e-mail us


Contradictions in mission unresolved

UCA News

Recently I received two Vatican documents: Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; and the journal Pro Dialogo from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, headed by Cardinal Francis Arinze. The journal contained a report on the interreligious assembly held in Vatican City Oct. 25-28, 1999, with “about 200 participants, from some 50 countries and representing some 20 different religious traditions.”

Many comments may be made on the recent declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on its presuppositions and philosophical terminology, and concerning Trinitarian theology, understanding of divine inspiration, God’s concern for creation, human history and human liberation, God’s universal salvific will, justice to all peoples, sacraments and ecumenism.

But here I will refer only to the impact of the two documents on the issues of interreligious relations, especially in Asia with its plurality of religions and cultures. These two documents present different approaches to interreligious dialogue.

In the new declaration proposed by the congregation and approved by Pope John Paul II, there is a theoretical, dogmatic approach toward interreligious relations. It begins with an affirmation of the uniqueness and superiority of Catholicism and the necessity of the Catholic church for salvation for all humankind. It claims that the church has the absolute truth on matters religious, and that the Bible is the only inspired word of God. Only Christians have theological faith with the grace of God, whereas others have at best a human religious wisdom. Interreligious dialogue is seen as a part of the evangelizing mission of the church.

It quotes several recent documents from the pope and the congregation itself. It warns against relativism, syncretism and indifferentism, but does not deal with problems of interreligious relations in the real world.

When I showed this declaration to some persons of other religions here in Colombo, Sri Lanka, their response was: “We are not interested in such a dialogue that has the ulterior motive of conversion to Catholicism.”

They see the declaration as treating them as “gravely deficient” in regard to salvation and as presenting God as favoring those who are baptized. They see Catholics undertaking dialogue from a position of superiority.

They cannot have a serious desire to dialogue with Catholics if their religions are not recognized for their own intrinsic dignity. Further, they say that if they, too, take similar uncompromising dogmatic positions, no dialogue is likely to be meaningful. They say they are satisfied with their religions without having to be converted to the Catholic church.

They say that this way of understanding Jesus as the necessary and universal savior is leading to excesses of Christian fundamentalists in some Asian countries. They allege that the present violence against Christians in India, Pakistan and Indonesia is partly due to such fundamentalist missionary activity of Christians. It is a clash of fundamentalists of different religions that do not respect other views.

They ask further, how have the Christians, privileged of God, behaved in the past in our countries? How do they act today with reference to the issues such as justice, peace, the arms race, AIDS, inequality, globalization?

In contrast, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue document deals with the problems of living in a world of crisis, in which the religions have the duty to collaborate to bring about what the pope calls a “civilization of love.” The council’s October assembly saw interreligious dialogue as “the accepted path of collaboration to form a better society for humankind.”

The assembly’s message and final report reflect on the evils and sufferings in the world. The message affirms “the urgent need” to confront challenges such as poverty, racism, environmental pollution, materialism and war. It called on religious traditions “to work together to affirm human dignity as the source of human rights and their corresponding duties, in the struggle for justice and peace for all.”

The report states, “Particular attention needs to be paid to respecting the other’s self-definition of their own religious identity. ... People may be urged to commend their faith to others above all by the way they live, by the quality of their actions and their care for others.”

Pope John Paul, in his address to the assembly Oct. 28, expressed great joy at the development of interreligious relations. He said, “Awareness that the spirit of God works where he wills stops us from making hasty and dangerous judgments, because it evokes appreciation of what lies hidden in the hearts of others. This opens the way to reconciliation, harmony and peace. From this spiritual awareness spring compassion and generosity, humility and modesty, courage and perseverance. These are qualities that humanity needs more than ever as it moves into the new millennium.”

When I shared with persons of other religions here the proceedings of this interreligious assembly, noting the Catholic church’s initiative and participation in it, they were inspired and encouraged by it to continue to work together for our common goals of a “civilization of love.” They wanted such documentation to be made better known in our countries.

The pope and the Catholic participants in the assembly convoked by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue are deeply respectful toward other religions, which they see as a sign of the presence of the divine, and necessary partners in the search for a more just and peaceful world. The hundreds of participants saw the religions as valuable and necessary partners in building human community in their countries and world at large.

We are dealing here with two different paradigms of theology and understanding of Jesus Christ and mission of the church. In one of them, the church itself is the primary goal of mission. Jesus is seen as the universal savior, Lord dominant over all. The other is one in which fostering the values of the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus is the principal goal of the church. Jesus is seen here more as the one who came to love and serve, meek and mild, liberator of humankind bringing about the values of the kingdom of God on earth.

These two paradigms, quoting different scriptural texts in their favor, have led to differing forms of presence of Christians in the world, different understandings of goals and methods of mission, different relationships with persons of other faiths and persuasions.

This is an ongoing debate within the church at large and has not yet been fully resolved in theory or in practice, as seen in these two recent documents. Perhaps the more significant dialogue has to be within the Catholic church itself, between the two Vatican dicasteries led by two cardinals. The pope may be drawn in two different directions by these two curial bodies.

For the present we may state that the declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however justified it may be from our point of view, is a non-starter for meaningful interreligious dialogue. It may be even dangerous in that it hurts others with whom we live and move and have our being.

Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, a theologian, directs the Centre for Society and Religion in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Balasuriya was excommunicated in early 1997 on formal charges of heresy. He was reinstated a year later without admitting error.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000