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

Cambridge, MA. In my previous post, I described key features of “Dialogue in Truth and Charity,” the document released by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to mark its 50th anniversary. As I noted at the end of that piece, the document is most valuable for its utterly clear and certain confirmation that dialogue is here to stay, as a major commitment of the church, one that cannot be reduced to a grudging toleration of the other, or to a tool of conversions. How we engage in dialogue, not whether, is today’s question. This pastoral document sets prudent guidelines and boundaries for dialogue, which are valuable as long as the work of dialogue is actually being done, not neglected by bishops and parish priests as if it were an optional part of their work, or something to be checked off once a year by an interreligious Thanksgiving service or the like. Prudence and boundary-drawing are tools of the work of dialogue, not ends in themselves.

I promised that in this post I would offer some criticisms; but mine are rather mild, such as one might expect from a theologian who has been involved in the work of dialogue for 40 years. What could have been more explicit in the document is how the church has positively learned from the very dialogues undertaken over these past five decades. That the church has learned to be, or remained, cautious, is clear at every turn. Thus, “While some of these initiatives are good and useful, there are those that reduce dialogue in a way that excludes bearing witness to any specific religious belief and, therefore, threatens to annul the richness of religious identities and to generate a kind of relativism, which constitutes a danger to one’s own beliefs and to the genuineness of interreligious dialogue” (n. 5; here and below, my emphases). Or, toward the end of the document, the cautions related to interfaith prayer are clearly enunciated: “On very exceptional occasions, people of different religions may come together to pray for particular needs in a ‘multi-religious prayer’ service. Practically speaking, this allows persons to be in each other’s presence while praying, without actually praying in common.” The prayer is ideally a time of shared presence and silence, and what not to do seems paramount: “In preparing for occasions of ‘multi-religious’ prayer, any practice that may give the impression of relativism or syncretism, such as the invention of ‘para-liturgical’ services and the preparation and use of common prayers acceptable to all religions as well as compiling and reading excerpts from so called ‘sacred books’ of different religions during public ceremonies are to be avoided” (83).


And why? As I quoted last time, the document explains: “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” (82). True, in a way, but nothing is so simple. But even though this is admittedly not a theological document, it seems that more could have been said here to acknowledge, 50 years on, that we do in fact share, partially but significantly, understandings of God with a variety of believers in other religions. Even if taking for granted the profound link with the Jewish people, the document might have spoken more positively of what should be the church’s growing realization of what we have in common with Muslims, Sikhs and very many Hindus in terms of how God is understood, worshipped and honored. While partial agreement does not serve as blanket permission for any and all kinds of prayer together, neither should differences make it seem that some articulate, expressed prayer together is not of value or is impossible, as if silence is the only option. Our traditions honor words, not just silences, and even together we must find ways to use those words.

And I cannot help but add: Must the document refer to the “so called ‘sacred books’” of other religions? Fifty years after the Council cannot we find a way to acknowledge and honor the sacredness of those books—and rites and prayers? After all, the document had admitted earlier to be “true and good things,” “precious religious and human things,” “seeds of contemplation,” “elements of truth and grace,” “seeds of the Word” and “rays of truth that illuminate all people” (n. 19). Surely all of that can be honored as more than “the so called sacred.” Fifty years of experience should enable us to speak still more positively of what we have learnt in past decades, and how it has affected the way we worship, by ourselves and with others.

For a final example, I point to nos. 44-53, which very aptly list some “obstacles and dangers” to fruitful dialogue. First, there are the vices of relativism: “lack of enthusiasm,” “the error of relativism,” “syncretism” (“a blending of elements, especially doctrines and practices of different religions”), “irenicism” (peace at any cost) and a lack of knowledge of one’s own tradition. These dangers have often been discussed in Pontifical Council and particularly in CDF documents, and in a sense infuse the document as a whole.

But the remainder of the list, too, is very fine, and as fresher, merits more attention. First, “insufficient knowledge and misunderstanding of the beliefs and practices of other religions can create difficulties in dialogue as well. While an interlocutor is not expected to be an expert in the doctrines of the religion of the other believer, one must make the effort to understand at least the basic aspects of the beliefs of the partner in dialogue” (n. 50). This should be a trumpet call particularly to a renewal of seminary education of significant depth, even by way of translations and secondary sources, with respect to one or two other religions. As they say, they who know only their own tradition do not know even that.

The document then adds three other vices: “feelings of self-sufficiency,” whereby “a person who does not appreciate the positive elements in other religions – as monuments for the human search for God – is clearly an inappropriate interlocutor for interreligious dialogue” (n. 51); timidity: “placing limitations on the issues of belief to be discussed and lacking openness can render interreligious dialogue a futile exercise. Such an approach can create an impression of ‘meeting for the sake of meeting’ without any intention of building real bridges of mutual understanding and collaboration” (n. 52). If the church knows this, and has learned to be less self-sufficient and timid over these past 50 years, it would be helpful to hear some examples of how we have grown and changed in the way we speak of our beliefs and understand the truth and goodness of Catholicism. Finally, the document mentions the “instrumentalization of dialogue for personal, political or economic gains” (53), and I take this to include the vice of instrumentalizing dialogue simply to check off another ecclesial duty.

How then can the Vatican express more vividly what dialogue has meant positively? In lieu of a turn to what would be a very long list of instances of deep interreligious learning all over the world, I close by referring to the closing section of Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot’s retrospective reflection, “50 Years In The Service Of Interreligious Dialogue.” Referring to one of his predecessors, he speaks wonderfully of the experience of dialogue, and how it changes how we think even of ourselves:

As a conclusion, I wish to make the words of H. Ex. Mons. Zago my own. Mons. Zago, describing the scene of the groups of different religions which were heading towards the square in front of the Basilica of St. Francis on 27 October 1986 amidst the cheering crowd, wrote in his personal diary,

The procession that I was guiding suddenly reminded me of the Council of Ephesus. The people of that time joyously welcomed the Council Fathers who recognized Mary as the Mother of God and thus ratified the dogma. Here in Assisi, it seemed to me that people, mostly Catholics drawn from different parts of the world, not only cheered those who had come but also approved of dialogue and ecumenism promoted by the Church since Vatican Council II.”

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PJ Johnston
4 years 7 months ago
How authoritative is the document? To what extent does that matter in determining whether interreligious prayer is a legitimate undertaking?


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