In the Heart of the Church

The Church and Interreligious Dialogue
"It Is a Journey in Search of the Truth"

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran
April 23, 2008
Nairobi, Kenya

Here is an excerpt of the address Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, gave at a five-day conference in Nairobi on "Formation in Interreligious Dialogue in Sub-Saharan Africa."

My dear friends, 43 years ago His Holiness Pope Paul VI, published his first Papal Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, in which he underlined the new spirit of dialogue and collaboration manifesting itself in the world. In explaining the nature of this dialogue with the "world," he identified the interlocutors as "those human beings whoa re opposed to the light of faith and the gift of grace" (n.59), "non-Christians" (nn.107-108), non-Catholics/other Christians (nn.109-120). The foresighted Pontiff went further to describe the characteristics of this dialogue: it must respect human freedom and dignity and be accompanied by meekness. He drew attention to the dangers of relativism of watering down or whittling away of truth. He affirmed: "Our apostolate must not make vague comprises concerning the principles which regulate and govern the profession of Christian faith both in theory and in practice. An immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs is ultimately nothing more than skepticism about the power and content of the Word of God which we desire to preach." (n.88).

The key document of the Second Vatican Council on inter-religious dialogue, Nostra Aetate, highlighted the common elements of different religious: All human beings have same origin and same end. God is the creator of all. The same destiny, "namely God" awaits every human being. God's providence, "evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all men" (n.1). Moreover human beings face the same challenges of searching for answers to some of the profound questions of human existence. The look to their different religions for answers to the unsolved riddles of life:" What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behaviour, and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death?" (n.1).

Since after the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been promoting inter-religious dialogue by emphasizing the spiritual bonds that unite people of different religions. This was a constant theme in many of the addresses of Pope John Paul II throughout his Pontificate. For example, here in Kenya on May 7, 1980, addressing the Muslims of Kenya, he said: "On my part I wish to do everything possible to help develop the spiritual bonds between Christians and Muslims. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting are highly valued in both our traditions and are beyond doubt a splendid witness to a world that runs the risk of being absorbed by materialism." To the Hindus, he said: "The purpose of life, the nature of good, the path of happiness, the meaning of death and the end of our human journey- all these truths form the object of our common service of man in his many needs, and to the promotion of his full human dignity."

In several documents the Catholic Church expresses her esteem of other religions. In the Nostra Aetate, we read that the Church "has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men." Of the religions, Pope Paul VI said, "many of these religious possess an impressive patrimony of deeply religious texts. They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God…. They possess an impressive patrimony of deeply religious texts. They have taught generations of people how to pray." But the Church insists that she is "duty bound to proclaim. Without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life' (John 14,6).

Further, the Church acknowledges that God wills all human beings to be saved and this salvation is extended to all those who are not Christians" nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his wills they know it though the dictates of their conscience." And includes those "who without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace,, strive to lead a good life. And according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "indeed, God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim.2,4); that is God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation." (n.851).

The Catholic Church recognizes partners in dialogue as equal in dignity as human persons. But this does not mean that "all religions are more or less the same."

As might be expected, for different reasons, not every person is enthused about inter-religious dialogue. There are those who think that inter-religious dialogue, if not a betrayal of the mission of the Church to convert every person to Christ, are a new method of winning members to Christianity. There are those who hold that the drive of the Church for inter-religious relations is an effort to control the spread of other religions. It is not any of these. In Nostra Aetate," The Church… urges her sons (and daughters) to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christian's while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture."

Inter-religious Dialogue, service to the truth

Inter-religious dialogue is certainly a bridge-building exercise. It has to do with the way and means of relating with people of different religions. It includes creating harmony in the society, encouraging development of friendship and spirit of tolerance. But it goes beyond the niceties of polite conversation which encourages people to stay where they are and avoid talking about the grey areas of disagreement. It is a journey in search of the truth. Pope Paul VI explains that the principal responsibility of the Church is service to the Truth- "truth about God, truth about man and his hidden destiny, truth bout the world, truth which we discover in the Word of God and of which we are neither the masters nor the authors but the guardians, the heralds and the ministers" Partners in inter-religious dialogue are fellow pilgrims in the search for truth. It is a task that demands faith. Only people of faith, who are open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, can rightly engage in inter-religious dialogue.

Inter-religious Dialogue, animated by and expressed in works of charity

In Ecclesiam Suam, Pope Paul VI described inter-religious dialogue as "a method of accomplishing the apostolic mission." (n.8). Several years later, Pope John Paul II inserted it where it really belongs as "part of the evangelizing mission of the Church." As explained in Dialogue and Mission, the source of this mission is divine love; this love is revealed in Christ; the love is made present through the action of the Holy Spirit; and all activities of the Church are to be imbued with love. It is indeed "the impulse of interior charity which tends to become an exterior gift of Charity."

Pope Benedict XVI affirms that inter-religious dialogue forms part of the "diakonia" which the Church offers to the world. Caritas-agape goes beyond the confines of the visible Church because it is motivated by Christ's mission of the Church to every human being without distinction.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran is currently the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. He is from Bordeaux, France, and he has been serving the Holy See since 1975. He was consecrated a bishop in 1991 and a cardinal in 2003 by John Paul II.

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