Beyond being sheep, Catholics are often also accused of claiming a monopoly on the truth - that it is exclusively them who have it and that everyone else is simply wrong. Sadly there is some basis in this accusation, if you look back over the history of the Church – peaking in shameful crimes like those perpetrated by the Inquisition and for which Blessed Pope John Paul II has unreservedly apologized.
Thankfully the Second Vatican Council has restored a much healthier view of appreciating Truth, wherever it is found, and seeking to learn from and live with those who profess other religions or none. At its root, this newfound openness derives from the event described in last Sunday’s Gospel, where John runs to Jesus to complain: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” It is impressive to see that already at the time of Jesus, his disciples were jealous of Jesus’s actions and teaching and wanted to keep tight control over it. I believe there is a positive motivation for this in that they recognized it as being very valuable and didn’t want it to become distorted by those who did not also have a personal relationship with Jesus.
The response Jesus gives is very clear though: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40) Again there is the emphasis on orthopraxy and on the Truth being universal, accessible to all, albeit in different ways and expressed using different language and concepts. The Catechism here states that “the Church considers all goodness and truth found in [other] religions” to come from Him “who enlightens all men.” (CCC, §843).
This challenge is far from dealt with though, and Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about it with great openness and honesty at a meeting with Portuguese artists and scientists during his visit in 2010:
“The Church, in her adherence to the eternal character of truth, is in the process of learning how to live with respect for other “truths” and for the truth of others. Through this respect, open to dialogue, new doors can be opened to the transmission of truth.”He is very frank about this post–conciliar openness being new, and like with all new things, is the beginning of a process where the Church needs to work out how to behave. In his book, Truth and Tolerance, published in 2003 before he became pope, the then-cardinal Ratzinger lays out the pre-requisites for effective inter-religious dialogue and indeed for a true adherence to one’s own religion:
“Can or must a man simply make the best of the religion that happens to fall to his share, in the form in which it is actually practiced around him? Or must he not, whatever happens, be one who seeks, who strives to purify his conscience and, thus, move toward—at the very least—the purer forms of his own religion? […]The message here is clear: what is needed is a persistent striving for a conscience that is purified of distractions and impediments (which also requires the practice of charity in its broadest sense) and which will then lead one to God and all people closer to each other.
The apostles, and the early Christian congregations as a whole, were only able to see in Jesus their Savior because they were looking for the "hope of Israel"—because they did not simply regard the inherited religious forms of their environment as being sufficient in themselves but were waiting and seeking people with open hearts. […]
[I]t is the dynamic of the conscience and of the silent presence of God in it that is leading religions toward one another and guiding people onto the path to God, not the canonizing of what already exists, so that people are excused from any deeper searching.”