50 Years Later: Being Catholic, Being in Dialogue (Part I)

Cambridge, MA. Last week I drew your attention to the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and noted some key documents that mark the occasion:

Pope Francis’ Message
 sent on the occasion of the 50th anniversary;


Rev. Fr. Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, 50 Years In The Service Of Interreligious Dialogue
: An address given by the Secretary of the Pontifical Council;

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran — Dialogue In Truth And Charity
: The major document issued by the President of the Pontifical Council.

Fr. Ayuso Guixot’s address is a good place to start, giving as it does the chronology and context of initiatives during these 50 years in dialogue. Pope Francis’ message rightly stresses the importance of the church’s commitment to dialogue, and the fact that it is neither a dangerous, relativizing scheme, nor merely an tool of evangelization: “From the beginning it was clear that such a dialogue was not meant to relativize the Christian faith, or to set aside the longing that resides in the heart of every disciple, to proclaim to all the joy of encounter with Christ and his universal call. Moreover, dialogue is possible only by beginning with one’s own identity… dialogue and proclamation do not exclude one another, but are intimately connected, though their distinction must be maintained and the two should never be confused or instrumentalized or judged equivalent or interchangeable.” Dialogue matters because “the Catholic Church is conscious of the importance of promoting friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.”

“Dialogue in Truth and Charity” is the weightiest of the three documents, 60 (small) pages and nearly ten thousand words in length. Here I will highlight a few of its key features as a document worthy of our attention. In a second post, in a few days, I will raise a few critical questions about what this excellent document does not say.

It is an explicitly pastoral document that does not attempt to be comprehensive or cover the sources, the theology, etc., that have been addressed frequently in the past. Noting the complexity of today’s pluralistic and increasingly interconnected world, it discusses how Catholics everywhere are engaged in interreligious contacts, ranging from the passing and casual to deeper commitments, including interfaith marriages and instances calling for Christians and non-Christian to gather for prayer. The Council aims to aid, on a pastoral level, the work of rediscovering and renewing “the true sense of interreligious dialogue in order to help Catholics to understand and to participate in an interchange, which is properly guided by faith, animated by charity, and oriented towards the common good, through mutual respect, knowledge and trust” (n. 6). It is meant “to furnish Bishops, Priests, Religious and Lay Faithful, who are engaged in interreligious activities with some essential elements to assist in discernment and also to provide some indications for local programmes of formation in interreligious dialogue. It is intended as well, in a more general way, for all Catholics who have questions about the significance and the purpose of interreligious dialogue in the Church” (n. 7).

It is divided into three parts. Chapter One deals, roughly speaking, with the foundations of dialogue, not at length, but recollected and footnoted. The Trinitarian basis of dialogue is affirmed, and emphasis is placed on the universal significance of Jesus. Most important, I find, is the emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit: “It is the Holy Spirit himself, at work in the heart of every person, who guides the Church to recognise his presence and action in the world even beyond her visible boundaries. Although the Spirit ‘manifests himself in a special way in the Church and in her members,’ his presence and activity are universal, limited by neither space nor time and they affect not only individuals but also societies, peoples, cultures and religions as well as history itself” (n. 19).

Chapter Two more practically sorts out how various members of the church are variously competent and responsible for dialogue. Bishops, for instance, “as teachers of the faith and shepherds of the People of God, play a central role in educating and encouraging the people of God in different aspects of the evangelizing mission of which interreligious dialogue is a part. As promoters of ad extra ecclesial dialogue, Bishops exercise their particular charism relative to truth by discerning, initiating and monitoring relations with the religious communities within their local Churches and within their regions through Episcopal Conferences” (no. 25). Catholics in general will find dialogue relevant in the workplace, even if the document somewhat oddly ascribes this dimension to the work of religious: “Privileged places for dialogue are educational institutions, health-care facilities, social and cultural centres. Contemplatives contribute through their prayers to the Church’s ministry of interreligious dialogue, while those who are involved in programmes of social action are able to share the riches of their faith and life with all those who are beneficiaries of their service” (n. 28).

Chapter Three addresses a range of issues and contexts. On healthcare, we are advised: “In Catholic healthcare institutions, there should be chapels available to the staff, the patients and the visitors with the explicit invitation to discover the spirituality that animates Catholic services to the sick. The role of trained chaplains is very important. In public medical institutions, Catholics should work in collaboration with people of other religions to ensure that provision is made to take care of the spiritual needs of the sick people of different religions” (n. 78). Regarding education, the common sense advice stresses providing students at all levels with solid knowledge of other religions while yet, in Catholic contexts, insuring knowledge of Catholic tradition. In an important section, interreligious marriages are recognized as increasingly prevalent. The key point seems to be to urge readers, whatever their position in the church, to be mindful that the number of such marriages will only increase. Readers are asked to be alert to the care of such couples and to neglect neither the Catholic nor interfaith dimensions of such marriages. They are not merely odd exceptions that can be overlooked by the busy bishop or priest. There is no indication that such marriages should be discouraged.

The section on “prayer and symbolic gestures” is very cautious. It manifests the now familiar concern, voiced particularly by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict: “together for prayer, but not prayer together” (n. 83). So too, strikingly, “when representatives of other religions are invited to attend Catholic liturgies, they should not be invited to pray or exercise a ritual proper to their religion” (n. 83). The overall reason is a theological one: “Since religions differ in their understanding of God, ‘interreligious prayer,’ meaning the joining together in common prayer by followers of various religions, is to be avoided” (n. 82). The document’s great caution is revealed also in another directive: “It is necessary for Catholic pastors to understand and explain to the faithful the implications of their gestures of friendship, hospitality and cooperation towards followers of other religions. Yet the duty of hospitality has its limits. Offering a Church for use as house of prayer for people of other religions is improper and must be avoided. It is also important to discourage the use of buildings destined for Catholic pastoral activities as venues for prayer and worship by people of other religions” (n. 84).

I will have more to say in my second post on this document, and will raise a few questions about it, but I thought it best first, in this post, to say something about its overall structure and content. As such, it is a remarkable work, an important instruction by the Pontifical Council that, in its detail and even in its caution, nevertheless makes absolutely clear that the Catholic Church is committed to interreligious dialogue. It is not asking whether dialogue is good or right or important, and it is not describing dialogue merely as a convenient strategy of the moment. Rather, it insists on its importance, speaks to the pastoral issues of how the dialogue is to be carried out, not just by a few odd individuals, but by bishops in their dioceses, priests in their parishes and a wider array of lay and religious in every avenue of life. This in itself, after 50 years of experiments in dialogue and debates about it, is a very significant reaffirmation of dialogue as a 21st-century way of being Catholic.

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