Ecumenism, Interfaith Dialogue and the New Evangelisation

David Schutz, August 2012

Someone recently told me a story about how, many years ago, she was asked to be a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding. But the nuns at her school told her that it was not allowed for Catholics to participate in non-Catholic worship services, and she dutifully turned down the invitation. Not only was she bitterly disappointed, but her friend never quite forgave her for putting her religion before their friendship.

Today we are positively encouraged to engage in joint prayer and worship with non-Catholic Christians (short of receiving communion in their churches), and even to engage in dialogue and cooperation with people of non-Christian religions. The disappointed bridesmaid finds it hard to understand how the Church could have undergone such a 180 degree change of teaching on this matter.

The rule that prevented this woman from attending her friend’s wedding was written up for the first time in the Code of Canon Law in 1917. In 1983, Blessed Pope John Paul II ordered a new Code to be prepared, and the new Code omitted this law. At the time, the Pope said: “During the course of the centuries the Catholic Church has been accustomed to reform and renew the laws of canonical discipline so that in constant fidelity to its divine founder, they may be better adapted to the saving mission entrusted to it.”

This is the heart of the matter. The old law had been formulated against for a time very different from ours, a time when many Catholics lived in so called “Catholic countries” in which few non-Catholics were ever encountered, and when many others lived in so called “Protestant countries” where Catholics had often been forced to attend Protestant services (this was the case in England until 1838). Today – especially here in Australia – we find ourselves in a bewildering religious landscape where Catholics live side-by-side with people of all religions and none, and where Christians of all kinds find themselves in a minority situation. The new situation calls for a new way of living out our “constant fidelity” to Jesus, the “divine founder” of our faith. In this day and age, we are being invited by the Church to engage in a “new evagelisation”, a new way of carrying out “the saving mission entrusted” to us.

Ecumenism and Interfaith relations are two new ways in which the Church lives out her evangelising mission.

Certainly, there has been a change in the Church’s outlook. Like so many other changes in the Church’s life and practice, this change can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council, which opened in Rome 50 years ago this year. Towards the end of the Council, two decrees were adopted, one on ecumenism (“Unitatis Redintegratio” 1964) and one on interfaith dialogue (“Nostra Aetate” 1965). The changes brought about by these two decrees were not so much a change in the fundamental teaching of the Church – the Council upheld the teachings that all salvation was through Jesus Christ and the one Catholic Church which he established – as in attitude and outlook.

Pope John XXIII famously said that he called the Council in order to “open the windows” of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow in. That is a good metaphor for the change in regard to other Christians and other religions too, only it was less of an opening of windows and more of a lowering of the drawbridge! For many years prior to the Council (even centuries) the Church had adopted a “fortress” mentality toward the outside world, including those whose religious beliefs were different to ours. The Council called for a new strategy, one born out of confidence in Christ and his Word rather than fear of the other who was different from us: instead of barricading ourselves apart from other believers, Pope Paul VI (in his 1964 encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam”) called for a new mode of communication of the Gospel “most appropriate” for the modern era: dialogue.

How we relate to other believers differs according to their belief. The Council taught us that all who are baptised are in a “real but imperfect” relationship with the Church. Our goal is the “full, visible unity of all Christians”. This is what we mean when we speak of “ecumenism”. The Council judged that the visible division among Christians “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.” This was certainly the case in the rule that prevented the woman in my example above from attending her friend’s wedding. Rather than witnessing to the spiritual unity we have in Christ through baptism, it brought both the Catholic Church and the Gospel into disrepute.

While the divisions that exist among Christians remain very real and very serious, particularly in regard to our teachings regarding the Eucharist, today the Church encourages us to practice “spiritual ecumenism”, that is, prayer and study of God’s word together with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. By such coming together with one another under the Word and in the name of Jesus, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit who is seeking to convert each of us more fully to Christ and thus more fully to one another.

In regard to non-Christian religions, the objective of the Council was appropriately and distinctly different. We do not share with them the same foundation of baptism that we share with our Christian neighbours. But we do share an outlook on life which includes the spiritual dimension, and this outlook is increasingly being ostracised in the public square today. We may not be able to witness together to what God has done in his Son Jesus (Jesus himself in fact is the definitive difference between Christian faith and other religions), but we can witness together to the place of God in the world.

The Council wished to enter into dialogue with people of other religions to seek an understanding of them and, in the context of mutual listening, to convey to them also something of the Good News of Jesus Christ that we have come to know. In Interfaith dialogue we show that we respect and value all people, even people who believe differently to us, because we believe that the redemption Jesus won for us is for them also. Dialogue is a different kind of communication from preaching or proclaiming the Gospel, yet the Gospel has a place there too. We may think of the way in which Jesus entered into a dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), or Paul entered into dialogue with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 16).

Ecumenism and Interfaith relations are different, because they have different aims, but both relationships depend upon being willing and able to enter into a real dialogue with these believers. Authentic dialogue does not give up our own firm convictions. As the guidelines for interfaith dialogue adopted by the Archdiocese of Melbourne puts it, dialogue “does not imply relativism or syncretism, a smorgasbord of bits and pieces… [It] takes place in confidence, without fear or arrogance, without dominating or glossing over differences, never excluding or patronising, neither assimilating nor ignoring.”

It is therefore essential that Catholics engaging in dialogue with either other Christians or other religious believers are well grounded and well catechised in their own faith, so that, as St Peter put it in the bible, we may be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence, and keep your conscience clear” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Excursus on Interfaith Relations: Do we worship the same God?

It is not uncommon to hear people (even Catholics) say, when they encounter someone of another religion: “Our differences don’t matter; we all worship the same God after all.” It must be said that this is not an authentically Catholic attitude to Interfaith relations.

The Second Vatican Council, in “Nostra Aetate”, declared: “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.”

There is, of course, only one “Supreme Being”, but not every religion has the same understanding of who this Being is, or how he is to be worshipped. Catholics, in common with other Christians, believe that the one God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we offer prayer and praise to God through Jesus Christ our divine and incarnate Saviour. Believers of other religions do not do this.

But many religions are related to each other in unique ways. Christianity, of course, grew out of Judaism, and with the Jewish people we acknowledge and worship the God of Israel, who revealed himself to Moses and in the Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”). Although Jews do not affirm our faith in either Jesus or the Trinity, it would be nonsensical to say that they worship a different God from us, for we declare precisely that it is their God whom Jesus revealed as his Father.

The Vatican Council even acknowledged that the Muslim people “adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God” (Nostra Aetate 3). Muslims and Christians do not believe the same things about this God; like the Jews, they reject the belief in God as Trinity, and, although they accept Jesus as a prophet and as Messiah, they do not accept him as God’s Son. But one must certainly admit that their intention is to worship the same God as we do, the God of Abraham.

On the other hand, there are some sects that derive from Christianity, such as the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Christian Scientists, who accept Jesus as Saviour, but who do not hold the authentic Christian belief in the Trinity or the Incarnation.

So, do we worship the “same” God? In some ways, the answer is “yes”. For this reason we respect their sincere searching for God, and pray that God would lead them closer to a full knowledge of him. But in other ways, the answer is “no”, and for that reason, the Church does not endorse joint prayer with people of other religions. We must avoid relativism or syncretism, and act appropriately. While it may be possible with Jews to pray a psalm together from our shared scriptures, in most cases it is more appropriate for us, when we are with people of another faith who are praying or reading from their scriptures, simply to be respectfully present. Alternatively, we can be silent before God together.

And that in itself is not nothing.

One Response to Ecumenism, Interfaith Dialogue and the New Evangelisation

  1. Just a pedantic little correction in detail: It wasn’t Pope John Paul II who ordered a new Code of Canon Law to be prepared in 1983. Rather, in 1959 Pope John XXIII ordered the 1917 Code to revised, and John Paul promulgated to finished revision in 1983.

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