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Misunderstandings About Interreligious Dialogue (Part 1 of 2)

Interview With Ilaria Morali, Specialist in Theology of Grace

ROME, JAN. 15, 2005 (Zenit) - The idea of dialogue with other religions needs some clarifications, says theologian Ilaria Morali.

A specialist in the theology of grace, and a lecture in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, Morali teaches courses on salvation, non-Christian religions, and interreligious dialogue.

In this interview with us, Morali discusses what the Second Vatican Council stated about dialogue with other religions, and makes distinctions between doctrinal documents and pastoral texts.

A lay Catholic, Morali gives particular importance to the declaration "Dominus Iesus," published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, to remind mankind that Jesus Christ is the only valid mediator for salvation.

Q: The first time the term "dialogue" is found in a document of the magisterium is on Sept. 19, 1964. Can we say that, from that moment, a doctrine of dialogue began?

Morali: Paul VI's encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam" was promulgated on Aug. 6, 1964, and was distributed to the Fathers, who participated in the Second Vatican Council, on Sept. 15.

Note, when we speak today of dialogue we understand it almost exclusively as interreligious dialogue. But in a more complete and balanced view, as proposed by Paul VI, it is only one aspect of dialogue between the Church and the world.

In relation to interreligious dialogue, Paul VI's encyclical came therefore at a crucial moment between the institution of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, which took place in May 1964, now known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the promulgation of "Lumen Gentium," the dogmatic constitution on the Church, on Nov. 21, 1964.

This occurred one year before the publication of the "Nostra Aetate" declaration on Oct. 28, 1965, and the "Ad Gentes" decree of Dec. 7, 1965. "Lumen Gentium" is, therefore, the first magisterial document that presents a whole number, 16, dedicated to non-Christians.

We can say therefore that a doctrine of dialogue took shape in its essential principles with "Ecclesiam Suam," promulgated when No. 16 of "Lumen Gentium" was already in the final phase of its writing. There is, therefore, a privileged relation between the teaching on dialogue, proposed by Paul VI, and the doctrine of "Lumen Gentium" on Christians.

To understand the magisterial idea of dialogue in Paul VI, I would mention, in sum, at least three important points.

In the first place: Paul VI believed that reflection on dialogue must be preceded by reflection on the conscience of the Church. The faithful must be conscious of the vocation received at baptism. To forget such dignity acquired by grace means to lose sight of one's own identity.

In the second place: The paradigm of dialogue that the Church establishes with the world, and therefore also interreligious dialogue, is the "colloquium salutis" [dialogue of salvation] established by God in Christ with humanity. The Church must allow herself to be inspired by this model in her approach to the world.

In the third place: This interest is translated in apostolic concern and missionary action. Dialogue is precisely the name that Paul VI attributed to the impulse of interior charity, which tends to become an exterior gift of charity. Historically this is the first definition of dialogue by the magisterium and the Pope presented it immediately after the quotation of Matthew 28:19 on the missionary mandate.

I think, really, that a "doctrine" of dialogue began to exist 40 years ago. Doctrine in the sense of a "normative teaching" of the magisterium that establishes precise limits to the definition and the practice of dialogue and, if forgotten, runs the risk of entering a view of dialogue that is different from that of those who introduced it in the ecclesial vocabulary.

Q: What must be recalled of Vatican II in this connection?

Morali: The conciliar reflection 16 of "Lumen Gentium" gravitates around the affirmation that non-Christians can attain eternal salvation and that such salvation is realized through grace that operates in persons.

A careful description is given in this number of God's action in the innermost conscience of men who are ignorant of the Gospel. I would like to remind that no mention is made of the other religions as mediations of grace or ways of salvation.

I add that "Lumen Gentium," 16, remained as constant reference in the writing of the rest of the documents that subsequently would address the topic of non-Christians: the "Nostra Aetate" declaration and the "Ad Gentes" decree.

I would like to make one final observation, in relation to the value of "Nostra Aetate."

I think it is not an accident that in an official writing on "Nostra Aetate," Cardinal Augustine Bea [first president of the secretariat for promoting Christian unity] explained to those who thought of attributing to "Nostra Aetate" the value of a doctrinal document, that the declaration only gave guidelines of a practical order on the specific relationship between the Church and members of other religions.

Thus, "Nostra Aetate" was conceived as a practical appendix to the lines dictated by "Lumen Gentium" and more generally of conciliar ecclesiology. Whoever today in the ecclesial and theological realm tends to forget "Lumen Gentium" and to attribute a doctrinal value to the "Nostra Aetate" declaration falls, in my understanding, into great ingenuousness and historical error.

Q: So, then, Vatican II never referred to the other religions as "ways of salvation"?

Morali: In regard to a judgment on the role of religions, the Council spoke of "evangelical preparations" in relation to "something good and authentic" that can be found in persons, and at times in religious initiatives. In no page is explicit mention made of religions as ways of salvation.

From the historical-theological point of view, the patristic term of "evangelical preparations" used by the Council in "Lumen Gentium" and "Ad Gentes" is imitated by that vein of 20th-century theology that defined religions as preparations for the Gospel, as opposed to the thesis of religions as ways of salvation.

In a study that I will publish shortly, I show how, in the light of the conciliar minutes, it is obvious that the Council in no way wished to favor this last thesis.

Someone might object that this reading of Vatican II is already contradicted by the very fact of the institution of the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

Q: Yes, that's true. One could argue that with the creation of the Secretariat for Non-Christians the Church goes beyond this idea of the Council.

Morali: Indeed, many think that with the creation of this institution the Church would give religions a saving and peer role.

But this is not so, I repeat, recalling a very important historical detail: on September 29, 1964, hence, a few days after the distribution of the encyclical to the conciliar Fathers, the latter received an official Note which explained what the Secretariat for Non-Christians is not and must not be.

Essentially, this Note stated:

-- that the secretariat "is not an organ of the Council," given that it worked in an environment of "non-Christians," namely, of persons who "do not have valid reasons to justify their presence in the Council."

-- the secretariat does not tend "to treat doctrinal problems, and much less so to be concerned with the ministry of preaching and grace, or the task of missionaries, but to establish contacts with non-Christians, on questions of a general nature."

Warning was given of "the dangers, if one was not careful, that threatened the activity of those who worked on the sense of the Secretariat for Non-Christians": defeatism and indifference.

"By indifference we do not understand the coldness or incredulity of some in regard to the Christian faith, but the attitude of those who see all religions as being the same; in each one of them they see ways that lead to the top of the mountain. Therefore, they say to themselves, that if the guest arrives at the meeting, we should not be worried about the path he took.

"In regard to syncretism, suffice it to know something of the religions of the Far East to realize the force of such a tendency. All the known beliefs come together and melt into one, so long as they present some secondary common aspects. The phenomenon is so strong and general that it has become a principle in the science of comparative religions. We think it opportune to open wide one's eyes to these dangers." This is found in the conciliar minutes [AS III/I, 30-35].

Q: Do you mean to say by this that Vatican II's documents are doctrinal but those of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the former Secretariat for Non-Christians, are pastoral?

Morali: As we see, this Note explains indirectly the reasons why the "Nostra Aetate" declaration was not written by the secretariat and it reminds us implicitly that the documents of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue are not of a doctrinal character, but only of a practical and pastoral nature.

In light of what we have just said, we can affirm, therefore, that, in the view of Vatican II, interreligious dialogue has an eminently pastoral and practical role. This is also true for the documents issued by the pontifical council.

Dialogue is a motion that comes from the Christian's conscience and stems from the desire to communicate the unexpectedly received gift in Christ: the gift of having been constituted children of God.

It also has, according to the view of the Church, an exquisitely human function, of creating premises for an international collaboration oriented to the overcoming of conflicts and the solution of problems.

[Monday: Misunderstandings About Interreligious Dialogue (Part 2)]

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