In November, the Vatican published a book entitled Interreligious Dialogue in the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church (1963-2013). While the book is not likely to become a bestseller, its publication is a significant event.
The book is 2,100 pages long and contains 909 documents on interreligious dialogue issued by the Vatican since the middle of the Second Vatican Council. A press release accompanying the book's release stated, moreover, that the number of documents in this area is increasing with each pontificate.
At the start of Vatican II, there was no intention of publishing any document like the council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).
Pope John XXIII had expressed a desire for a statement on the Church's relations with Jews, a proposal that became increasingly complex as the council fathers attempted to implement it. Catholic leaders in the Middle East felt that Arab nations would see such a document as support for the state of Israel, and indeed that is exactly how it was perceived.
The council fathers decided to balance their comments on Judaism with other comments that showed an appreciation for Islam. Bishops from East Asia then said the document would be incomplete without some reflection that would enable dialogue with faiths based in their part of the world.
The final text of Nostra Aetate said that in Hinduism, "people explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy."
Buddhism, in its various forms, "testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which people can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of spiritual liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or with divine help."
The document's most quoted statement in regard to Eastern religions is, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women."
Then, it went even further, saying that while Christians should witness to their own faith, they should "encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians."
In regards to Islam, Nostra Aetate noted that "many quarrels and dissensions" have taken place between Christians and Muslims over the centuries. It pleaded for "mutual understanding" and said all ought "to forget" this negative past.
CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS
Catholic relations with people of other faiths, once aimed solely at conversion, are now warmer and respectful.
It paid tribute to Muslims for, among other things, worshipping the one, living and subsistent God who created heaven and earth. "They endeavour to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own."
Decades later, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, for years the Vatican's chief officer in dialogue with both other Christian churches and other faiths, wrote that prior to Vatican II, dialogue with these religions was rare and, when it did occur, was directed primarily at conversion.
Other faiths, Cassidy wrote, "were often considered pagan or even the fruit of Satan's presence in the world."
While Nostra Aetate went through a torturous path in winning approval at Vatican II, the final document can be seen as a providential event. It has provided the foundation for dialogue among the great religions of the world, a dialogue that Catholics have done much to encourage since the council.
The Church, to be sure, has not abandoned its missionary calling. Nor has it renounced the most basic truth it teaches - that all salvation comes through Christ.
The Church "proclaims and is duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself, people find the fullness of their religious life" (NA 2).
Unlike our dialogues with other Christians, there is no desire to reach a unity among the faiths. The goal instead is to build mutual understanding which will facilitate world peace. Moreover, there is now a belief that although we do not share much common doctrine, people of all religions can learn from and be encouraged by the way others practise their faith.
One should not be Pollyannaish about this. Christians still suffer persecution from fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus. Conversely, some fundamentalist Christians would not see interfaith relations with the same openness expressed in Nostra Aetate. Some still see the great religions of Eastern Asia as pagan or Satanic.
In a world, however, in which people of different faiths are increasingly living and working in the same societies, the need for dialogue and understanding is growing. We cannot be satisfied with caricatures of other people's faiths, for such comic book portrayals of other religions can only create new wounds and allow the old ones to fester.
Finally, we can and have developed projects on which people of different faiths work together for the common good of society.
Interfaith dialogue is not an easy process and it is one with no end point. Its results will be uneven - more fruitful in some regions of the globe than in others. But it is a process essential to the peaceful future of humanity.
Nostra Aetate was one important catalyst that sparked the beginning of this dialogue.