CNEWA Connections: Nature, Grace — and Friendship Between Peoples

There is a theological principle that one hears and sometimes hears challenged. It is: “Grace builds on nature.” Some prefer “Grace perfects nature,” as protecting the priority of God’s grace vis-à-vis human activity. Regardless how one formulates the principle, it has always been an axiom of Christian faith that to overlook nature is to miss an essential element of Christian life and belief.

Human nature can play both a supporting or deleterious role in our working out the articulation of our faith. I have seen this myself. I have been involved in ecumenical and the interreligious dialogue for almost five decades. In the ecumenical dialogue between Christians — an issue of great interest to CNEWA, and part of our mission — the theological progress towards consensus and ultimately unity has been nothing short of spectacular. However, it is often noted that some of the most profound statements of convergence and agreement often have little or no practical impact.

One of the things I have sometimes noticed is a lack of trust, friendship and affection in some dialogue partners. This happens for many different reasons on both sides. In situations where trust and friendship are lacking — or worse, where distrust and hostility prevail — ecumenical progress is seriously impeded. This is not to say that a given ecumenical agreement is rejected. It is, however, not received and tends to “wither on the vine.”

Pope Francis is a deep-thinking theologian who has great respect for and appreciation of human nature. Having lived through a brutal dictatorship in his home country, Francis is not at all naïve about the evil that human nature can bring about. Neither, however, does he overlook its importance and the positive contributions that human nature can make.

Clearly expressed in the encyclical Laudato si’, Francis sees a deep interconnectedness between things. In addition to his deeply theological considerations, Francis does not fail to take human nature into account.

We saw that once again just two weeks ago.

On 5 August 2020, Pope Francis, through Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, sent a message to the 41st Meeting for Friendship Between Peoples that was held in Rimini, south of Venice on the east coast of Italy. The theme of the conference was wonder and beauty.

The pope has a long been interested in supporting friendship among peoples. On 4 February 2019, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar University, signed a joint statement “On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” While built on the deep faith of both the pope and the sheikh, the document clearly stresses the importance of human trust and friendship. It is the cultural, emotional, human reception of documents such as this one that moves them off the bookshelf into the daily lives of people.

In his letter to the meeting in Rimini, Pope Francis once again encourages and challenges us to open our souls, minds and hearts to others for the good of all and the fulfillment of God’s plan.

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