Catholic Teaching on Inter-Religious Dialogue

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks clearly about the need for positive inter-religious encounters. It sees part of the mission of every Christian to include “a respectful dialogue with those who do not … accept the Gospel. Believers can profit from this dialogue by learning to appreciate better ‘those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples [of other faiths], and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God’” (CCC, #856).

Respectful dialogue and appreciative learning: qualities that, it seems to me, would encourage learning about other faiths, becoming familiar with their teachings and practices, reading their sacred texts, and — most important of all — making the effort to actually get to know adherents of other faiths, not in a “I’m here to convert you” sort of way, which always come across as insincere and manipulative; rather, true inter-religious encounters must be grounded in no agenda beyond “love your neighbor as yourself.” I as a Christian, in encountering persons who are Muslims, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Neopagans, or Hindus (or whatever), need to keep my focus on the person him- or herself — not on their beliefs, or practices, or identity. While it may be interesting and enjoyable to learn about someone’s faith when it is different from my own, ultimately it is even more rewarding to simply get to know them as friends, regardless of our shared or differing religious identities.

It seems so many Christians, Catholic and otherwise, feel that the only point behind becoming friends with people of other faiths is to do a bit of spiritual marketing: to get them to convert. But that way of thinking actually undermines the kind of respectful dialogue and appreciative learning that the Catechism advocates. If somebody or somebodies came up to me and said “I’d like to learn more about being a Catholic,” naturally I would talk to them about my faith. But that’s their initiative, based on whatever calling they feel between themselves and God. If I try to “push” my Catholicism, or my Christianity, on other people, I’m trying to play God. And that’s not something I think any of us are called to do!

So I’ll stick with respectful dialogue, appreciative learning, and genuine, non-manipulative friendships. A statement on “Dialogue and Proclamation” from the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue gives further detail on why Catholics (and, I would argue, other Christians) ought to reach out to those of other faiths. “While keeping their identity intact, Christians must be prepared to learn and to receive from and through others the positive values of their traditions.” I think this is an important point: inter-religious dialogue is not about abandoning your own faith. Indeed, it requires a sense of being grounded in your own faith, in order to more truly appreciate the diversity between the faiths. But it’s not an aggressive grounding that seeks to make everyone else just like me; on the contrary, to be truly grounded in my faith means I find my identity through God, and not through other people, and so I am able to relate to all people, regardless of their identity, with love and kindness and compassion and respect.

Finally, the Pontifical Council notes “Christians must remember that God has also manifested himself in some way to the followers of other religious traditions.” This recognition takes humility: to give up on any kind of triumphalistic notion that only my religion has “all the answers.” Seeking God through the wisdom of other faiths can be a profound way of deepening one’s own spirituality. As the Pontifical Council puts it, “Far from weakening their own faith, true dialogue will deepen it.” Amen!

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • John Barton

    It is hard to take any Catholic pronouncements respecting inter-faith dialogue seriously when the Catholic establishment will not even recognize the legitimacy of other Christian denominations. When I attend a Catholic mass, I am not allowed to take communion because I am an Episcopalian. I find that insulting. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, allows all confirmed Christians to receive communion. It is a welcoming, open, accepting, dare I say Christian, stance that the Catholic Church should adopt.

    • Carl McColman

      John, I am so sorry to hear about how painful it is for you to feel excluded from the Eucharistic table in Roman Catholic Churches. You are not alone, and I know many Catholics, both lay and ordained, who are saddened by the church’s closed table. But no matter how we may feel about Catholicism’s Eucharistic theology and practice, I think we should welcome positive statements from the Vatican on inter-religious dialogue.

  • Larry

    I was going to raise the same issue. My wife and daughters are Protestant (Presbyterian for most of the past 18 years; recently moved to a Methodist church) and as much as they enjoy going to the occasional Mass with me, they feel excluded b/c of the rules re the Eucharist. As much as I try to explain the rationale, it’s not terribly persuasive. But, yes, continued outreach and inter-religious dialogue is vital.