Interreligious dialogue in the global village
By Michael Attridge
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was called at a unique time in modern history. Little more than a century and a half had passed since the French Revolution, which resulted in the separation of church and state, a reality that had a profound impact on the age that followed. The 20th century saw enormous progress through scientific and technological advancement, such as modern transportation and communication. It also saw political change and deep devastation—two world wars, the emergence of communism, the horrors of the Shoah, nuclear weaponry and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and decolonization that now exposed smaller independent countries to the exploitation of larger ones.
Most of these events were part of the lived experience of those who attended Vatican II. Indeed, the opening words of the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties…”, were especially meaningful to the Fathers of the council in the 1960s. It was a time of great change—social, political, economic, and cultural—and the bishops sought to respond and update the church’s teachings in light of these modern times.
Against this backdrop, the council promulgated the declaration on the church’s relations to other world religions (Nostra Aetate). Although the shortest document of Vatican II and having the status of a declaration rather than a constitution or decree, Nostra Aetate has been one of the most studied texts of the council in the past 50 years. It marks a significant reform in the church’s teaching. The Council of Florence in the 15th century had condemned other religions, specifically the Jews. Five hundred years later, the church took an entirely different approach. It sought to embrace all that was true and holy in other religions and called on Catholics to promote that which is good in them. With the Jews, the council affirmed that God remains faithful to God’s covenant with the chosen people. In other words, at Vatican II the church invoked what might be called broader or more universal values (such as goodness, truth, holiness) to view its relationships with other religions. In the past 50 years, this has allowed for a deep and fruitful dialogue between the Catholic Church and the major religions of the world.
Looking to the present and to the future
On October 8, 2015, the University of St. Michael’s College will host a day-long conference organized by the Jewish-Christian Dialogue of Toronto. The conference will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the remarkable achievement of Nostra Aetate. But unlike many other 50th anniversary celebrations of Vatican II, it will move beyond a retrospective gaze. In the past 50 years, most events have looked back at achievements in interreligious relations since the close of the council. St. Michael’s itself was host to such an event in 2005. It is time now, though, to look both at the present and towards the future.
“Since Vatican II, though, little emphasis has been given on the dialogue of the world’s religions within the modern, even post-modern, global context. I am speaking here about the role of religion within the social, economic, and political spheres of the 21st century.”
The positive relationship of the church to other world religions was a breakthrough at the council. It permitted the possibility of the Catholic Church to speak meaningfully as Christian dialogue partners to the other world religions—to recognize the shared and common values of Christians with other faith traditions. Since Vatican II, though, little emphasis has been given on the dialogue of the world’s religions within the modern, even post-modern, global context. I am speaking here about the role of religion within the social, economic, and political spheres of the 21st century. These broader contextual considerations were active and present in the 1960s during the council, but they formed the background for interreligious discussions. Today, it is time to foreground these considerations, to bring them to the table as active voices in the larger discussion. It is time to step outside of an exclusively religious sphere and ask such questions as:
What is the value of Christianity in a world where, for many, the Christian Church, and indeed religion more broadly, is only one cultural option among countless others?
What does a religious worldview have to offer current debates surrounding the global environmental crisis?
What can religion say meaningfully and convincingly to contemporary political issues to promote the common good and the flourishing of human society today?
And vice versa:
What do culture, politics, and modern society have to offer constructively to the world’s religions?
Where are the points of communication?
What does the space for meaningful dialogue look like and how do we create it?
All of these are big questions with far-reaching consequences. Clearly, not all of them will be raised in the up-coming conference. However, the event will be an opportunity to think about and discuss these larger issues. It is my hope and expectation that this conference will spark insights and inspire further conversations.∞
Dr. Michael Attridge is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto.