Meeting God in Friend and Stranger

Article by
Archbishop Kevin
published in
'The Tablet'
24th April 2010



“Meeting God in Friend and Stranger”

Archbishop Kevin McDonald presents the new document on interreligious dialogue from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

The need for the document

It is a sign of the times that the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has decided to publish a teaching document on interreligous dialogue. This new publication, entitled Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, is timely in a number of ways. The most obvious indication for a document of this kind is simply the urgency of the issue itself.

It becomes clearer every day that good relations between the religions of the world are a vital prerequisite for peace and for the well-being of local communities worldwide. It is now increasingly appreciated that there can be no peace in the world without peace between religions. A century ago, I do not think that the maxim would have been self-evident at all, but today its truth becomes more compelling with every news bulletin.

This is not, of course, to acquiesce in the facile view that religion causes wars. It is however to acknowledge that many of the conflicts in the world today are between groups who belong to different religions and do have a religious dimension to them: moreover extremist elements will indeed see conflicts in religious terms.

This document offers a contribution to the quest for peace from a Catholic theological perspective. That said, it is good at the outset to address a particular issue about interreligious relations and, indeed, about this document, namely the question of whether the issues of Christian-Muslim relations constitute the principal motivation for this document and whether Christian-Muslim relations are the lens through which interreligious relations are seen.

The answer to these questions is no. As we will see, the Catholic Church takes all interreligious relations seriously and sees them all as important for building peace in our world and strengthening the common good. But it makes significant distinctions in its view of them. Both Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate – the documents of Vatican II that directly address interreligious relations – distinguish between the different religions in terms of the different ways in which the Church perceives and engages with them.

In that context, the Church has a particular respect for Islam as one of the three Abrahamic faiths. But that is part of a bigger cultural and theological picture and the topic of the document is interreligious relations as a whole in all their rich variety and complexity.

These considerations I hope help to explain part of the rationale and necessity of this text, namely providing guidance and wisdom for living the Christian life in the context of the political and social realities of the world today. Related to this, I would propose another reason why this text is timely and necessary. It reinforces and reminds us of the importance of dialogue as one of the key developments in the catechesis and the whole renewal of the Church that we associate with the Second Vatican Council.

It goes without saying that Vatican II brought with it something of a shift in the way the Catholic Church perceived and related to other Christians, other religions, and, indeed the secular world. The Church moved to an attitude of much greater openness to dialogue and greater readiness to find common ground. It is timely that this perspective be rearticulated and explored in our present situation.

Dialogue and the Church

Having said that dialogue is a key part of the catechesis of Vatican II it is also important to keep in mind that this teaching on dialogue is not an innovation. Rather it is the recovery and contemporary application of something that has been integral to the life of the Church from the outset.

In both the Old and the New Testaments, people who do not belong to the Chosen People figure significantly and are honoured and respected. Moreover, a dominant theme in St Paul’s exploration of the Christian faith was the relationship between the new faith in Jesus as Lord, and the Jewish faith out of which it grew. Interaction and dialogue between Christian faith and both the Jewish and Gentile world was part of the story of how Christianity established and developed its identity.

This continued to be the case after the New Testament era and it is a notion that has been richly explored in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI where a recurring theme is the wisdom of the Greek world in which Christianity grew and developed. The Pope clearly sees the interface and cross-fertilisation between the biblical witness and the intellectual tradition of the Greek world as something that did not happen by accident but was actually in the providence of God.

It was, for example, the dialogue between the biblical witness to Christ and the Greek concepts of person and nature that enabled the Church to provide the definitive teaching about Jesus Christ that we find in the early Councils. So Christianity developed as a religion precisely in a process of dialogue with the secular world.

That said, we must also acknowledge the explicit use of the word ‘dialogue’ for explaining the nature of Christianity in our times. A crucial text for the contemporary appropriation and exploration of this term within the church is the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI. Published during the Council, when the key documents on dialogue were in gestation, it is a seminal document in that it shows how dialogue is a fundamental element in Christianity.

“Here, then, Venerable Brothers, is the noble origin of this dialogue: in the mind of God himself. Religion of its very nature is a certain relationship between God and man. It finds its expression in prayer, and prayer is a dialogue. Revelation, too, that supernatural link which God has established with man, can likewise be looked upon as dialogue.” (ES, 70)

What the Second Vatican Council did was to explore the significance of the idea of dialogue for the Church and world of today. In fact the idea of dialogue permeates the whole of the conciliar teaching but it is explored in a very explicit way in three areas.

One is, of course, ecumenism. The decree Unitatis Redintegratio proposed dialogue as the means whereby divided Christianity could move from partial communion to full communion of faith and sacramental life.

Fifty years on formidable obstacles have emerged and so the work is still very much in progress. The Church however remains obstinately open to dialogue and arguments for any withdrawal usually fail to take into account the importance of dialogue for the Church itself.

Then, dialogue was also the key tool for developing interreligious relations. These are, of course, different from ecumenical relations since the objective cannot be unity of faith leading to full communion. The objectives are different but nonetheless crucial for the Church and the world. The Catholic Church offers a theological and cultural framework for interreligious dialogue and a substantial section of the new document is taken up with presenting that. This framework is firmly rooted in Catholic ecclesiological principles and it is precisely from this perspective that it seeks a response from members of other religions.

Our understanding of the significance and potential of interreligious dialogue has undergone significant development since the time of Vatican II. Pope John Paul II in particular left a vital legacy of both action and teaching. He convened the three Assisi days when leaders of other Christian World Communions as well as leaders of other religions came together to pray (but not to “pray together”). These events were important both as initiatives in interreligious relations and as a key development in the understanding and exercise of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

Pope John Paul’s teaching on interreligious dialogue also constituted a significant advance particularly in terms of what he said about the action of the Holy Spirit in bringing members of other religions to salvation. His address to the Roman Curia of 1986 and the encyclical Redemptoris Missio are two particularly significant texts in this regard.

Thirdly, although not the topic of this document it is important to note the dialogue with the secular world which finds its theological justification both in Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. That is also part of the picture.

For whom is it written?

It remains to say something about what is in the document but first it is appropriate to say something about who it is for. The people to whom the document is most immediately addressed is the Catholic community in England and Wales. There are many people up and down this country who have been working hard in this area in many and various ways. It is hoped that this text will be received by them as affirmation, encouragement and guidance. It will also be a good introduction to this aspect of Church life for those who have little knowledge or experience of it. It is likewise hoped that the document will be read and used by our fellow Christians, some of whom have already produced documents and resources on this subject such as the Church of England’s Presence and Engagement. The Ecumenical Directory of 1993 encourages ecumenical collaboration in interreligious dialogue and the present document would want to promote and facilitate that. Importantly, the document also has in view members of other religions. It gives an idea of the basis and the motivation for the Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and invites a response to it. We would also hope that government at local and national level will give attention to this document, and also anyone who is concerned about peace in the world and social cohesion in our society. It is true that the Government has in recent years shown greater appreciation of the role of “faith communities” and has wanted to involve them in social projects in various ways. Unfortunately however, secular authorities do not always understand the nature of faith or the ways in which religions think and operate. This text explains how the Catholic Church perceives and wants to engage with other religions and it is important that the secular world understands this dimension of ‘multicultural’ life. In that sense the document is aimed at all people of good will.

Furthermore, we live in a society where some of the more aggressive atheists make very negative judgements about religions without paying sufficient attention to what religions actually say and how they interact. They see religion as innately superstitious and aggressive. The document gives a picture of relations between religions that is potentially positive and open – a picture which in many instances corresponds with reality - and it does this while also being realistic about problems and differences. This should be a helpful corrective to the perception that relations between religions are necessarily conflictual and potentially violent. We know both from history and from contemporary experience that religions can coexist in peace and harmony. So this document can be read as offering a Catholic cultural and intellectual basis for positive relations between religions as well as proposing steps towards the creation of a society based on openness, acceptance and mutual respect.

Some points from the text

As for the document itself, I will just offer some brief remarks in relation to the different topics that are dealt with.

The first chapter seeks simply to define interreligious dialogue. Already in this chapter there are references to the teaching of Vatican II, subsequent papal teaching and documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. This is because the document wants to proceed on the basis of a coherent and integrated exposition of the teaching of the Church. Chapter 2 looks at the changing face of Britain since the document also seeks to speak to the realities of our country today. It is precisely in our current social situation that a culture of interreligious dialogue is vitally necessary. Chapter 3 is, in a way, the heart of the document providing a kind of digest of Church teaching that seeks to be accessible but also comprehensive. The section begins by drawing attention to the unique significance of Catholic-Jewish relations. The Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate was originally intended to be solely about relations with the Jews. Although it developed to include other religions, it is still relations with the Jews that receive most attention in the Conciliar Decree and this reflects the unique relationship between the Church and the Jewish people who are frequently referred to in Church teaching as our “elder brother”. This special position of the Jews reflects a profound theological reality which is itself reflected in the structures through which the Church relates to the Jewish world.

The chapter goes on to develop its theological position on the basis of a strong affirmation of the unity of the human race within the purposes of God. That theological position is explored through the maintenance of key distinctions. One is the balance between the unique saving grace of Christ and the possibility of salvation for members of other religions through the mysterious working of the grace of Christ in their lives. Related to this is the distinction and relationship between ‘dialogue’ and ‘proclamation’. Those two words comprise the title of a key document produced jointly by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Evangelisation and Dialogue are to be understood in relation to one another and the analysis in the document leads clearly beyond the superficial understanding according to which there is some kind of conflict or competition between the two. The document goes on to explore the different kinds or levels of dialogue and this is important because it becomes clear that everyone is called to dialogue in one form or another. The section ends with a short section considering ‘new age’ spirituality.

Chapter 4 deals with the very delicate question of prayer and worship which is the issue that often raises the most questions. The document takes the “Assisi” model of Pope John Paul II as exemplar and guide. Because prayer is an expression of faith, people of different religions do not pray together. But there is still much that can be done. At Assisi, people prayed in the presence of people of other religions, and the event gave currency to the slogan referred to earlier. “We don’t come to pray together – we come together to pray”. The document gives prudent and careful encouragement to Catholics both to invite members of other religions to be present at Catholic liturgies and to accept invitations from members of other religions to attend their acts of worship. Advice is given for the “management” of these occasions in such a way as to develop mutual understanding and respect while avoiding any hint of syncretism.

Chapter 5 considers interreligious marriage which is a live pastoral issue today and is likely to remain so. The document does not shy away from the very real practical and spiritual problems to which these marriages can give rise but recognises that they are a fact of life and gives indications about preparation for such marriages and pastoral care of people who are in them.

Chapter 6 looks at interreligious work at the local level giving indications about relations with civil authorities, “local strategic partnerships”, possibilities and structures at diocesan and parish level, ecumenical collaboration in interreligious dialogue, and the question of formation.
Other specific topics are dealt with. Firstly there is the whole question of interreligious dialogue in Catholic schools. This is a very significant issue especially for those schools which have a high proportion of children belonging to other religions. Finally the document gives some examples of what is happening in different dioceses and gives important indications about particular chaplaincy situations, an area in which there can easily be misunderstandings but where there is also great potential.

It is the hope of those involved in interreligious dialogue on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference that this text will be widely read and be a source of real nourishment as well as a reliable guide. It is envisaged that there will be study materials aimed at helping people to engage with the important issues the document raises. This document stands firmly in the tradition of the Church and finds the roots of its thinking in the scriptures. It also speaks to the reality of the Church and society of today.