THE ROLE OF THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY
IN INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

(Lecture given in Boston College, 31 October 2000)

1. A Question of Great Relevance.

As we stand at the threshold of the 21st century, we cannot but note that growing religious plurality is one of the remarkable dimensions of life in our times. Christians live and work side by side with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other religious convictions in Washington, Mexico City and Lima; in London, Paris and Moscow; in New Delhi, Beijing and Tokyo; in Canberra, Wellington and Port Moresby; in Nairobi, Pretoria and Abuja.

People of varying religions interact. They meet one another. They see the necessity to build a more harmonious society, to dialogue and to share religious, social and cultural values. Interreligious dialogue is not an option. It is a necessity.

The Catholic University as a community of scholars and students inspired by the Catholic faith, cannot be outside this discourse. I am, therefore, happy to be invited by this renowned seat of learning to propose to you some thoughts on "The Role of the Catholic University in Interreligious Dialogue in the 21st Century".

After an introductory statement on the need for a Catholic university to be truly a university and authentically Catholic, we shall summarize the attitude of the Church towards people of other religions which the Catholic university is expected to share. The role of the Catholic university in developing the theology which underpins interreligious dialogue will be spelt out. Religious belonging and its relationship with salvation is an aspect that deserves separate treatment. A Catholic university should moreover help to articulate the proper relationship between proclamation of Jesus Christ and interreligious dialogue. It is also expected to provide an answer to the growing phenomena of theological relativism and religious indifference. We shall conclude by mentioning some practical initiatives which the Catholic university could take in this field.

2. The Catholic University: University and Catholic.

It sounds almost tautological to say that a Catholic university should be truly a university and authentically Catholic. But this is our necessary point of departure.

The Catholic university should be an efficient, respectable and good university recognizable as such in its cultural milieu. It should be competent. It should be able to stand its ground among secular or religious-inspired universities as an academic public forum, a community of students and teachers in search of truth, and a crossroads where many currents of thought meet. A good Catholic university should shine forth as "an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities" (Ex Corde Eccl., 12).

At the same time, the Catholic university should be authentically Catholic. The academic and the administrative personnel as well as the students should pursue the aims of a university in a climate inspired by the Catholic faith. The Catholic character of the university should be unmistakable. It should even be made visible by way, for example, of the university parish, the chapel, usual Catholic devotions and organizations for the lay apostolate. The Catholics among the teaching staff in particular should teach by example that they have found in Jesus Christ the Saviour a meaning to their lives, and that they share the faith of the Church and her approach to moral and social questions. This Catholic character of the university should not be interpreted as ruling out teachers and students of other religious convictions, as will become clearer in this paper. It however asks that the Catholic inspiration of such a university be respected and maintained.

3. Sharing the Attitude of the Church Towards People of Other Religions.

It is remarkable that the Catholic Church in our times has a well-articulated statement of her attitude towards the people of other religions. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was the first General Council to issue a major document on the question with the Declaration, Nostra Aetate, of 28 October 1965. The same Council in other documents, especially Lumen Gentium (nn 16, 17), Gaudium et Spes (nn. 22, 92) and Dignitatis Humanae (the entire document) stated the theological foundations and spelt out some of the consequences of this attitude.

The Catholic university is a major centre of thought and inspiration in the Church. It is deeply committed to dialogue between faith and culture, between belief and reason, and therefore to dialogue between people of differing religious and cultural convictions. After all, a university is an important interlocutor of the academic, cultural, scientific and religious worlds. The Catholic university should therefore be intensely involved in the Church's efforts to meet other believers in dialogue and collaboration.

The Second Vatican Council says that people seek in the various religions answers to those major questions which concern and accompany human earthly existence. Examples are the purpose of human life, the nature of moral good and evil, the road to happiness, the explanation of suffering, the fact of death and what people can know about what follows it. Above all, people ask questions about God, the Creator, the Ultimate Reality (cf. Nostra Aetate, 1; Catechism of the Cath. Church, 28).

The Church rejects nothing that is true, noble or holy in the various religions. She praises God when such elements are identified and she regards them as reflections of that Truth which is God. Some elements in these religions also serve as a preparation for the Gospel. And a high spiritual stature can be recognized in some founders of religions.

Yet the Church also notes that people's search for God in these various religions is not always without some errors, shadows or negative elements, in view especially of the historical fact of human weakness and sin, of the difficulty of arriving at religious truth, and of the activity of the Devil.

Therefore while noting in other religions elements both positive and negative, the Church regards it as her inalienable duty to proclaim Jesus Christ as "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (Jn 14:6), that he alone is the Saviour of all humanity, and that only in him do people find the fullness of religious life and truth.

Given these considerations, the Church promotes both proclamation and interreligious dialogue. Both form an integral part of her evangelizing mission. She exhorts Catholics "prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture" (Nostra Aetate, 2). The interreligious dialogue which the Church urges, therefore, is the meeting of others, mutual listening and mutual understanding leading to mutual enrichment and collaboration to promote justice, peace, family values, harmony in society, cultural development, respect for the environment, etc.

The Catholic university is a very important participant in this effort of the Church.

4. Developing a Catholic Theology of Interreligious Dialogue.

"The objective of a Catholic university", says Ex Corde Ecclesiae, "is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture" (Ex Corde Eccl., 13). The fact of religious plurality makes necessary for the Church the apostolate of interreligious dialogue. If such a dialogue is to be properly understood and authentically promoted by Catholics, then they need a good theology that underpins this dimension of the evangelizing mission of the Church.

This is where the Catholic university comes in. It can help to research into and articulate a sound Catholic theological vision which will serve as a strong foundation for dialogue. Good pastoral practice should be based on healthy theology, Orthopraxis should be given life by orthodoxy.

The building up of such a theology is only at its beginnings. It takes into consideration such firm points of revelation as the universal salvific will of God (cf I Tim 2:4-5; Jn 3:16), the Incarnation of the Son of God, the salvation of all humanity by the one Savior Jesus Christ through the paschal mystery, the action of the Holy Spirit in disposing people to respond to God's saving grace, and the Church as the "universal sacrament of salvation" (cf Lumen Gentium, 48) with a special relationship with Christ. And it pays attention to the teaching authority of the Church especially as exercised by the Successor of St. Peter.

May I now single out three areas where I think that the Catholic university can particularly help to articulate a Catholic theology which can serve as a sound guide for interreligious dialogue.

5. Salvation and Religious Belonging.

One of the major questions which a Catholic theology of interreligious dialogue has to examine is that of salvation and religious belonging. In order to arrive at salvation, which is the vision of God as he is for ever in heaven after death, does it matter to which religion a person belongs? What is the relationship of the Church to salvation? What of the other religions and salvation? The major lines of such a Catholic theology can be drawn out as follows.

God's salvific will is universal. It extends to every man and woman. God "wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth" (I Tim 2:4).

The Eternal Father sent his Only-begotten Son into the world to take on human nature "for love of us and for our salvation" (Credo). Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour of all humanity. "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). "For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus, who sacrificed himself as a ransom for them all" (I Tim 2:5-6). Jesus saved all humanity by his suffering, death and resurrection: the paschal mystery.

Jesus founded the Church, his Church. He sent the Holy Spirit to his Church so that the Church could bring the benefits of salvation to everyone. The Church is founded by Christ, as a saving reality. This Church, Vatican II tells Catholics, "now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. For Christ, made present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique Way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and Baptism (cf Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through Baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved" (Lumen Gentium, 14).

This declaration of the Council has to be properly understood. It is saying that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation, that it is the "universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium, 48), that "united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, her Head, and subordinated to him, she has, in God's plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being" (CDF: Dominus Jesus, 20).

Vatican II is not saying that whoever is not an actual member of the Church will not be saved. In fact, paragraph 14 of Lumen Gentium speaks of various degrees of incorporation into the Church. Paragraph 15 speaks of other Christians, and paragraph 16 says expressly that people who have not yet received the Gospel of Jesus Christ are related in various ways to the Church. In the first place are the Jews to whom God made promises and gave gifts of which he does not repent. God's plan of salvation also includes people of other religions: Muslims, Hindus, those who seek God in shadows and images and all people of good will. There are obviously conditions. It should not be their fault that they do not know and welcome Christ and his Church. They should be open to God's will and follow their conscience in matters of right and wrong. God will not deny to such people the grace necessary for salvation.

But everyone who is saved is saved because of the grace of Christ, the one Saviour of all, even when such people do not realize that Christ is their Saviour. For such people "salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them is a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit" (Red Missio, 10; cf also Dialogue and Proclamation, 29).

From these considerations, it follows that the Church is the ordinary means to salvation and not just one way of salvation alongside the other religions, and that it is in her that people find in their abundance and fullness the means to salvation. This explains why the Church "painstakingly fosters her missionary work" (Lumen Gentium, 16), so that people of other religions may receive the means to salvation in their abundance.

It is also important to add with Vatican 11 that the above doctrine is no reason for pride or presumption on the part of actual members of the Church. "If they fail moreover to respond to that grace (i.e. of membership in the Church) in thought, word and deed, not only will they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged" (Lumen Gentium, 14).

Every word is not yet said in the construction of a Catholic theology of religions. There are areas where theological investigation is still needed. Here are examples. Gaudium et Spes, 22, says that "we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery". What does this mean? There are "elements of grace" in religious traditions, their teachings and rites. Can these be identified? Dominus Jesus, 21, asserts that "the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what 'the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions' (Red Missio, 29)". There is room for further theological reflection on these and similar questions.

6. Healthy Relationship Between Proclamation and Dialogue.

On the relationship between the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the promotion of interreligious dialogue, or good relations with the followers of other religions, some people are not quite clear. Some imagine that the Church in our times has downplayed, or should downplay, proclamation in favour of dialogue. They may even suggest that conversion to Christianity uproots people from their cultures and societies and disturbs social harmony. Others fear that dialogue could dampen the zeal of missionaries and discourage the announcement of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Catholic university should help by presenting a clear picture on the places of both proclamation and dialogue in the evangelizing mission of the Church. This is precisely the theme of the 1991 document, Dialogue and Proclamation, jointly issued by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The major lines can be spelt out briefly as follows.

Interreligious dialogue, or contact, or collaboration is necessary because we live in a religiously pluralistic world. Christians have to take notice that two-thirds of humanity do not know or accept Jesus Christ. And yet we are all created by the same God; we have the same human nature; we are all redeemed by the same Saviour Jesus Christ; we all have the same destiny; and Christ sent his Church to meet every human being.

Proclamation is necessary because Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour of all men and women. Only in him is there the fullness of religious life and truth. Jesus expressly sent his Church to preach the Gospel, to offer people the opportunity of faith and Baptism and to nourish them with the word of God and with the sacraments (cf Mt 28:18-20). The Church has no right to withhold from other believers, who freely receive it, the excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ. As St Paul declares: "Not that I do boast of preaching the Gospel, since it is a duty which has been laid on me; I should be punished if I did not preach it" (I Cor 9:16). "1 am not ashamed of the Good News", he tells the Romans. "It is the power of God saving all who have faith" (Rom 1:16). Indeed he says that the Gospel "must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith" (Rom 16:26; cf also Evangelii Nuntiandi, 53).

Dialogue and proclamation, although both are elements in the evangelizing mission of the Church, are not interchangeable (cf Red. Missio, 55). Each has its characteristics. In a given situation of a local Church or community, one of these elements could be more appropriate than the others, considering peoples, places and times.

Proclamation and dialogue can be complementary. The better one can dialogue with people in a particular religious and cultural context, the more effectively can one bring them the message of the Gospel. Thus dialogue favours inculturation of the Gospel.

From the nature of. these two activities, a certain amount of tension between them could occasionally be expected and even two good Christians could have differing views on where the priority is to be put at a particular time and place. The Church in each place should pray the Holy Spirit for light and guidance.

7. Answer to Theological Relativism and Religious Indifferentism.

Quite a number of people in the world of today sponsor a mentality of theological relativism or even of indifference with reference to religions. The Catholic university can help to clear the air.

The religious relativist holds that one religion is as good as another. But the fact is that the various religions are manifestations of the human soul looking for God and seeking how to serve him, whereas with Judaism and Christianity it is God who took the initiative. God who began to reveal himself through the prophets in the Mosaic covenant, in the fullness of time revealed himself through his Son (cf Heb 1:2). Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, is the visible manifestation of God's salvific will. He came down from heaven and taught humanity how to worship God in spirit and in truth (cf Jn 4:23). The religion which he established should not be put on the same level as any other religion. As Dominus Jesus puts it, "equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ - who is God himself made man - in relation to the founders of the other religions" (Dominus Jesus, 22).

The religious indifferentist goes further and refrains from commitment to any religion, or regards religion as an optional matter if not even a cause of tensions and divisions. The answer is that we human beings are creatures. We owe to God adoration, praise, thanksgiving, expressions of repentance for sins, and requests for what we need. This is what genuine religion is all about. It is not optional. It is obligatory. It is a debt which we owe to God, our Creator. Moreover, true religion teaches love of God and love of neighbour and helps to resolve conflicts rather than cause them. It is, however, true that people who have other agendas - political, ethnic, economic or simply greedy selfishness - can exploit and abuse religion to start or exacerbate conflicts. Religious leaders should help their coreligionists to analyse situations of conflict. Let it be asserted, therefore, that an attitude of religious indifference is no proof of a sophisticated or liberal culture. Life without religion is like a journey without a purpose, like soccer without goal posts. A person without religion is basically disoriented in life, has not come to terms with the reason for human earthly existence, has not the most secure matrix, locale and anchor for moral laws and values, is lacking a firm reference point for duties towards the neighbour, and is in difficulty to offer a viable and humanly enriching attitude to disappointment, sickness and death. Religious indifference is unacceptable.

8. Some Practical Initiatives.

Let us conclude these reflections by mentioning some practical ways in which the Catholic university can show commitment to interreligious dialogue.

The primary requirement is that the Catholic university should present its students with a sound and robust introduction into the Catholic faith in its four dimensions of belief, worship, moral code and prayer. Thus a Catholic graduate will be able to give a mature and well articulated presentation of the Catholic faith which has been taught, understood, loved, lived and shared. As St Peter says: "Have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have" (I Pet 3:15).

The Catholic university should also provide adequate courses on the major world religions, especially those which are present in the region in question. The presentation should be objective.

Catholic undergraduates need thereafter to be introduced to a Catholic theological reflection on the other religions in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They will need answers to the usual questions raised in a religiously pluralistic world. Here are some examples. Is religion necessary? Can an educated person not be religiously indifferent or not remain an undenominational Christian? Does it matter to which religion or Church one belongs? Is one religion as good as another? Must I become a Catholic or a Christian in order to be saved? In a world of many religions, why do Christians still stay divided? Should we work for the unity of all religions? What is God's will with reference to religions?

The Catholic university, while retaining its Catholic character, should respect the religious freedom of those lecturers or students who belong to other religions. This will include leaving them free to practise their own religions. Details on how this is to be done will have to be examined.

It would be commendable that the Catholic university arrange occasional colloquia in which people of differing religions take part and the students are exposed to healthy interaction between them.

It is important that the documents of the teaching authority of the Church on interreligious dialogue be made available to the Catholic university community. The same remarks apply to guidelines issued by the offices of the Holy Father, by the Bishops' Conferences and by the Diocesan Bishop on the practice of interreligious collaboration.

The Catholic university parish should not forget the interreligious dimension of the life of the Church. Homilies, commentaries on events in the Church world-wide, and also on world events from a Catholic point of view, and suitable university parish activities or practical demonstrations of concern are some ways to do this in practice.

Respected President, Teaching and Administrative Staff, Students of Boston College and distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the Catholic university has great potentialities to show commitment to the apostolate of interreligious dialogue at this doorway into the third millennium.

May the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Seat of Wisdom and Queen of Apostles, obtain for this University, and indeed for every Catholic university, the grace to rise up to the occasion with openness, generosity, decisiveness, faith and competence.


Francis Card. Arinze

31st Oct., 2000


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