In the Heart of the Church - Ecumenism
"Dominus Iesus" and the Other Religions
Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
In 1990 the Servant of God John Paul II, in his Encyclical
Redemptoris missio, affirmed that the mission of Christ the Redeemer
was far from completion, indeed it was still only beginning.
Moreover, citing the words of St Paul — «"For if I preach the
Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid
upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"!». (1
Corinthians, 9, 16) — he said that on his numerous journeys to the
far corners of the earth, direct contact with peoples who do not
know Christ had convinced him of the urgency of missionary activity,
a trait the Church innermost identity, based in a dynamic way on the
Trinitarian mission itself. Lastly, certain that the faith is
strengthened when it is given to others, he had come to consider
missionary activity the first service the Church can render to every
individual and to the whole of humanity, since the announcement of
the redemption brought by Christ through his cross, has definitively
restored dignity to man and meaning to his life in the world
missio ad gentes
Nevertheless, the Pontiff could not overlook the «negative
tendency», that specific mission ad gentes appeared to be waning:
«Difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church's
missionary thrust toward non-Christians, a fact which must arouse
concern among all who believe in Christ.» (Redemptoris missio, 2).
To address this concern in the first chapters of the encyclical he
re-proposed three sound doctrinal pillars: 1. Proclamation of Jesus
Christ as the only Saviour of the whole of humanity, and the Church
as a sign and means of salvation; 2. Bringing about the realisation
of the Kingdom of God in the Risen Christ; 3. The presence of the
Spirit of Jesus Christ as the main agent of missionary activity.
After indicating the vast horizons of missio ad gentes he pointed
out concrete «ways» for missionary activity. Witness first of all,
then first proclamation of Christ the Saviour, conversion and
baptism. The other ways were: the establishment of local Churches
and basic ecclesial communities; inculturation of the Gospel;
dialogue with our brothers and sisters of other religions; the
promotion of development and lastly, witness of charity, the source
and the criteria of missionary activity.
As we see, the paths of mission include interreligious dialogue,
although it is not a primary path since the principal ways are
witness, proclamation, conversion and baptism. Moreover the Pope
does not propose dialogue outside missio ad gentes. Since salvation
comes from Christ, he affirms that «dialogue does not dispense from
evangelisation». Proclamation of Christ and interreligious dialogue
should be linked in the context of missio ad gentes…«they should not
be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical, as though they
were interchangeable.» (Ivi, 55).
Today we may ask ourselves what sort of reception was given to this
encyclical by the ecclesial community in general, and especially by
theologians. It can be said that while the Encyclical, was welcomed
with admiration, it was immediately described as a «missionary
encyclical»: laying emphasis on missionary pastoral and
spirituality. Theologians, for their part, adopted an attitude of
low profile if not inattention, for two reasons: those who — mainly
in the areas of Asia and northern America — had already elaborated
their own pluralist theology of religions could not share the Pope's
positions. Others, especially European theologians, had little
sensitivity with regard to various theories of the theology of
religions. They thought the encyclical was not very innovative since
it simply confirmed the already widely known statement of faith on
the redemptive universality of Christ and his Church. What is more,
in the West reflection on interreligious dialogue had only just
Whatever the case, the encyclical had the merit of inaugurating a
decade marked precisely by the theological question of the
significance and salvific value of the other world religions, on the
basis of Christian revelation. In that period various proposals were
outlined with sufficient approximation for a theology of religions,
a new discipline, at first confined to the specific context of
missiology, but today part of the loci of theological methodology.
The Declaration Dominus Iesus (2000)
Still true today, ten years later, is the statement made by the
International Theological Commission in its document, Il
Cristianesimo e le religioni (1997), when it said: «the theology of
religions still lacks a well defined epistemological statute» («La
Civiltà Cattolica», 148 (1997), I, p. 4). Whatever the case its
finality is the interpretation of religions in the light of the Word
of God and in the perspective of the salvific mystery of Christ and
of the Church.
Among the various models proposed— substantially three: exclusivist,
inclusivist and pluralist — theologically plausible is the
inclusivist model, suggested by the texts of Vatican II (cfr Lumen
gentium, n. 16-17; Ad gentes, n. 3, 7, 8, 11, 15; Nostra aetate, n.
2; Gaudium et spes, n. 22). This model advances a Christ-centred
Trinitarian horizon, with Jesus the mediator of salvation for the
whole of humanity (cfr Acts of the Apostles, 4, 12; 1 Timothy, 2,
4-6). This interpretation is opposed however by the pluralist model,
which, considering Christian unicity a myth, proposes a pluralist
theology of religions and denies the salvific universality of
Christian redemption. This model is based substantially on two
ideological presuppositions: the acceptance of absolute relativism,
as the only possibility for expressing the whole truth, and the
admission of religious pluralism, as the only way to describe the
ineffable mystery of God.
In continuity with the Second Vatican Council and with John Paul
II's encyclical Redemptoris missio, the Declaration Dominus Iesus
(henceforth DI) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, and made public during the Great Jubilee of the Year Two
Thousand, constituted an admirable answer of the Church's
Magisterium to Christian theology of religious pluralism, which,
endorsing the feeble thought of post-modernity, threatened to
undermine truths of faith central to Christianity.
Starting from biblical elements the Declaration reaffirms that the
Church's evangelising mission is born of Jesus' explicit mandate and
is continued in history through the proclamation of the mystery of
the God Three in One, the mystery of the salfivic incarnation of the
Son of God and the mystery of the Church, universal sacrament of
salvation. These are in fact the basic contents of the Christian
profession of faith contained in the Nicaean Creed, still today
recited at Mass on Sundays and solemnities.
The Declaration agrees with what was affirmed by John Paul II who
said that, at the end of the second Christian millennium, despite
fidelity to the Gospel and perseverance in its proclamation, this
universal mission is still far from completion (cfr DI n. 2). That
humanity lives a plurality of religions, is a fact and another fact
is that the Catholic Church, while not rejecting anything that in
other religions is true and holy (Nostra aetate, 2), never fails to
carry out her evangelisation mission, of which interreligious
dialogue is also a part (DI n. 2).
In the practice and in the theoretical study of dialogue «The
Church's constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by
relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not
only de facto but also de iure (or in principle). (DI n. 4) ». And
it is these theories that the Declaration addresses first of all to
challenge their premises and reject their conclusions.
Therefore, we have the identification of presuppositions of both a
philosophical and theological nature at the basis of pluralist
attitudes: conviction of the elusiveness and the inexpressibility of
divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes
toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would
not be true for others; radical opposition posited between the
logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the
East; difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of
definitive and eschatological events in history; metaphysical
emptying of the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced
to a mere appearing of God in history; eclecticism of those who, in
theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of
philosophical and theological contexts with no regard for
consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian
truth; finally, the tendency to read and to interpret Sacred
Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. (DI
We should explain here that the Declaration was explicitly approved
by the Supreme Pontiff with a formula of special authority: «The
Supreme Pontiff John Paul II (...) with sure knowledge and his
apostolic authority [certa scientia et apostolica Sua auctoritate]
ratified and confirmed this Declaration (...) and ordered its
publication» (DI n. 23). The document has then universal magisterial
validity. It is not simply a note of orientation. It re-proposes
truths of divine Catholic faith and doctrinal truths to be firmly
held. Hence the assent requested of the faithful of a definitive and
irrevocable nature (see intervention by Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone
in the «L'Osservatore Romano» 6 September 2000, Italian edition).
Indeed at the Angelus on Sunday 1 October 2000, the Holy Father
explicitly reaffirmed his full approval of the Declaration: «With
the Declaration Dominus Iesus - Jesus is Lord - approved by me in a
special way at the height of the Jubilee Year, I wanted to invite
all Christians to renew their fidelity to him in the joy of faith
and to bear unanimous witness that the Son, both today and tomorrow,
is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14: 6). Our confession
of Christ as the only Son, through whom we ourselves see the
Father's face (cf. Jn 14: 8), is not arrogance that disdains other
religions, but joyful gratitude that Christ has revealed himself to
us without any merit on our part. At the same time, he has obliged
us to continue giving what we have received and to communicate to
others what we have been given, since the Truth that is has been
given and the Love which is God belong to all people.
With the Apostle Peter, we confess that "there is salvation in no
one else" (Acts 4: 12). The Declaration Dominus Iesus, following the
lead of the Second Vatican Council, shows us that this confession
does not deny salvation to non-Christians, but points to its
ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united. God gives
light to all in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and
material situation, granting them salvific grace in ways known to
himself (Dominus Iesus, VI, nn. 20-21). The Document clarifies
essential Christian elements, which do not hinder dialogue but show
its bases, because a dialogue without foundations would be destined
to degenerate into empty wordiness.» (John Paul II, Angelus 1
Christological Doctrine: Jesus Christ, the only and universal
Very briefly we will now analyse the contents of the Declaration's
six short chapters. In the first three, of Christological content,
substantially three are the doctrinal affirmations which the Dominus
Jesus intends to underline, to counter false or ambiguous
interpretations of the central event of Christian revelation, namely
the significance and universal validity of the mystery of the
incarnation of the Word.
Fullness and definitiveness of Jesus' revelation
First there is the reaffirmation of the fullness and definitiveness
of Christian revelation to contest a hypothesis with regard to a
limited, incomplete and imperfect revelation of Jesus Christ,
considered complementary to that present in other religions, since
the full and complete truth about God could never be the monopoly of
any one historic religion.
This position is considered contrary to the faith of the Church.
Jesus, as the Word of the Father, is «the way, the truth and the
life» (John 14, 6). And he alone reveals God's mystery in its
fullness: «No one has ever seen God Dio: proprio il Figlio unigenito,
che è nel seno del Padre, lui lo ha rivelato» (Jn, 1, 18).
Rightly it underlines that the source of the fullness, completeness
and universal nature of Christian revelation, is the divine Person
of the incarnate Word: «The truth about God is not abolished or
reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is
unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the
Incarnate Son of God.» (n. 6). Consequently, Christian revelation
completes every other salvific manifestation of God to humanity.
In this context, the document explains the value of the sacred texts
of other religions, which cannot be considered «inspired» in the
proper sense of the word, because the Church reserves the
designation of inspired texts to the canonical books of the Old and
New Testaments, since these are inspired by the Holy Spirit (n. 8).
The Church, however, recognises and appreciates the spiritual riches
of the different peoples, even when they contain gaps,
insufficiencies and errors. «Therefore, the sacred books of other
religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of
their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of
goodness and grace which they contain» (n. 8).
In this regard we observe that the classical works of Christian
theology and spirituality, while containing outstanding rays of
truth and human and divine wisdom, are not referred to as inspired.
The Declaration implicitly invites all Christians, challenged by the
knowledge of sacred books of other religions, to rediscover the
incomparable riches of eastern and western Christian literature and
its numerous beautiful liturgical and spiritual
implementations.Unity of the economy of salvation of the incarnate
Word and the Holy Spirit
In second place, the Declaration intends to contrast certain texts
which, in order to give theological basis to religious pluralism,
attempt to relativise and thus detract from the originality of the
mystery of Christ.
To those who, for example, consider Jesus of Nazareth, one of many
historic-slavific incarnations of the eternal Word, it underlines
the personal unity which exists between the eternal Word and Jesus
of Nazareth. It is contrary to Christian faith to introduce a
separation between the Word and Jesus Christ: Jesus is the incarnate
Word, a single and indivisible person, who became man for the
salvation of all (n. 10).
There are also those who hypothesise a second economy of salvation,
that of the eternal Word distinct from that of the incarnate Word:
«The first would have a greater universal value than the second,
which is limited to Christians, though God's presence would be more
full in the second.» (n. 9). The Declaration refuses this
distinction and reaffirms the Church's faith in the unicity of the
salvific economy willed by the One and Triune God, «at the source
and centre of which is the mystery of the incarnation of the Word,
mediator of divine grace on the level of creation and redemption»
(n. 11). Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, is the only mediator
and redeemer of all humanity: if there exist elements of salvation
and grace outside Christianity, these have their source and centre
in the mystery of the incarnation of the Word.
Contrary to the Catholic faith is also the hypothesis of an economy
of the Holy Spirit distinct and independent from that of the
incarnate Word and of a more universal character. The incarnation of
the Word is a Trinitarian salvific event: «the mystery of Jesus, the
Incarnate Word, constitutes the place of the Holy Spirit's presence
as well as the principle of the Spirit's effusion on humanity, not
only in messianic times, but also prior to his coming in history »
(n. 12). There is only one salvific economy of the One and Triune
God which extends to all humanity «No one, therefore, can enter into
communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy
Spirit» (n. 12)
Unicity and universality of the salvific mystery of Jesus Christ
Lastly, bringing together numerous biblical and magisterial
elements, the Declaration declares «the universal salvific will of
the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in
the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son
of God. » (n. 14). Hence we can and we must say that Jesus Christ
has a significance and value for humanity and for human history,
singular and unique, proper only to Him, exclusive, universal,
absolute. The incarnate Word of God is the goal of human history,
the focal point of the desires of history and of civilisation, the
centre of the human race, the joy of every heart, the fullness of
human aspiration: it is this unique singularity which confers on
Christ an absolute and universal significance (DI n. 15).
Ecclesiological doctrine: the Church, only sacrament of salvation
In correspondence with its Christological affirmations, the
Declaration dedicates the following three chapters to the
enunciation of ecclesiological doctrine, mentioning certain
essential aspects of the mystery of the Church alcuni.
In correspondence with the unicity and universality of the slavific
mystery of Christ, it affirms the existence of a single Church: «the
unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a
truth of Catholic faith. Just as there is one Christ, so there
exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: “a single
Catholic and apostolic Church”.» (n. 16).
With regard to the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom
of God it reasserts that the Church is the kingdom of Christ already
present «seed and beginning » in history, although its completion
and full realisation will come only at the end of time (n. 18).
In correspondence with the universality of the mystery of Christ,
the necessity of the Church for the salvation of humanity is
motivated. In God's plan the Church, «universal sacrament of
salvation» (Lumen gentium, n. 48) and intimately united with Christ
her head, has an unavoidable relation with the salvation of every
With regard to modalities for the actuation of this salvific
influence, the Declaration affirms: «With respect to the way in
which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of
Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church
— comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council
limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known
to himself”» (DI n. 21). We will come back to this statement.
Therefore the Church cannot be considered one of several ways of
salvation, constituted by other religions, thought to be
complementary or equivalent to her. The unique function, peculiar to
the Church, as the means of salvation for the whole of humanity
cannot be levelled: «If it is true that the followers of other
religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that
objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in
comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the
means of salvation» (DI n. 22).
So we see, the Declaration says nothing new. Everything is in fact
taken from the Church's conciliar and post-conciliar magisterium.
However it does clearly and precisely reassert certain central
doctrinal elements of Catholic identity, often overlooked or denied
by ambiguous or erroneous arguments. Theological research is not
halted, indeed, it is frequently urged to continue its reflection.
In the chapter on the unicity and universality of the salvific
mystery of Christ, for example, theology is expressly «invited to
explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive
elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of
salvation» (n. 14).
Moreover, careful study must be undertaken of the Council's
statement (Lumen gentium, n. 62) with regard to the unique mediation
of the Redeemer, which does not exclude, but rather gives rise to
cooperation proper of human creatures: «The content of this
participated mediation should be explored more deeply, but must
remain always consistent with the principle of Christ's unique
mediation» (DI n. 14).
Further, still to be adequately illustrated, the mysterious gift of
grace given to non Christians: «the Second Vatican Council limited
itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to
himself”. Theologians are seeking to understand this question more
fully.» (DI n. 21).
Lastly, already in its introduction, the Declaration explained that
the paths of interreligious dialogue and also ecumenical dialogue,
must continue, since «In the practice of dialogue between the
Christian faith and other religious traditions, as well as in
seeking to understand its theoretical basis more deeply, new
questions arise that need to be addressed through pursuing new paths
of research, advancing proposals, and suggesting ways of acting that
call for attentive discernment» (DI n. 3). The Declaration intended
to close only those paths leading to a blind alley. In this way it
frees interreligious dialogue from the danger of universal
undifferentiated religiosity, with a minimum common denominator, and
puts it back instead on the path of truth, with respect for personal
identity and that of others: «the Church, guided by charity and
respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to
all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to
announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of
adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in
order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit.»
Christ's grace and non Christians: Viis sibi notis (Ad gentes, n.
7); Modo Deo cognito (Gaudium et spes, n. 22)
Having established this picture of doctrinal reference, we come now
to two questions. The first concerns the significance and value of
those paths, known only to God, through which grace is poured into
the hearts of non Christians. The second question concerns certain
epistemological reflections on interreligious dialogue.
However paradoxical it may appear, the affirmation of the Church as
a universal sacrament of salvation, is in harmony with the other
biblical affirmation about God's universal salvific will (cf. 1
Timothy, 2, 4-6). John Paul II states «It is necessary to keep these
two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in
Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for
salvation» (John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, n. 9).
We may ask: does the possibility of salvation for all with reference
to Christ and the Church actually exist? and if so, how does this
possible communication happen?
With regard to the possibility of salvation, DI, referring to
conciliar and papal magisterium, asserts its actual existence. Even
for those who are not members of the Church, «salvation in Christ is
accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious
relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the
Church» (DI n. 20, refers both to Redemptoris missio, n. 10, and to
Ad gentes, n. 2).
This is a gift of the Triune God, which comes from Christ, and is
the fruit of His sacrifice and is communicated by the Spirit of the
Risen Christ, according to the plan of the Father. It is a grace
which, by means of the Church, extends the fruits of Christ's
redemptive sacrifice to all humanity. It is also a grace which,
accommodated to their spiritual and material situation, truly
illuminates non Christians (cfr DI n. 20). This means that
Trinitarian grace pours into their hearts mysterious but real and
correct discernment with regard to the truth and goodness, enabling
them to follow what is true and to do what is good. And this
discernment regards both their personal life and their life of
relationship and communion with others.
The Eucharistic sacrifice is the daily offering which the Church
makes to the Father so that the truth of the Gospel may illuminate
all peoples. Not only through missio ad gentes, but also through
prayer, the Church intercedes with the Father that the redemption
worked by His Son may reach and convert the hearts and minds of all
Having confirmed the possible existence of this grace, we can
reflect more deeply on the ways of communication and reception of
this mysterious Trinitarian grace, which the Spirit of the Risen
Christ, actualises in the Church's Eucharistic sacrifice.
On this matter DI says «the Second Vatican Council limited itself to
the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself”» (DI n.
21), and makes explicit mention of the decree Ad gentes n. 7, which
places the statement in a clear ecclesiological context: «Therefore
though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably
ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is
impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the
Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach
the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains
its power and necessity.» (Ad gentes, n. 7).
Actually, we can add that, at least one other conciliar passage
contains an affirmation analogous to Ad gentes n. 7. The Pastoral
Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, in a Christological
context, which refers to Christ's grace, who works invisibly not
only in Christians but also in the hearts of all men and women of
good will, declares: «For, since Christ died for all men,(“modo Deo
cognito”), and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one,
and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner
known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being
associated with this paschal mystery.» (Gaudium et spes, n. 22).
Certainly theology would not dare to investigate the mind of God. It
can, however, seek to understand what the Council fathers wished to
say with the expressions: viis sibi notis (Ad gentes, n. 7) e modo
Deo cognito (Gaudium et spes, n. 22).
Examining the Acta Synodalia we learn that the Council made no few
statements, explicit and implicit, with regard to the ways of
salvation for non Christians, all, however, related to the unique
plan for salvation willed and actuated by God in the mystery of
The Council affirms explicitly that the ways of salvation for non
Christians are at least four:
1. being a member of the Church (Dignitatis humanae, n. 1; Ad gentes,
2. all humanity ordered to the Church (Lumen gentium, 13d);
3. right and true judgements of conscience (Dignitatis humanae, n.
3; Lumen gentium, n. 16);
4. love good and avoid evil (Gaudium et spes, n. 16.17).
But the Council makes also implicit mention of other ways of
salvation for non Christians when it speaks of viis sibi notis and
modo Deo cognito. From the development of the drafting of these
texts it emerges that for the Council Fathers, the ways unknown to
us but known to God, are the following: ad hesion to the truth and
coherence between faith and life (cfr F. Fernandez, In ways known to
God. A theological investigation on the ways of Salvation spoken of
in Vatican II, Vendrame Institute Publications, Shillong, 1996).
The Declaration on religious freedom, in a context therefore of
defence of human freedom, but not of man's indifference with regard
to what is true or false, after reaffirming the subsistence of the
true religion in the Catholic Church, and after underlining that it
is the duty of every person to seek the truth, affirms: «This
Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the
human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding
force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own
truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and
with power.» (Dignitatis humanae, n. 1).
The search for the truth is a way of salvation, because a man who
seeks to form an upright conscience, allows himself to be guided by
the objective norms of morality (cfr Gaudium et spes, n. 16). This
becomes even more clear, if we consider that God enables man to
participate in these norms, with the result that, under the gentle
disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more
fully the truth that is unchanging. Seeking the truth, man manifests
his total obedience to the will of God (cfr Dignitatis humanae, n.
Another implicit affirmation on the ways of salvation, can be
grasped from the Council's rejection of dichotomy between the faith
professed and daily life. The most serious danger for a Christian is
a «split» (discidium illud inter fidem quam profitentur et vitam
quotidianam multorum), which is a threat to salvation. Hence the
warning, the «Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects
his duties toward his neighbour and even God, and jeopardises his
eternal salvation» (Gaudium et spes, n. 43).
This statement is to be related with what the Council says on the
Church's relations with non Christians: «Those also can attain to
salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel
of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace
strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through
the dictates of conscience» (Lumen gentium, n. 16). If for the
Christian inconsonance between faith and life can be a cause of non
salvation, for the non Christian striving for harmony of upright
life can lead to salvation. In both is present divine grace,
ineffective in the one and salvifically effective in the other.
Epistemological reflections on interreligious dialogue
The category of «dialogue» received extraordinary impulse during the
Second Vatican Council (1962-65), above all with Pope Paul VI's
encyclical on dialogue, Ecclesiam suam dated 6 August 1964 (cfr Acta
Apostolicae Sedis, 56  pp. 609-659) with the Conciliar
declaration Nostra aetate, on the Church's relations with
non-Christian religions dated 28 November 1965 (cf. Acta Apostolicae
Sedis, 58  pp. 740-744; Acta Synodalia Sacrosanti Concilii
Oecumenici Vaticani II, IV, V pp. 616-620) and the other Conciliar
declaration Dignitatis humanae dated 7 December 1965 on religious
freedom (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 58  pp. 929 - 941; Acta
Synodalia Sacrosanti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, IV, V pp.
In order not to make dialogue an absolute which replaces the truth,
we will now propose a few epistemological considerations on both
ecumenical dialogue and interreligious dialogue. This will be
helpful for assuming attitudes consonant with personal identity and
Epistemology of ecumenical dialogue
We can see that in the ecumenical field there exist two forms of
dialogue: dialogue of charity and dialogue of truth. «Dialogue of
charity» began with Vatican II's invitation to non Catholic guests
to take part in the Council assemblies as observers. With regard for
example to relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Churches we recall the importance of the publication Tomos Agapis in
1971, containing the documentation from 1958 and 1970 of relations
between the Holy See and the Fanar (Tomos Agapis, Vatican-Phanar
(1958-1970), Rome-Istanbul, 1971). These 284 documents testify to a
will for unity and communion in the mystery of Christ on the part of
Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
This dialogue of charity consists of knowledge, communication,
respect, friendship, mutual acceptance and overcoming of reciprocal
prejudices of a cultural, psychological and historical nature. It is
a dialogue which comforts and encourages with edifying
manifestations of reconciliation and reciprocal esteem.
Unlike dialogue of charity, «dialogue of truth» proceeds more slowly
and with no few difficulties. This dialogue, in fact, cannot be
generic, it must be bilateral: dialogue with the ancient Churches of
the east is one thing, quite another is dialogue with the reformed
communities. Dialogue of truth demands deep knowledge of the other
party's history, theology, liturgy. Not lacking are various
contingent difficulties, obstacles on the path towards unity.
Fortunately, in September 2006, after a decade of stall, the mixed
Catholic-Orthodox Commission resumed dialogue to discuss the theme
«the ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental
nature of the Church: ecclesial communion, conciliarity and
authority in the Church», leading also to the publication of a
declaration (Ravenna 8-14 October 2006).
However less comforting news is not lacking (today we speak of an
ecumenical «winter»; see reflections contained in the monographic
«Problems in ecumenism» issue of the review «Credere oggi», 27,
2007, n. 160). Recent decisions by some Anglican communities with
regard to certain morally unacceptable issues («ordination» of
women, ordination of homosexual «bishops», blessing of homosexual
couples), contested even within their own Communion, render more
arduous on the Catholic side ecumenical dialogue, whose goal is the
unity of all Christians in the one Church of Christ and concretely
«communion in the doctrine of the Apostles, the Sacraments and the
hierarchical order» (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 35).
Ecumenical dialogue of truth cannot be conducted with superficiality
it demands care and attention. In this regard, for Lutheran-Catholic
dialogue, see the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
signed in 1999, which offers an outstanding example of precision in
language and contents.
Nonetheless, to overcome doctrinal tensions, perhaps ecumenical
dialogue should undertake more dialogue of action, for example,
joint action for the re-Christianisation of Europe with efforts to
defend and promote Christian principles, to counter secularism and
any sort of religious fundamentalism.
Epistemology of interreligious dialogue
In recent years, Catholic theology developed a form of
interreligious dialogue the epistemology of which is still at the
initial stage. Unlike ecumenical dialogue, which has a solid and
shared platform of Trinitarian and Christological faith, consisting
of Baptism, the Scriptures and the Creed, interreligious dialogue,
has none of this, instead it is based on the fact that all believers
are members of the same humanity and every human person is open to
the ascetic and spiritual dimension (for these considerations, cfr
document Dialogue and Proclamation. Reflections and Guidelines on
interreligious Dialogue and Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus
Christ, issued jointly in 1991 by the Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelisation
Here too we can distinguish «dialogue of charity» from «dialogue of
truth». The former can be realised concretely in two ways, in life
and in action.
«Dialogue of life» exists when people strive to live with their
minds open to others and ready to share their joys and sorrows,
difficulties and anxieties. In concrete, dialogue of life entails
reciprocal acceptance of and respect for the other person, as a
human being, free to make his own decisions.
«Dialogue of action» exists when Christians and believers of other
faiths work together to promote integral development and liberation
of their neighbour. In concrete, dialogue of action is explicated in
cooperation with followers of other religions to promote peace among
peoples, justice, protection of the environment, promotion of the
values of natural law shared by all humanity. See in this regard,
the The Assisi Decalogue for Peace, addressed and sent by John Paul
II to all heads of state and government in 2002.
This dialogue of charity— which can also be called «spirit» of
dialogue — exemplary of human and Christian concreteness, is amply
testified by the ecclesial community all over the world and in many
different ways. Nevertheless, we must admit, it often lacks adequate
Besides interreligious dialogue of charity, there is also «interreligious
dialogue of truth», which in turn can be articulated in two forms,
theological dialogue and spiritual dialogue.
«Dialogue of theological discussion» exists when experts seek to
deepen their understanding of their respective doctrines
highlighting the values contained therein. This is doctrinal
dialogue which compares and assesses different religious beliefs.
Again this dialogue cannot be generic, it must be bilateral. It is
moreover a dialogue which demands considerable competence and
perfect knowledge of personal identity and that of the other party.
This dialogue is made more difficult by diverse articulations and
notable differences within both the great world religions and
traditional religions: for example, Hinayan Buddhism is different
from Mahayan or Tantrayan Buddhism; just as in Hinduism, there are
three distinct «great Hindu religions»: Visnuism, Shivaism and
Shaktism. Therefore doctrinal dialogue, needs to take into account
the variety and specificity of the interlocutors.
A second implementation of interreligious dialogue of truth is
«dialogue of religious experience or spirituality», when
individuals, rooted in their respective religious traditions, share
their spiritual riches, for example in the field of prayer and
contemplation, faith and the manner of seeking God or the Absolute.
Here we are at the heart of every religious expression or experience
which, as such, is difficult to access for those who approach it
only for knowledge or study.
This twofold dialogue of the truth, doctrinal and spiritual,
requires competence and estimative wisdom. It cannot be undertaken
in a generic manner, it must take into account the specific
interlocutor; or only in a phenomenological manner. Gestures of
worship common to humanity — as they are described by cultural
anthropology— do not necessarily have the same religious and
Cardinal Francis Arinze, for many years head of the Pontifical
Council for Interreligious Dialogue, clarifies some points on the
subject: «Words such as God, Divine Person, soul, heaven, salvation,
redemption, perfection, grace, merit, charity, sin and hell do not
necessarily means the same thing for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists,
Hindus or followers of traditional African religions. If these words
are used at interreligious meetings, care must be taken to explain
their significance» (Francis Arinze, Meeting other believers,
Vendrame Institute Publications, Shillong, 1998, p. 24).
Cardinal Arinze also urges Christian theologians not to mask their
identity: «Christians involved in interreligious relations, who tend
to hide their Christian identity or at least water it down a little,
would seem to say without words, that Christ is an obstacle or a
problem for dialogue, and that they have found a better formula for
contact with others which consists in momentarily putting aside the
fact that they are sent by Christ (...). If we are Catholics we
should not hide this when we meet other believers. We cannot promote
real dialogue by suppressing our own religious identity. If one of
the interlocutors loses his religious identity, then there is no one
with whom to dialogue. If our partner hides his identity, this can
lead to different forms of misunderstandings, suspicions, false
identities, the impression that we agree when in fact we do not». (Ivi,
More concretely: «A Catholic who meets a Muslim should not diminish
the importance of his faith in the Most Holy Trinity (three Persons
in One God), in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and God, in the Son
of God who became man and died on the cross to save the whole human
race, in the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. Muslims do
not accept these doctrines. But a sincere Muslim interlocutor should
not be annoyed if Catholics believe this. On the other hand, a
Muslim in dialogue should not hesitate to affirm that Muslims
consider the Koran to be the ultimate revelation of God and that
Mohammed is the greatest and the last of the prophets. Buddhists do
not speak about God or the soul, but Christians would be inauthentic
if they did not speak about this. Sincerity about one's religion is
part of dialogue» (Ivi, p. 24).
Being faithful to one's religious identity is the best passport for
entering the religious territory of other believers and for
dialoguing in freedom and truth.
A final consideration concerns the goal of interreligious dialogue,
which is not the communion of all humanity in one religion which
includes syncretistically elements of the different religions. The
purpose of interreligious dialogue is above all the common promotion
of peace, understanding and collaboration among peoples. Furthermore
dialogue, cannot and must not exclude conversion of individuals to
the truth and to the Christian faith, with respect for the freedom
and dignity of every person.
Paradoxically however, in a certain form of Catholic theology of
religions — and also in a certain form of «pastoral» activity —
interreligious dialogue, unlike ecumenical dialogue, seems to have
reached the end of the line, with the conviction that all religions
are ways to salvation.
Witness and Mission ad gentes
Dialogue can never replace proclamation of Christ, but it should
illuminate it with three spiritual talents proper to the Christian
faith: the truth of revelation, the freedom of the human conscience,
the charity of every Christian witness.
We will develop this last aspect. It must be admitted that no few
people today consider missio ad gentes a lack of respect towards the
other religions. Therefore they consider no longer practicable the
missionary mandate of Christ (cfr Matthew, 28, 19). It is sufficient
to have dialogue or human cooperation, without any call to
conversion to faith in Christ through baptism.
Today Christians should limit themselves to offering witness,
personal or community, or only dialogue, without any attempt to
announce Christ and his Gospel. These affirmations are quite
diffused due to an insufficient interpretation of freedom, which
leads to the conviction that it is illegitimate to propose to others
what we consider true and just for ourselves.
In actual fact freedom cannot be separated from the truth. The fact
that there exist different religious proposals does not mean that de
iure they are all equally true. The quest for the truth and above
all the religious truth, constitutes a qualifying element of the
human person, since the truth illuminates and guides the meaning of
life giving it authenticity and value. Certainly the truth of
Christian revelation accepted with faith cannot and should not be
imposed by force, but in freedom and absolute respect for the
conscience of the other person. However a Christian cannot be
prejudicially prevented from witnessing to his faith, explaining it
and proposing it to others with charity and freedom. It is a matter
of a legitimate proposal and a real service which the Christian
On this anthropological basis, therefore, missio ad gentes responds
not only to a correct epistemology of interreligious dialogue, but
also to a correct understanding of freedom and of respect for
others. Evangelisation is an opportunity for the non Christian to
know and to open with all freedom to the truth of Christ and his
This has been the attitude of the Church since the day of Pentecost,
when she announced the Gospel to all peoples and nations in charity,
freedom and truth, calling them to conversion and baptism.
Sharing one's faith corresponds also to the desire of every person
to share his possessions and moral and spiritual riches with others.
Surrounded by many men and women who do not know Christ, the
Christian feels it is his duty to offer them the truth of his faith
with an attitude of total gratuitousness. His announcement of
conversion to Christ, is none other than the same call Jesus
addresses continually to Christians and non Christians: «Convert
your hearts and believe in the Gospel» (Mark, 1, 15).
All missionary activity derives from a desire to share with others
the love of God, Three in One. Francis of Assisi was the witness who
combined his fidelity to following Christ sequela Christi with
intimate conviction of missio ad gentes, taking part in a crusade
(1217-1221) banned by Innocent III. Contrary to what we might think
today, Francis considered the crusade «with the eyes of the
Christian of his day, and of the pauper, the helpless, those who,
unlike the knights, carried a cross which was not also the hilt of a
sword, instead it was a simple, humble, rough tool of the Passion»
(Franco Cardini, Francesco d'Assisi, Mondadori, Milan, 1989, p.
Moreover Francis had as second motivation, which was to bear witness
of Christ to the point of martyrdom: «Francis saw the crusade first
of all as a chance for martyrdom: and in martyrdom the highest and
purest form of Christian witness» (Ivi, p. 188).
In June 1219 Francis embarked for the East and reached Damietta,
where he had a peaceful meeting with Sultan Malek Kemel. After
returning home he summarised his missionary experience in a chapter
of the Regola non bollata (1221): «The Lord says: “I send you as
sheep among wolves. Be prudent as serpents and simple as doves”.
Therefore friars who are divinely inspired to go among the Saracens
and other infidels, may go with the permission of their minister and
servant (...). Friars who go among the infidels may behave
spiritually in their midst in two manners. One manner is that they
shall avoid any argument or dispute and be subject to every human
creature for love of God and they shall confess they are Christians.
The other manner is, when they see it is pleasing to the Lord, they
shall announce the word of God that they (infidels) may believe in
God the almighty Father and Son and Holy Spirit, creator of all
things, and in the Son redeemer and saviour, and that they may be
baptised and become Christians, because unless a man is born again
of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God» (Regola
non bollata, XVII, 42-43 in Fonti Francescane, [new edition by
Ernesto Caroli], Editrici Francescane, Padova, 2004, pp. 75-76).
In these words of Francis there is the whole theology of mission,
valid still today. The witness of the baptised is still rooted today
in a clear personal identity accompanied by an attitude of respect,
charity and freedom to announce the Christian truth.
© L'Osservatore Romano
Translated by Agenzia Fides
Archbishop Angelo Amato currently serves as the Secretary for the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was ordained a
priest in 1967 in the Order of the Salesians of St. John Bosco, and
he was ordained titular bishop of Sila in 2003 by John
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