratic; many who met him in Dallas saw both confidence and humility, along with repeated flashes of humor. Portions of the discussion have been recorded, and excerpts are reprinted here. We begin with California Episcopal Bishop William Swing, who is trying to form a sort of United Nations for religions, seeking the cardinal's views on conversion and proselytizing.

ARINZE: The word (proselytizing) at one time was used in a good sense ... but gradually I think it gained a connotation which is no longer acceptable. (That is) when it means to try to win another person over to my faith by methods that are unworthy of the human person, or by methods that are unjust, which is the same, or methods that exploit the difficulties of another -- like, "If you join my religion I'll give you a scholarship in the university. I'll give you rice to eat." In one country in Africa, "If you join our religion we'll give you relief supplies; if you do not, you starve and die." And it still happens.
The principle it violates is the principle of respect for religious freedom, that every human being should have the freedom … to worship God in this way or that. Not because we believe that one religion is as good as another, no, but because we believe that the human person should be inviolable, should not be violated. If God gave us freedom and allowed us to use it even to the extent of offending God, who are we to use force on another in matters religious?

Although I, for instance, would want everybody to be a Catholic -- everybody -- I can only propose it. I should not try to impose it. If everybody wants to become a Catholic, very good. The pope will close the department where I am working (audience laughter). But is that about to happen? There's no sign of it. So once you allow for human freedom, you must allow people to have 2 religions, or 3, or 4, or 200, not because you want a supermarket of religions but because the human person has freedom.

Joseph B. Tyson, professor emeritus of religious studies at Southern Methodist University: There are certain elements within Christianity which would say Jews are rejected of God because of the rejection of Jesus, because of the belief of their participation in the death of Jesus. I know there have been some dialogues between Jews and Christians in which Christians have been forced to change -- forced by persuasion to change their views on that subject simply by listening to the impact of that view on some Jews.

Arinze: Christians were compelled not to change their faith but to get a clearer understanding of their faith. By discussing with Jews and reflecting, they realized they had not understood very well their own tradition. St. Paul the Apostle, though a great theologian, didn't condemn slavery as such. But now we realize that slavery should be condemned. It was not so clear at that time. Even in the Catholic Church we do not hold that we have the clearest idea on every point. We can grow in our understanding.

When people meet in interreligious dialogue, the end isn't to convince the other person to cross over to my religion. If that is the end, it is not interreligious dialogue. It is a debate, or an argument, friendly or otherwise. On the other hand, we hold that people who meet in the interreligious discussion and reflection should be open to conversion in another sense -- conversion to God; in the sense of openness to God; that is, the action of God in us. After all, religion is not what we achieve in our Catholic belief; it is merely what God works in us if only we will allow God to do so.

Tyson: It seems to me that one of the barriers to interreligious dialogue, at least on the Christian side, is the kind of exclusivistic claim that, in fact, if you don't believe in Jesus Christ, you will not be in the right with God.

Arinze: "Nostra Aetate" (a document from the Second Vatican Council) says that God's grant of salvation includes not only Christians, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of good will. That is, a person can be saved, can attain salvation, but on the condition that the person is open to God's action.

Robert Ashley, news director at a Dallas radio station: So was Jesus wrong when He said He was the way, the truth and the life?

Arinze: He was right. He IS the way, the truth and the life. If you believe that, you will become a Christian (audience laughter). Only God knows to what extent a person is sincere, what opportunities the person has, and how the person used those opportunities. Only God can assess all that, and He never appointed any of us part of that advisory council (more laughter).

If a person were to push what you said a little further and say, if you're not a Christian, you're not going to heaven, we'd regard that person as a fundamentalist … and theologically wrong. It is quite another matter to say that one religion is as good as another. That is, it doesn't matter to what religion you belong. Religion is not put together that way: You change the rules and change the goalposts if you can't score. No, no, no. (But we do) believe that every religion has elements that are true and noble and good. How will it work out? I can't tell you. But we know that Christ, who says, "I am the way, the truth and the light," died on the Cross for everyone.

I met in Pakistan a Muslim. People would go to him. He had a wonderful concept of the Koran. We were like two twins that had known one another from birth. And I was in admiration of this man's wisdom. I think that man will go to heaven. But I am not the one who opens the door (audience laughter).

There was a Buddhist in Kyoto, in Japan. This man, a good man, was open, listening, humble. I was amazed. I listened to his words of wisdom, and I said to myself, "The grace of God is working in this man." I noticed that the more they were devoted to their religion and I to my religion, the more we met one another even though I didn't know their language. There is a language of the heart. So if you meet a person, if both of you are devoted to God, both of you will be nearer to one another than two professors of two religions who don't practice what they preach but can elucubrate from morning till evening.

Ashley: So you can still get to heaven without accepting Jesus?

Arinze: Expressly, yes. (He laughs with audience.)