Bad Faith: The Shortcomings of the Catholic Doctrine on Interreligious Dialogue
It’s hard to watch the news today without seeing reports on religious violence. Despite the political reasons behind the intensive media coverage of certain extremist Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, it’s impossible to deny that across the history of mankind, faith has been the reason for many wars and suffering.
This may be unexpected, especially since almost all religious traditions advocate for goodwill, empathy and solidarity, but it’s the reality. As the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung affirms, “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions”. That’s why, in the context of a violent world, it is important to take decisive steps on interreligious dialogue.
This article explores the Catholic doctrine on interreligious dialogue with the aim of exposing how its inherent colonialist logic may obstruct severely any attempts of establishing mutual understanding and good relations between different faith traditions.
Interreligious dialogue is the practice that tries to build positive, cooperative and constructive interactions between people of different religions or beliefs. The main goal of this initiatives is not to convince other groups of the superiority of our faith nor to change our beliefs in order to find common ground with them (what is called syncretism). We can only talk about interreligious dialogue when the aim of the interactions is to acheive acceptance among the participants. In this context, acceptance must be understood as a sum of good relations and mutual understanding.
The history of interreligious dialogue is almost as old as religion itself. Since ancient times, there have been many men willing to engage pacifically with people from different backgrounds and learn from them. One example of this was the Emperor Akbar the Great who, in the 16th century adopted a policy of religious tolerance and plurality for the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in Mughal India.
An historical mark on the development of interreligious dialogue was the creation, in 1893, of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. This attempt on creating a global dialogue of faiths resulted on a series of meetings of representatives of different churches and religious traditions, the last one in 2009, on Australia.
After the World War II, efforts have intensified, especially among Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianism and Islam). In 1965, Nostra Aetate was published, as part of the Second Vatican Council documents. This text, which we will look into later, established the Catholic Church’s new position on interreligious dialogue. It was also during the 1960s that, motivated by the struggles of the civil rights movements, American religious institutions began a fruitful dialogue.
The first World Day of Prayer for Peace was organized by Pope John Paul II and took place in Assisi, in 1986. Representatives of several Christian denominations (Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, etc.), as well as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism and others, gathered in the Italian town to pray toghether for peace. Since this historic event, two similar World Days of Prayer for Peace have taken place (1993 and 2002).
Other initiatives and meetings have been organized by different parts and interreligious dialogue have become part everyday reality of religious institutions across the globe.
The Catholic position on this, as stated on Nostra Aetate, is that since the various religions attempt to answer humankind existential questions as the moral good and the meaning of life, they are all valuable and all converge around the Truth. The document states:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
This recognition of the value of other religious manifestations opens the door to the construction of good relations among faiths. The same text exhorts the Catholic believers to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions”. This interactions have as main goals the effort to “recognize, preserve and promote” the best cultural, spiritual and moral values “found among these men”, and to “promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom”.
Another consequence of the recognition of the value of other beliefs is the reproval of “any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people”, especially those advocating religio us intolerance and conflit.
Later, in 1974, the Vatican’s Commission on Interreligious Relations published the Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate. The document maintains the same spirit of good-will and suggests fraternal dialogue, doctrinal research, prayer in common and even common social action “in the context of a search for social justice and for peace”.
The apparent openness and good intentions of these documents contrast with the strong christocentric position stated on Lumen Gentium (another text of the Second Vatican Council). It defends the doctrine that Christ is the only saviour and mediator between humanity and God. Therefore, no one can reach spiritual bliss or salvation if not through the Church, here presented as the only gateway to Christ. The same text even advocates that “all men are called to belong to the new people of God [the Church]”.
Simillar reasoning is found in the Catecism of the Catholic Church, the main compilation of Catholic doctrine compiled by Pope John Paul II, in 1992. It uses John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, to declare that Christ is the only“mediator and the way of salvation” and, so, “outside the Church there is no salvation”.
This is in direct contradiction with the affirmation, in the same book, that “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator”, namely Jews and Muslims. Taking this quotation in higher authority than the last ones, believers of Judaism and Islam may have a chance to attain salvation, by virtue of having shared spiritual roots with Christianity.
Unfortunately, the same inconsistency doesn’t apply to non-Abrahamic religions. Their spiritual traditions, some of them even older than the Christian faith, are said to be a “search among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown” which benefits the believers by acting on their hearts “as a preparation for the Gospel”.
Instead of an openness to true dialogue and mutual understanding, this kind of reasoning is syntomatic of a colonialist worldview. The colonial process was a movement of European expansionism. First by the means of sending missionaries and traders, and later through conquest and military occupation, the European powers spread their own cultural perspectives as well as their social, political and economic models all over the world.
If the main material consequence of that process was the universalization of the capitalist economic system, the colonialist experience had also great implications in how we think about the world. It brought about the hegemony of western epistemology and, consequently, the subjugation or extinction of other worldviews and ways of thinking. This resulted in a cultural impoverishment of humanity.
Boaventura Sousa Santos, a Portuguese sociologist, explores how the colonialist mentality took root on the human psique, giving birth to what the author calls “abysmal thought”. He describes it as “a system of visible and unvisible divisions”. The divisions are established across lines which divide the social reality in two distinct universes: the universe of “this side of the line” and that of “the other side of the line”. Being exterior to our universe, the “other side of the line” is perceived with hostility and faced as an enemy.
To sum up, abysmal thought is a pre-reflexive presupposition turned into a category of our perception that makes us perceive every empirical data according to hierarchical dichotomies.
By this mentality, everything is divided in two opposing sides where one should be extended and universalized while the other is to be subordinated or even extinguished. Man-woman, heterosexual-homosexual, urban-rural and left-right (or right-left, depending on who is talking) are some of the contemporary categories that embody this kind of dualistic and hierarchical mindset.
The abysmal thought is visibly present in the Catholic doctrine on interreligious dialogue. It’s statement that Christ is the only way, along with the belief that there is no salvation outside the Church, makes a radical distinction between those “on this side of the line”, the saved ones, and those “on the other side of the line” who are wrong and can hardly hope for anything good on the after-life unless they let themselves be absorbed into Christianity.
If every other religion is undoubtedly erroneous, then there is little to learn from them and the point of interreligious dialogue is, at best, to keep the disagreement peaceful and, at worst, to convert our interlocutors, furthering the cultural homogenization and impoverishment that is at the heart of the colonialist edeavure.
Despite the good intentions expressed by the Council on Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church still advocates a position based on bad faith and doctrinal arrogance which threatens the efforts of interreligious dialogue and, consequently, world peace.