8 February 2018
The video above offered a preview of the interfaith gathering at Assisi in 2011, with context and history about what the meetings there have meant. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
The promulgation of “Nostra Ætate” (“The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) on 28 October 1965 committed the Catholic Church to dialogue with the great religious traditions in the world. The declaration was groundbreaking, in that the Catholic Church declared that it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions” and called Catholics to “enter ... into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”
It’s worth looking at how that “discussion and collaboration” came out — and how it is being carried out to this day.
On Pentecost Sunday 1964, a year before the promulgation of “Nostra Ætate,” Pope Paul VI set up the Secretariat for Non-Christians whose work was “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions.” In the decades since, that work has only deepened. As the Catholic Church became more sophisticated and deeply engaged in this dialogue, Pope John Paul II in 1988 restructured the Roman Curia (the central administration of the Catholic Church), creating the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).
This stressed the importance of dialogue with other religions and expressed it more positively. As a result, no longer does the Catholic Church express its relationship to other religions as “non-Christians,” but sees the endeavor as more broadly conceived, attempting to understand the religions of the world on their own terms and not merely as “not us.”
In addition to maintaining bi-lateral dialogues with the great religious traditions of the world, the PCID encourages and promotes local dialogues. Three times a year it publishes “Pro Dialogo,” containing articles on theological topics related to inter religious dialogue; it also reports on the work of local dialogues throughout the year.
This work has entailed not only words, but also concrete actions. Three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — have hosted major interfaith events in Assisi. At these gatherings, religious leaders from around the world gathered to reflect on the values they hold in common and on how they might work together for a more just add peaceful world. In addition, every year the Holy See sends out greetings to members of other religions — including Hindus, on the feast of Diwali (the festival of lights) in November and Muslims on ‘Eid ul Fitr — the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Other religious traditions are included throughout the year, as well.
The PCID also has a special committee for relations with Muslims. The proximity of the two faiths and their often unfortunate histories together convinced the church to pay special attention to Islam. While the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with many different Muslim majority countries, the PCID focuses primarily on religious issues. Recently, relations between the Catholic Church and Al Azhar University, perhaps the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, were resumed with the hope of increased cooperation between Muslim and Catholic theologians and thinkers.
While the work of the PCID may seem remote to Catholics in general and also to CNEWA, nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics all over the world are increasingly encountering members of other religions. More and more, they are our neighbors. In the U.S., Europe and elsewhere mosques, Hindu mandirs (temples), Buddhist sanghas (religious communities), Sikh gurudwara (temples/centers) are becoming familiar fixtures in urban — and even rural — landscapes.
CNEWA works in the Middle East and southern India. In both regions, Christians are a minority surrounded by much larger religious communities — Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Good relations with these faiths in imperative. Often, members of these religions benefit from programs which CNEWA maintains.
Over the years the popes have stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue for the survival of the planet. The Catholic Church recognizes that centuries of interreligious conflict must be replaced by interreligious dialogue and understanding. Again and again popes have stressed that this not something added on to Catholicism but part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic.