Click here if you don’t see subscription options
J. Michael MillerJune 20, 2005

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the document from the Second Vatican Council that outlined the church’s relations with the great non-Christian religions in light of a renewed theology. The declaration was the first systematic, positive and comprehensive presentation ever made by a pope or a council on other faiths. This is why it remains a watershed in interreligious dialogue, “a teaching,” according to John Paul II, “which must be followed.”

Because the Catholic Church looks “with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life” that “often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all people,” the council fathers called for dialogue and practical cooperation with the adherents of non-Christian religions, especially with Muslims and Jews.

After the Council

In the years following Vatican II, how has the Holy See encouraged Catholic universities, and how have they responded to the council’s expressed wish for interreligious dialogue?

The apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) regulates the more than 1,200 Catholic universities around the world. In it Pope John Paul II links interreligious dialogue to a university’s “continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society.” By means of interreligious dialogue, the university “will assist in discerning the spiritual values that are present in the different religions.”

For the most part, postconciliar papal documents pay scant attention to the responsibility of universities to further dialogue with non-Christians. Veritatis Splendor (1993), Fides et Ratio (1998) and the great encyclicals on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1974) and Redemptoris Missio (1990), are silent about the universities’ role in fostering such dialogue. The latter encyclical on the church’s missionary activity does state that “interreligious dialogue is a part of the church’s mission,” but it says nothing about the role to be played by educational institutions in promoting this dialogue.

In his innumerable discourses to the academy, John Paul II constantly appealed to professors and students to bring the light of revelation to their teaching, research and study. Yet a survey of dozens of speeches and homilies reveals only occasional mention of the values, goals or method of interreligious dialogue.

Despite this near absence of encouragement for Catholic universities to foster this dialogue, Pope John Paul II actively advanced this agenda on other fronts. He repeatedly addressed bishops, ambassadors and religious leaders about the need to take up this task.

For example, when the pope addressed bishops during their ad limina visits, especially those from countries where other religious traditions are strong, he invariably invited them to further interreligious dialogue. In speeches to new ambassadors to the Holy See from nations with a considerable Islamic presence, he almost never failed to draw attention to the priority of Christian-Muslim dialogue.

The Roman Curia

While the papal magisterium favors interreligious dialogue, even though it rarely mentions the specific role that could be played by Catholic universities, do the documents of the Roman Curia confirm this line?

The Congregation for Catholic Education oversees the church’s vast network of seminaries, universities, faculties and schools. Yet since Nostra Aetate, it has had little to say about the contribution to interreligious dialogue expected of the church’s educational institutions.

The principal publications of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue likewise pay scant attention to fostering interreligious dialogue in universities. But their document Dialogue and Proclamation (1991) does recommend that “specific studies on the relationship between dialogue and proclamation be undertaken.” Moreover, “episcopal conferences should entrust such studies to the appropriate commissions and theological and pastoral institutes. In the light of the results of these studies, these institutes could also organize special courses and study sessions in order to train people for both dialogue and proclamation.”

In 2004 this council published the results of a survey conducted in Africa of what is taught in major seminaries, Catholic universities and institutes of higher learning about African traditional religion, Islam and interreligious dialogue. Of the six universities and institutes of higher learning surveyed, four replied. All had courses on African traditional religions, and two of them taught a course on Islam. None had a program for teaching interreligious dialogue. In light of this survey, the council subsequently published A Guide for Teaching African Traditional Religion, Islam and Interreligious Dialogue in Sub-Saharan Africa (2004).

Catholic Identity and Interreligious Dialogue

A question at the back of many minds, even if not articulated, is whether interreligious dialogue contributes to strengthening a university’s Catholicity. This concern arises from Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s call for a resolute affirmation of Catholic identity. In this constitution Pope John Paul II insists that “everyone in the community” should maintain and strengthen “the distinctive Catholic character of the institution.” Thus, if it is to be authentic, such dialogue must spring from “a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ which gives the institution its distinctive character.” In other words, interreligious dialogue must further, not dilute, an institution’s specifically Catholic mission.

Some academics, albeit probably a minority, are uncomfortable with the coupling of “Catholic identity” and “interreligious dialogue.” They have done little to implement the teaching of Nostra Aetate. For them, such an undertaking would be a sign of weakness or even a betrayal of the faith.

Despite this view, a good argument can be made to show that a university’s Catholic identity is in fact strengthened when it fosters interreligious dialogue by introducing students to knowledge of other religions and by encouraging research in this field. Today more than ever, the university community is called to further the truth of the one divine plan of salvation in Christ, who “is united in a certain way with everyone” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22).

There is no reason to fear, then, that interreligious dialogue in any way compromises an institution’s Catholic identity. Precisely as Catholic, a university should recognize that the way of dialogue is the way of the church. Dialogue with non-Christian religions is an integral dimension of an institution’s ongoing quest for truth.

Respectful conversation and cooperation enable the academic community to be enriched by the insights of others, challenged by their questions and impelled to deepen their knowledge of the truth. “Far from stifling dialogue or rendering it superfluous,” wrote Pope John Paul II, “a commitment to the truth of one’s religious tradition by its very nature makes dialogue with others both necessary and fruitful.”

Four Measures of Reception

It would be a healthy exercise for Catholic institutions of higher learning to test their reception of Nostra Aetate. How well is a particular university implementing the four forms of dialogue frequently mentioned in various magisterial documents: the dialogue of life, of action, of theological exchange and of religious experience?

1. The “dialogue of life” is an attitude and way of acting, a spirit guiding conduct. It entails what Nostra Aetate recommends as the precondition of all dialogue. Christians should engage in it “while witnessing to their own faith and way of life.” Within educational institutions, as elsewhere, such dialogue involves concern, respect and hospitality toward those of other religions. A Catholic university, which receives students of all faiths, should honor their identity, modes of expression and values.

In its instruction Dominus Iesus (2000), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reminded us of the dignity of our partners in dialogue. “Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ who is God himself made man—in relation to the founders of the other religions.”

How well is this equality lived in our Catholic institutions? Are students and teachers truly open to adherents of non-Christian religions, ready to receive the “other” as a gift?

This dialogue of life also calls Catholics in the academy to bear witness to their own religious values in daily life. Moreover, professors are to teach the Catholic faith in such a way that students can understand, love, live and share their beliefs freely and respectfully with others. When asked, Catholic teachers and students alike should be able to give a mature and well-articulated presentation of what they believe. Precisely by living their own faith, do Catholics help non-Christians to live in fidelity to the authentic values they embrace?

2. A second measure of successful implementation of the council is teaching the presence of the “dialogue of action” or “dialogue of works.” Nostra Aetate refers to this as the need for believers to “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.” This form of dialogue moves from attitude to action. The dialogue of deeds fosters collaboration with others for goals of a humanitarian, social, economic or political nature directed toward peace and the common good.

With vast human and financial resources at their disposal, are Catholic universities at the forefront in promoting a culture of life worthy of the human person? Do programs of study, faculty research and student activities reflect this dialogue of works?

3. The “dialogue of experts” enables specialists to deepen their understanding of their respective heritages and to appreciate the spiritual values inherent in non-Christian religions. Catholic universities have a particular responsibility in this regard. Since they are open to all human experience, their faculty should be ready to engage in dialogue with other religions and learn from them.

By means of interreligious dialogue, universities become actively involved in new questions to be addressed by pursuing innovative paths of research and suggesting ways of acting that call for attentive discernment. A Catholic university recognizes that it is a privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture and between Christianity and other religions.

Since Catholic universities, moreover, are committed to the dialogue between faith and reason, they are likewise committed to an interreligious dialogue based on research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. The orthopraxis of interreligious dialogue, often carried out by initiatives in the local churches, requires the solid theological expertise that can be provided by Catholic universities. Is the academy meeting its responsibilities to train such experts who know the tradition, love the church and are willing to engage patiently in interreligious dialogue?

4. While the “dialogue of religious experience” overlaps with that of experts insofar as it has a theological content, it reaches deeper into personal experience. It fosters the sharing of prayer, contemplation and ways of searching for the absolute. Within the academy, the dialogue of religious experience should promote the highest values and spiritual ideals. Theological dialogue is enlivened by exchanges at the level of religious experience.

Fostering the dialogue of religious experience can also be a way of strengthening an institution’s Catholic identity. Universities should give a practical demonstration of their faith in their daily activity, setting aside times for reflection and prayer. Not only should Catholics be offered opportunities to celebrate the sacraments, but, as Ex Corde Ecclesiae says, “when the academic community includes members of other churches, ecclesial communities or religions, their initiatives for reflection and prayer in accordance with their own beliefs are to be respected.”

How well do our educational institutions provide for such occasions? Do they not only respect but also encourage others to be faithful to their religious traditions so that both Christians and non-Christians can genuinely grow in mutual esteem?

On balance, I would say that the world of Catholic higher education has taken significant steps in “receiving” the call to engage in interreligious dialogue as expressed by the council fathers.

Universities can deepen their Catholicity by meeting “the great challenge of interreligious dialogue” issued by Pope John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001). Are Catholic universities ready to accept this call to foster this dialogue, which “will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread specter of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history”?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”