Cambridge, MA. It is already a week since the Ecclesiological Investigations conference at Georgetown University ended. This was a four-day event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, by “remembering the future,” as the conference’s title put it.
Scholars from all around the world spoke at this event that celebrated many dimensions of the Council’s heritage, with an eye on the areas of promise and stubborn problems within the Church and in its relationships to other Christians, and people of other faith traditions. Prior to that, I had been at Catholic University of America for its conference marking 50 years since Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking 1965 conciliar declaration that deeply changed our way of thinking about the Church’s relation to other religions. (Haven't read Nostra Aetate? You can find this very short document here.)
This CUA conference (sponsored also by the U.S. Bishops Conference) was more finely focused on Nostra Aetate’s contributions to Jewish-Catholic and Muslim-Catholic relations. So why was I there, scholar of Hinduism and Hindu-Catholic relations? I was invited to offer the single lecture on the relationship to the Asian religions, and I focused on Hindu-Catholic relations — a dialogue which, though often not well noted outside of India itself, potentially involves some three billion people.
Both events had a broad range of Catholics in attendance — from cardinals to leaders of interfaith relations in parishes — and participants also from other Christian communities and from other faith traditions as well. The CUA conference was notable for the presence of prominent Jewish and Muslim figures.
On the Memorial Day weekend, I also joined in Hindu-Catholic and Jain-Catholic dialogues, convened at the request of Cardinal Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Each was hosted at a religious site of the other faith, a Hindu temple and a Jain temple. In both cases, great hospitality was shown, gifts were exchanged, and short speeches given, words of welcome and words stating the openness of the communities to one another. In both, I was asked to speak, at the first about my decades of Catholic-Hindu learning and at the second (less certain ground for me) about what we Catholics have to learn from the Jaina traditions (on respect for life, the harmony of all beings, non-violence as a social, spiritual, and intellectual disposition).
But what do we learn from these events? What’s the judgment on how we’ve being doing, 50 years later?
We can look at the conferences and the state of interfaith relations from two angles. From a first, we can see the evident and looming problems that make real progress in dialogue very difficult. There are still historical resentments that are hurdles, suspicions about the church’s motives and a hesitation, on the church’s side in particular, to make real changes in doctrine and practice.
From a second angle, though, we can with more joy recognize just how far we have come. We are far from the world of the preconciliar church, and will not return there. Mutual respect, cooperation and dialogue, and interfaith friendships are here to stay. The Catholic Church will now be a prominent witness to interfaith harmony, and will see this witness as indeed the fruits of the Gospel: this is what Jesus would do in our times. While on many things the church moves too slowly indeed, in matters of interfaith relations, I am now more impressed at the slow but sure progress that the church – the Vatican, the hierarchy and local lay and clerical leaders, are making on every level. While religious tensions and violence dominate the news, and while there is much to be done, there are quiet, deep, sure changes taking place that are irreversibly changing how we Catholics relate to people of other faiths. The future is here, slowly coming to be.