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The Church & Dialogue

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The Church's understanding of interreligious dialogue has developed significantly in recent years, particularly in reference to its place in the mission of the Church. In the Vatican II documents, interreligious dialogue is given a prominent place. But the Council fell short of calling interfaith dialogue a part of the Church's mission.

It was only in 1984 that a document called Dialogue and Mission, produced by the then named Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians, includes interreligious dialogue in the description of mission. It is part in the five principal elements of the single but complex reality of the mission of the Church. The five principal elements are presence, service, dialogue, proclamation and sacramental life of the Church.

Since 1984, two other documents have proclaimed interreligious dialogue an integral part of the Church's mission, Pope John Paul II's 1990 encyclical, The Mission of the Redeemer, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue's Dialogue and Proclamation.

Fr. Jacques Dupuis, S.J., in his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, says the three Vatican documents, with their different emphases and perspectives, constitute a significant advance in the Church's doctrine on mission, dialogue and the proclaiming of the Gospel.

The challenge of reconciling Christian mission and interfaith dialogue presents the practitioner with a number of dilemmas, dilemmas that are both practical and theological. The Second Vatican Council, official Church teachings and John Paul II have affirmed that interfaith dialogue is a function of Christian mission. In Redemptor Hominis, the Holy Father argues that the two practices of Christian mission and interfaith dialogue are not in contradiction:

"Understood as a means and method of mutual knowledge and enrichment, dialogue is not in opposition to the mission to the nations, indeed it has special links with that mission and is one of its expressions."

Fr. James Kroeger, an important writer in field of Christian mission, echoes John Paul when he maintains that all parties involved in interfaith dialogue can be subject to evangelization:

"the Church engages the followers of various faith traditions, because it believes that in this encounter, all dialogue partners will experience a mutual evangelization under the influence of the Holy Spirit."

Proclamation and Dialogue

Other Christian thinkers, including a numberin the Asian context, believe that the practice of Christian mission can combine elements of both proclamation and dialogue—that is to say—the announcement of the good news of Jesus is totally reconcilable with the experience of being spiritually enriched in the context of dialogue with other faiths.

The Second Vatican Council

In the last four decades, Catholics and Protestants have been seriously rethinking their attitudes towards non-Christian religions. And the Second Vatican Council is now seen as a watershed event in this new openness toward Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Aboriginals and others. Indeed, the Church has come to recognize and respect the presence of grace, truth and holiness in other religions. But more than this, the Church realizes it stands to benefit from dialogue with other spiritual traditions. This conviction is best capsulized in the words of John Paul II: "By dialogue, we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God."

The Council produced ground-breaking documents on religious pluralism, interfaith dialogue and religious liberty. The key Council documents relevant to interfaith are:

  1. The Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity
  2. The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions
  3. The Declaration on Religious Freedom
  4. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

Since Vatican II, an explosion of interfaith activity has occurred within the international Catholic community and at all levels of Church, including lay people, teachers, academics, social activists, monks, missioners, priests, bishops and popes. In 1964, Pope Paul VI began building a Catholic infrastructure to nourish his dream of a Church in conversation with other religions and cultures. This organization, known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is active on an international level and has the following goals:

  1. to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions;
  2. to encourage the study of world religions;
  3. to promote the formation of persons dedicated to interfaith dialogue.

To visit the Council's website, click here

Official Church Documents on Interfaith Dialogue

This listing features official Church documents on interfaith dialogue that have been published during and since the era of the Second Vatican Council. Included here are papal encyclicals as well as documents produced by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, by Bishops' Conferences and by Congregations within the Vatican (e.g. the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). To read listing, click here.

John Paul II–Interfaith Giant

John Paul II was one of the most influential interfaith figures of the twentieth century. His commitment to dialogue, his extensive global travel and his acute awareness of our interdependent lives in the global village made him a significant force in the international interfaith movement. This article offers a chronological profile of the interfaith journey of Pope John Paul II from his election to the papacy in 1978 until his death in 2005. To read article, click here.

Inculturation

In past centuries, Christian missioners tended to view other cultures and religions as corrupt and godless. The modern missioner is more likely to see God as already present and active in other religious cultures. Christian mission, therefore, does not consist of a movement toward theological and cultural imperialism. It can, however, involve the experience of inculturation. lnculturation, a fruit of Vatican II, refers to the effort to express the Christian life and mystery in each and every culture. For example, in North America it is now common to integrate the Native sweetgrass ceremony into Catholic Masses that involve the participation of First Nations people.

Popes Lead the Way

This article profiles the courageous interfaith initiatives of the last four popes as the Church journeys through the uncharted territory of interfaith dialogue. What is particularly striking here are the interfaith breakthroughs engineered by Pope John Paul II. Read this article from the Jan-Feb 2007 issue "Popes lead the way"

Catholicism and Other Faiths

In this short but poignant article, Canadian dialogue theologian, Fr. Ovey N. Mohammed S.J., outlines the Catholic Church's evolving historical stance toward other religions. Before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Church's attitude toward other religions was negative. Since the Council, the Church's attitude has become much more positive and embracing. Mohammed describes this vital shift and comments on the interfaith challenges faced by modern Catholics. To read article, click here

Interfaith Dialogue: An interview with Ovey. N. Mohammed S.J.

In this interview, Canadian dialogue theologian, Fr. Ovey N. Mohammed S.J., explores the many challenging issues faced by Christians in interfaith dialogue, challenges that include pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, global consciousness and related pastoral issues. To read interview, click here

Milestones in Recent Catholic-Jewish Relations

This document chronicles, on a year-by-year basis, the dramatic advances in Catholic-Jewish dialogue since the Second Vatican Council. This detailed profile of significant changes and developments in Catholic-Jewish relations will be very useful to teachers, students, researchers, historians, interfaith practicioners and others. This document can be downloaded free of charge and is available in English and French. Connection is also available to a Hebrew Version.

Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews

This important Vatican Commission promotes enhanced relations between the Church and Judaism. The Commission's website outlines the history of the commission and contains links to numerous official documents produced by the Church and the international Jewish community. To visit the website, click here.

Muslim-Christian Dialogue

Together, Muslims and Christians form 50 percent of the world’s population. In this article, Canadian dialogue theologian, Fr. Ovey Mohammed S.J., examines the history of the relationship between these two major religions. Mohammed also explores the new levels of cooperation between Islam and Christianity that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Read more ...

Muslims and Christians in conversation

In 2013, Scarboro Missions teamed up with an Islamic Education Center in Toronto for four successful evenings of small-group Muslim-Christian dialogue. To read more: http://www.scarboromissions.ca/Scarboro_missions_magazine/Issues/2014/Jan_Feb/conversation.php

International Conference of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Turkey

In the summer of 2010, Sr. Lucy Thorson NDS, of the Scarboro Missions Interfaith Department, attended the annual conference of the International Conference of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) which took place in Istanbul, Turkey. Muslims were also invited to participate in and present seminars at the conference. To read Sr. Thorson's report on the gathering, click here

The Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs -- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

This committee of bishops and ecumenical experts promotes the ecumenical and interfaith efforts of the Catholic Church in the United States. The committee's website contains a wealth of resources as well as numerous links to important documents featuring the Catholic Church's dialogue with other religions in the United States and around the world. To visit the website, click here.

Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World

In 2011, this 5-page document was jointly published by the the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Vatican), the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. Together, these bodies represent 90 percent of the world’s Christians. The purpose of the document is to address practical issues associated with Christian witness in a multi-religious world. The document encourages churches, church councils and mission agencies to reflect on their current practices and to use the recommendations in the document to prepare their own guidelines for their witness and mission among peoples of different religions and among those who do not profess any particular religion. To read or download the entire document, click here.

How do Christians understand other religions?

In an excellent paper entitled, Thinking Theologically about Other Religions: Christian Theologies of Religions, American theologian, David R. Brockman, does two things. He, first of all, surveys Church history to enlighten us as to how Christians have addressed the issue of other religions in the past; and, second, he provides a wonderful outline of how modern Christian theologians are wrestling with this challenging question. To view or dowload this paper, click here.

Four Levels of Interfaith Dialogue

In 1984, the Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians issued a document entitled The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of Other Religions (Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission). The document described interrreligious dialogue in this way:

"It [dialogue] means not only discussion, but also includes all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment."

Dialogue and Mission identifies four levels of inter-religious dialogue:

  1. the dialogue of life where Christians and others live together in a neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their problems, and their preoccupations with one another;
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  3. the dialogue of deeds where Christians and others work together in the pursuit of humanitarian, social, economic, or political goals;

  4. the dialogue of theological exchange where specialists deepen their understanding of each other's spiritual values;

  5. the dialogue of religious experience where Christians and others share with each other their experiences of searching for the Absolute.

Toward A Christian Biblical Understanding Of World Religions

From the beginning the disciple community was surrounded by different cultures and faiths. This community made its way in that multicultural world and grew through its life and witness. The life of Christ, who lived and died and was raised, was present in the power of the Spirit in the life and deeds of the early church. From that life, the early Christians were empowered to serve God's world and to love their neighbour as they had been loved by Jesus Christ.

With the acceptance of Christianity by the reigning powers, there came the temptation to allow those powers to reshape the gospel. As a result, Christians have a sadly chequered history in their attitudes towards their non-Christian neighbours. It was fitting that in 1986 the General Council of the United Church offered an apology to its Native members for the suffering that resulted from confusing European culture with the gospel. In November 1996, at the World Council of Churches' Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, the Conference affirmed, "the gospel is always expressed through culture." In other words, culture (where we live, language, customs, traditions, etc.) affects the way we experience and express the gospel. The way we experience and express the gospel also has its affect on culture.

How are we to understand the saving significance of Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world in which we are called to love our neighbour? It would seem that we have two obligations in this matter: first, to affirm that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself; second, to love our neighbour as Christ loved us.

As we come in contact with neighbours, co-workers, or casual acquaintances who embrace other faiths, we see that the same capacity for good and ill that shapes us, shapes them. We are often struck by the "Christian" quality of their lives. How are we to understand our own convictions and commitment to Jesus Christ in relation to them? Can we proclaim God's salvation in Jesus Christ in a way that respects the convictions of those whose faith is different? Can we understand Christ in a way that values other religions and God's work in them? When we say, "Jesus is Saviour," does it mean a clear line is drawn between who is saved and who is not?

There are many ways to describe the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. Here are four approaches (listed alphabetically). You may find that no one approach fits your own understanding.

Exclusivist Approach

  • the only path to God and salvation is an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord
  • Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and humanity
  • God's revelation and saving work in the incarnate Christ possesses finality in determining the destiny of all creatures
  • this approach proclaims the importance of membership in the Christian community
  • this approach believes that evangelistic mission is vital
  • those who do not make an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ may be excluded from the love and ultimate purposes of God
  • texts such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are cited in support of this position.

Inclusivist Approach

  • the reconciliation of the world takes place uniquely through Jesus Christ
  • the saving work of Christ is essential for peace with God
  • there is room for the salvation of those who make no explicit profession of faith in Christ
  • grace is experienced and Christ is present wherever people experience the goodness of God’s creative love and redemptive mercy
  • Jesus Christ is the Wisdom/Word through which all things were made and through whom all things will be restored and perfected
  • the purpose of evangelistic mission is not so much to save as to enlighten
  • John 1:1-5 and Colossians 1:15-20 are cited in support of this position.

Pluralist Approach

  • there are many paths to God
  • there is no absolute "court of appeal" by which to evaluate the different paths
  • Jesus is the way for Christians, but not necessarily the path for all
  • no single religious tradition can speak with finality about God/spiritual truth/ultimate truth
  • our relationship with other faiths is to be one of respectful dialogue
  • co-operation with other faiths is for the sake of the common global good
  • Isaiah 55:8 and I Corinthians 13:12 are cited in support of this position.

Transformationist Approach

  • no single religion has a monopoly on truth
  • from its beginning, Christianity has been a constantly evolving expression of faith
  • respectful dialogue and mutual learning may lead to transformation for all participants
  • Christian faith may be transformed by such encounters in ways that we cannot imagine
  • Christians can expect to experience Christ in their encounter with people of other faiths
  • Mark 7: 24-30 and Acts 10:1-16 are cited in support of this position.

The four approaches above are not exhaustive. Participants may find themselves in agreement with some aspects of several of the approaches. You are encouraged not to be limited by these approaches, but to identify those aspects that fit with your understanding of Christian faith. To offer an example, the 1989 San Antonio Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) took a position that might be characterized as mid-way between the "Exclusivist" and "lnclusivist" approaches and which avoids final definition. The Conference said:

We cannot point to any other way to salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God... We are well aware that these convictions and the ministry of witness stand in tension with what we have affirmed about God being present in and at work in people of other faiths; we appreciate this tension; we do not attempt to resolve it.

The above is excerpted from Reconciling And Making New - Who Is Jesus Today? – published by the Committee on Theology and Faith, United Church of Canada, 1997 (The above section was originally entitled Working In Us And Others; it was changed by Paul McKenna for purposes of clarity).

Questions or Concerns?
Contact the Interfaith Office:

Paul McKenna | interfaith@scarboromissions.ca | 416-261-7135 ext.296


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