In the Heart of the Church - Ecumenism

The Document "Dominus Iesus" and the Other Religions
Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
April-May 2008

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 begun.

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 n. 4).

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 October 2000).

Christological Doctrine: Jesus Christ, the only and universal saviour

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 human person.

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).

Identity reasserted

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 human beings.

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 Christ.

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, n. 7);

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. 3).

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 [1964] 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 [1966] 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 [1966] pp. 929 - 941; Acta Synodalia Sacrosanti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, IV, V pp. 663-673).

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 with reality.

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 of Peoples).

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 reciprocity.

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 spiritual meaning.

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, p. 23).

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 offers others.

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 Gospel.

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. 187).

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 Paul II.

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