Earlier this year I offered a reflection on Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 World Day of Peace Message. This year, in my retreat workshops, I offer our Catholic retreatants a complex position that the Pope puts forth with regards Inter-Faith dialogue and relations. Below is the excerpt from paragraph 11 where the Pope addresses this issue.
For the Church, dialogue between the followers of the different religions represents an important means of cooperating with all religious communities for the common good. The Church herself rejects nothing of what is true and holy in the various religions…
The path to take is not the way of relativism or religious syncretism. The Church, in fact, “proclaims, and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6); in Christ, in whom God reconciled all things to himself, people find the fullness of the religious life”. Yet this in no way excludes dialogue and the common pursuit of truth in different areas of life, since, as Saint Thomas Aquinas would say, “every truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit”.
This wording may seem very complicated and indeed many of the comments that I receive is that some people feel that the Church complicates what ought to be a simple religious position. If we are the one true faith then how can others also claim to be? How can we be allowed to publically respect other faith traditions if they are not based the universal truth that we believe is represented in Christ? This passage from Pope Benedict’s message begs us to ask the question that Pontius Pilate posed on Jesus, “What is Truth?”
The Pope attempts to answer this question with this aforementioned passage. Truth resides with God. Truth is made known to us by the Holy Spirit. Christ showed us the truth of our existence and his life and teachings became a living truth for us. The Church is an institution with the mission of preaching this living truth that is Christ. The wisdom of God and His Holy Spirit however cannot be bound by any human institution no matter how noble its mission is. The early Christian philosopher Justin Martyr wrestled with this question when he developed the concept of the “pre-Christians.” Certain philosophers such as Plato and Socrates who existed before Christ seem to have access to divine wisdom. Justin Martyr wrestled with this when he had to reconcile the image of the “Just Man” in Plato’s Republic with Christ. Plato’s image of the “Just Man” almost seems to predict the life and teachings of Christ even with regards to his fate on the Cross. For Justin Martyr and other Christian philosophers this could only be explained through ability of the Holy Spirit to confer God’s wisdom and truth to all people. This became the basis for a theology of natural law where divine wisdom has access to us through our natural gift of reason and which St. Paul the Apostle alludes to in his letter to the Romans.
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness;” (Rom. 2: 14-15)
The Holy Spirit goes beyond the mission of the Church to emanate God’s truth to all people. The noble mission of the Church to preach the absolute truth of Christ cannot limit God’s wisdom as it reaches other people through their own faith tradition.
The Vatican II document NOSTRA AETATE offers the official position of relations between Catholics and people of other faith. In his recent book on Jesus of Nazareth the Pope reiterates the message of this document to eliminate the traditional Christian prejudice against the Jewish people by reiterating that they, as a people, are not ethnically guilty of condemning Christ to death, a responsibility that falls historically on the collaboration of the Temple and Roman authorities. Nostra Aetate also offers a position with regards to our respectful relations to people of other faiths including the followers of Islam.
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They 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.
It may seem complicated for us as we wrestle with the issue that Pope Benedict XVI addresses with this year’s World Day of Peace Message. How do we come to an understanding our faith from the perspective of preaching the truth that is Christ while respecting the truth that exist with other faiths? But one point of this Vatican II document and the Pope’s 2011 Message of Peace is actually quite simple and clear, we are not allowed to discriminate or have any prejudice from the perspective of our faith. As the Second Vatican Council declared in the conclusion of Nostra Aetate:
No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned. The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.