Part I: Historical Context and Relevance
There exists today ignorance and misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching on interreligious dialogue approved at Vatican II. Many of them espouse an erroneous “spirit of Vatican II” based on a non-literal or even misrepresentation of Vatican II to meet preconceived ideas The purpose of this article is not to explore the various leanings of those who participated in the Council, or the implementation of those who would say the Catholic world is now divided between pre- and post-Vatican II teaching and methodology, but to state clearly the Church’s teachings on interreligious dialogue defined here-in as a conversation between persons of different religions (e.g. a conversation between a Roman Catholic and a Sunni Muslim).
In her quest to renew the relevancy of the Church in a world that had been darkened by recent hostilities (culminating in massive human degradation) Vatican II formally examined the Bride’s relationship with non-Christian religions in Pope Paul VI 1965 Encyclical Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"). This declaration states clearly that the religions of the world seek to answer man’s most common questions, and that these religions are to be respected for any truth they may contain. Nostra Aetate provides examples from the Abrahamic Religions (Judaism and Islam), as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. The declaration continues to state,
From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history: at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.
This official recognition of the Church is a departure from the spirit of condemnation found at the First Vatican Council (1869-70) that was filled with anathemas based upon the purpose to “to profess and declare from this chair of Peter before all eyes the saving teaching of Christ, and, by the power given us by God, to reject and condemn the contrary errors” (cf. Vatican I, Session 3, No. 10 Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith). This change in emphasis stemmed from the council’s desire to promote “unity and love among men, indeed, among nations,” (Nostra Aetate) and raise the level of dignity for interreligious dialogue, which, in turn, would provide a platform to segue from partial to full truth when conversing with those who have not yet believed the Gospel. Vatican II, in raising the dignity of a conversation, did not declare there are other “paths” to God, but continued to maintain that she must ever proclaim Christ as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), “in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself” (Nostra Aetate). This one true path is confirmed again, in the 1964 Lumen Gentium ("Light of the Nations") where it is written,
Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.
What Nostra Aetate achieved was a formal recognition of the need to update the approach by which the Gospel is proclaimed; for historically there was no small vitriol between Christianity and other religions. Pope John XXIII, in his Opening Address, referred to the historical stance of the Church in relation to error and condemnation when he wrote,
At the outset of the Second Vatican Council, it is evident, as always, that the truth of the Lord will remain forever. We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts to be guarded against and dissipated. But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life. (Lumen Gentium)
Specifically, regarding Islam, Nostra Aetate urged that the past be put behind for,
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
1. The Relevance of Interreligious Dialogue
The first point to be established within the context of interreligious dialogue is whether it remains relevant today. In the 1965 Vatican II document Ad Gentes ("To the Nations") it is pointed out clearly that the Church, under the obligation of Christ Her founder, “strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men” thus perpetually fulfilling Christ’s command in Mark 16:15-16 when He said, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but who does not believe will be condemned. Again, in Lumen Gentium we read,
The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: "Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel.
God created man and the world in which he occupies for the purpose of raising men to His level for divine participation. In the mystery of the Church God provided salvation in Christ the Redeemer who is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Col. 1:15). By his death and resurrection Christ offered redemption for all mankind, in all nations and ages, to become united in Him. This union of believers is the Church, which is the Body of Christ who is the Head of the Body. This Church is one, holy catholic and apostolic, as professed in the Apostle’s Creed. After His resurrection, Christ commissioned Peter as shepherd (John 21:17). This Church, headed by Peter and assisted by the other Apostles,
Constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium)
The Council wanted to make it quite clear that there is only one Body of Christ which is made up of peoples from around the globe. All the faithful are in communion with one another in the Holy Spirit, and “all men are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it…for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation.” (Lumen Gentium)
End of Part I.