CNS PHOTO | MOHAMED AZAKIR, REUTERS
Pope Benedict greets Lebanese Sheik Abdul Amir Qabalan during a welcoming ceremony in Beirut during his recent visit to Lebanon.
Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council launched a new Catholic commitment to interreligious dialogue, work continues on clarifying the Church's attitudes toward other religions.
While some Catholics still look on other religions with disdain, other Catholics seem to believe Vatican II taught that all religions are equally valid paths to God and to the fullness of truth.
The new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently said both extremes are wrong.
Archbishop Gerhard Muller, the Vatican's doctrinal chief, gave a speech in Assisi in late October in which he tried to explain the differences between Catholic respect for every religion's honest search for God and the error of thinking Christianity has nothing essential to add.
Saying that all religions basically are similar actually means "negating or doubting the possibility of real communication between God and human beings," Muller said. The truths of Judeo-Christian faith are not human inventions, but the result of God's revelation.
Not believing that Christ's death and resurrection make Christianity unique among religions is, in essence, the equivalent of denying that God became human in Christ or of saying that Christ's divinity is "a poetic metaphor, beautiful but unreal," the archbishop said.
For decades, popes and Vatican officials have taught that the aim of interreligious dialogue is not to come to some sort of agreement on religious or even moral principles that everyone in the world can accept.
Rather, for Catholic leaders, the goal of such dialogue is for people firmly rooted in different faith traditions to explain their beliefs to one another, grow in knowledge of and respect for one another, and help one another move closer to the truth about God and what it means to be human.
A societal consequence of such a dialogue should be respect for each individual's conscience, more social peace and joint efforts to defend human dignity and help those in need.
Among Church leaders, concerns for dialogue are not simply academic, and the obstacles to dialogue are not simply erroneous theological positions. For instance, several members of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization, held at the Vatican in October, described on-the-ground Catholic-Muslim relations.
Some spoke of those relations in terms of true friendship and collaboration; others referred to efforts to restrict the freedom of Christian minorities or to exert strong pressure on people from Muslim families not to convert to Christianity.
Synod members responded with a formal resolution asking Christians "to persevere and to intensify their relations with Muslims according to the teaching of the declaration Nostra Aetate," the Vatican II document that expressed "esteem" for Muslims.
The document based that esteem particularly on the Muslim belief in the one God, and Muslims' devotion to submitting themselves completely to his will.
In his talk in Assisi Oct. 29, Muller said Christians enter into dialogue with members of other religions precisely because of the respect Christianity has for "the natural religious sensibility" and the intellectual desire for truth that all human beings share.
The human person is religious by nature, he said. All people, at some time in their lives, wonder about the creation of the world and their place in it, and - particularly in times of trial - seek solace from some form of providential being or power.
In addition, Muller said the human intellect naturally tries to seek truth.
In dialogue, he said, Christians must recognize the challenge of taking the search for truth seriously. Too many people seek comfort from their vague religiosity without feeling obliged to act on the truths that faith and reason require.
The Catholic Church's commitment to interreligious dialogue and its affirmation of things that are good and holy in other religions does not mean the Church looks upon the world's religions with rose-coloured glasses.
In an essay published Oct. 11, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict wrote about the ongoing importance of Nostra Aetate for Catholics in increasingly multi-religious societies.
"A weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: It speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance."
Those distorted forms explain why Christians for centuries had been mostly critical of other religions, the pope said.
Muller, in his Assisi speech, said that "to respect the religious conscience of humanity, in fact, does not mean forgetting that historical religions also present obstacles, as well as sick and disturbed forms of religion."
"In a religion that gives prevalence, in an unquestioning way, to the letter of its texts and does not leave room" for questions that seek deeper understanding, the value of the individual conscience is diminished, he said.
As well, where a religion is imposed, violently or not, personal dignity is wounded, the archbishop said.
Recognition that faith is a gift of God and that Christianity is based on a freely chosen, personal relationship with Christ excludes any attempt by Christians to pressure or coerce another to embrace Christianity, Muller said.
However, because dialogue presumes that participants, in an atmosphere of respect for others, are sharing who they are and what they believe, he said, interreligious dialogue can "create a context where it also is possible to witness to faith in Jesus Christ."
"It would be lying," he said, to hide one's faith in Jesus "in the name of a 'politically correct' dialogue."