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Answering a Skeptic: The Church and Inter-religious Dialogue

ESSAY / by Allison Ramirez





“I just don’t get it,” my longtime Catholic friend, Julie, asks me one evening over an Italian dinner. “I’ve heard mixed messages lately regarding inter-religious dialogue and evangelization in the Church. Aren’t we supposed to share our faith to non-Christians or is it fine for everyone to have their own faith and believe what they see fit?” My other friend, Megan, responds, “When it comes to religion, what’s most important is creating bonds of mutual respect and understanding with others, opening up channels of communication between different religions.” I glance between them both and offer: “Why not have both: sharing our faith and building greater understanding with other faiths?”


My two friends stare at me with forkfuls of pasta halfway to their lips as I continue, “The reason we should share our faith with others, even those of different faiths, is because Jesus made his intentions clear when he stated: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ [1] You can see from these words of scripture that Jesus never intended his teachings to be ‘one of many paths to walk.’ If one wants to know the way to salvation and the fullness of truth, they are to look no further than Him. Jesus wasn’t just a greater healer, teacher, or prophet; as Christians, we know Him to be God himself.”


“But isn’t that discriminating to say that only Christians have the right understanding of religion?” Megan counters, her brows furrowing. “I was reading Nostra Aetate recently, the Second Vatican Council document for how the Church is to relate to other religions, and I read that: “The Church… through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love… recognizes, preserves and promotes the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” [2] Doesn’t this mean that by collaborating with those of other faiths, we can promote greater goodness and understanding in the world? Why, then, would we try to change the beliefs of those other religions? Isn’t the goal to mutually learn from and cooperate with one another?”

I open my mouth next and say: “Yes, we are to learn what we can, what is true and good, specifically, from other religions. But, in your memory of the document, you left out this key line: ‘in witness to the Christian faith and life.’ You are correct that we are to collaborate civilly with other religions and with a true desire to understand their beliefs; However, we converse with other religions not with mutual partnership as the ultimate goal but always for the benefit of a fuller and more authentic witness of the Christian faith and life. In other words, we strive to first understand those of other religions so that our witness to them comes from a place of respect and knowledge; if we act condescending or without actual understanding of what other religions believe, then our witness of Christ to them will be either hypocritical, unattractive, or ignorant. One must first use the common shared points of belief that already exist between us and other religions for the sake of drawing all into the fullness of truth.”


Julie asks this time, “So, missionary activity is still required in the church?”


I nod. “Yes, the Church has and will always call us to evangelize the gospel to all corners of the earth. In fact, if you read Ad Gentes Divinitus, another Second Vatican Council document which is specifically on the mission activity of the Church, you’ll read that: “The proper purpose of this missionary activity is evangelization, and the planting of the Church among those peoples and groups where it has not yet taken root.” [3] As Christians, we are to talk about our faith with others but not just talk about—ultimately, we are to invite them into the faith. To quote Jesus again from the scriptures, he tells those who follow him closest, his apostles: ‘Go into the world, preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he does not believe, shall be condemned.’” [4]


“Wait, what do you mean by condemned?” Megan asks after taking a sip of lemonade.


“What I mean is that there are consequences for those who: ‘knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it... hence they could not be saved.’ [5] This is taken directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of the profession of faith on the Church and salvation.


“That seems pretty harsh to me,” Megan grumbles. “Makes Christianity sound a lot like ‘my way or the highway.’”


“Actually, it is quite the opposite,” I clarify. “Think about it this way. If one could believe whatever they wanted, follow any religion they wanted, and we would all just end up in the same place regardless of what faith we subscribed to, then there would be no rational reason why Jesus had to willingly go to a bloody and brutal death in order to free us from sin and open the gates for full communion with the Father. What did Christ die to save us from? Indeed, the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, asserts: “As the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” [6]


I take a bite of my own pasta before continuing, “The Christian faith is negated if we say that one can follow whatever religion they want because no other religion recognizes and believes in Christ for who he truly is and has done for us. Jesus would be a liar if we discredit or don’t take him at his word when he says: ‘Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” [7]

“I guess I see your point,” Megan concedes. “But still, are you saying everyone who follows other religions isn’t going to be with God in Heaven?”


“There’s a little more to it than that,” I explain. “Salvation is possible outside the physical bounds of the Catholic Church. As the Catechism asserts: ‘In ways known to himself, God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the gospel to the faith without which it is impossible to please him.’ Thus, if a person of another religion did their best to live a holy life pleasing to God within the bounds of their religious understanding only because they did not truly understand or know the necessity of the Christian faith for salvation, they could be saved, as well as those who, through no fault of their own, never received word of Christianity.”


Megan nods, and I expand further, “Nonetheless, God respects our human freedom of choice in that he will never force anyone to love, follow, or believe in him. That said, if someone is exposed to the Church and her teachings but still does not believe, for the sake of their freedom to choose, there has to be somewhere else other than Heaven for that person to reside, as they have freely chosen life outside of God and the truths of the Church. Authentic freedom requires this. Otherwise, at the end of one’s life, persons who didn’t want to be part of the Church would be forced to remain forever in the presence of Him who they did not follow or believe in, which would counteract one’s human freedom to choose, thus rendering us pawns in God’s hand as opposed to free agents who choose him from a place of love.” [8]


Julie speaks then, asking, “How are we to go about evangelization in a meaningful way in today’s world?”


“That’s a great question. First, as Megan made known to us when we first began discussing this topic, as Christians we must truly engage others both of other faiths and those of no faith—people who think differently than us. Evangelizing from a place of coercion, lack of love, or ignorance to the views of the one being evangelized to will only be counter effective and unappreciated. We must adjust our approach, words, and message to each person and their current beliefs and state in life for our evangelizing efforts to truly bear fruit.”


“You mean by learning about where the other person is coming from first?” Julie adds.


“Exactly. Say you’re speaking to someone atheistic to the faith; you’d first have to understand why they believe there is no God. What are their arguments? What have been the various encounters prompting their position? Get to know a little about their life and their experiences. Your approach to sharing your faith with this person would look much different than if you were speaking to a Muslim, who already shares the belief in one God, for example.”


“That makes sense,” Megan responds.


“The early Christians acknowledged this, meeting the people around them as they were, and then drawing them from their current place of understanding into the faith. Each of the four gospel writers had a particular group of people he was writing to, and thus tailed his message and approach to his audience given their experiences, customs, culture, and starting place of understanding. For example, Matthew wrote to fellow Jews, Luke to the Gentiles, Mark to the Romans, and John to a universal audience. Thus, while the gospel message was the same, the way it was presented—the stories and parables included, writing style and length, were all adjusted to fit with the needs of those being ministered to. So, too, should our own modern-day evangelization be. Knowing what to say (or not to say) in a given evangelization opportunity takes great discernment and careful consideration. Sometimes a good argument is needed, at other times soft encouragement; perhaps just a good deed done, a thoughtful letter, or personal invitation to church, would suffice. It is also beneficial to take the time to know the reasons for one’s desire to come to the faith, or in contrast, their stumbling points against it. Faith is never to be coerced or forced upon someone. In contrast, faith is to be encouraged and supported, but we are to ultimately allow someone to come to the faith freely.


“I like the idea of tailoring our evangelization to the individual,” Julie explains. “It makes things more meaningful and personal that way.”


“It does, and that’s the intent. We want people to feel seen and acknowledged for who they are right now while at the same time calling them evermore to something greater. True evangelization, whether done through words, actions, or example, must feel authentic and come from the heart. Evangelization isn’t about crunching numbers or checking off a box so much as it is moving and inspiring hearts to a real relationship with Christ and his Church.”


Megan speaks then. “Your words make me think of the scripture from Peter when he says: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.’” [9]


“I like that,” Julie adds, “having a reason for our hope.”


“Yes, and at the heart of Christianity is a belief in a hope that lives—a hope that is Christ Jesus, our founder and head, who we desire all people to know, believe, and live for. No other religion has a God who died out of love for them; this makes Christianity unique and unrepeatable. Our faith is not simply a code of conduct or a book of advice on how to live a good life. Instead, Christianity surrounds a real person who wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. According to author Maurice Blumberg in his article, “What the Catholic Church Teaches on Evangelization”:

The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize. [10]


“What does mission work and evangelization look like practically? Where would one start?” Julie asks.


“Thankfully, just like her members, mission work and evangelization in the Church is diverse and multifold. According to Scott Hahn in his book, Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manuel for the New Evangelization, “The New Evangelization, ultimately, must be a call to every man, woman, and child to fall in love, grow in love, and walk in love with the God who loves us.” [11]This motivation should drive our conversations and witness with all those we encounter, be that in person or online, in passing or at work, in our families or friend circles, to encounter the real love that is found in this faith we profess. To share the Christian faith is to spread the reality of Christ’s love to those around us. In practicality, evangelization can be ministering to the needs of an elderly neighbor, inviting a classmate to mass, sharing with your aunt about the Bible study you recently joined, or answering the curious questions of a child.


Mission work, on the other hand, is typically seen as traveling abroad from one’s home to minister to and preach the gospel to those in other parts of the world who have not heard of Christ; these missionary men and women—lay, consecrated, and religious, are called missionaries. Drawing again from the Second Vatican Council document, Ad Gentes Divinitus:

The future missionary is to be prepared by a special spiritual and moral training. For he must have the spirit of initiative in beginning, as well as that of constancy in carrying through what he has begun; he must be persevering in difficulties, patient and strong of heart in bearing with solitude, fatigue, and fruitless labor. [12]


As well as missionary work, evangelization occurs in the local parishes, faith formation programs, seminaries, schools, and universities, in order that the faithful who are already members of the Church through baptism, may not remain stagnant in faith but continue learning, developing, and strengthening that faith. Young minds, especially, are to be given due attention, both in the home and in the parish, to be taught and raised in the faith. Likewise, at the university level, authentic inquiry, research, discussion, and study is to be given to passing on the faith at a mature level to those students who will then go out into the world to live and evangelize as adult Christian disciples. There is never a moment whereby evangelization is ‘completed’ in a person; the message of faith is always being re-presented, reminded, and made new in the hearts of the already established faithful so as to keep the faith fresh and alive in their hearts.


Julie offers, “I volunteer weekly at a soup kitchen downtown, serving food to the homeless. Sometimes I even bring prayer cards to pass out to them with their meal.”


I smile, saying, “Yes, that’s evangelization and service in action. The importance of evangelization as the mission of the Church is for each individual member of the body of Christ to realize that they, as an individual, are uniquely called to participate in the united mission of the Church. It is not enough to focus only on one’s own faith. We must strive, in ways big and small and suited to our life circumstance and gifts, to assist in bringing not only ourselves but others to Christ. If you truly believe that something is true, wouldn’t you want as many people as possible to also be gifted with the knowledge of that truth?


Megan speaks then, saying, “Wouldn’t it be hard for someone who has dedicated their life to a particular religious custom and practice to cast it all away to become Christian?”


“I don’t deny that it would undoubtedly be hard to leave one’s old roots and ways of belief behind. However, not everything has to be forgone from another practice of faith when becoming Christian. According to the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions… often reflecting a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” [13] As an example, mindfulness is a practice of many eastern religions, such as Buddhism. The practice consists of quieting oneself and spending time in silence, with disciplined attention and an awareness of the present moment, refraining from making snap judgments about all the sensory detail around them. Mindfulness is also a Catholic practice with similar aims as that of Buddhism but with a key difference not of emptying the mind of all thought and feeling or of viewing the physical world as an illusion but of being more aware and attuned to God’s presence in our midst. As Dr. Gregory Bottaro explains in his book, The Mindful Catholic, ‘We are created in the image of God, who is the epitome of mindfulness. If mindfulness is awareness of the present moment, God is the present moment. He defined himself as ‘I am who am.’ God sees all as a present moment, and it is our goal to see as he sees. We will never see all that he does, but we can see what we see with the light of the present moment.” [14] Thus, mindfulness as a Catholic practice is being aware of the conditions of the present moment, not restless or unchecked in our thoughts, but allowing space for God to meet us in the here and now. Thus, for a Buddhist opening themselves up to Catholicism, they could still maintain their religious practice of mindfulness, just with a different framework and focus.


As our waiter approaches to give us the evening’s bill, each of us sits back in our seats, remaining a moment longer with the good food we have just consumed.


“I had no idea how important evangelization truly was, or where to even begin,” Julie admits as she gazes around the room. “I know there’s still so much more to learn, but I feel like I’ve got a solid starting foundation.”


“I’m still going to have to wrestle with some of the explanations you gave,” Megan says, eventually, “But, you’ve given me more to think about. I already love conversing with those of other faiths, but perhaps I’ll share a little bit more about what my own faith means to me next time I have the opportunity.”


As the three of us rise from our seats, I offer: “There’s a beautiful line from the Catechism that goes something like this: ‘The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love.”


Julie and Megan nod, “Now that’s something I’d think we can all agree on.”


[1] John 14:6 [2] Pope Paul VI, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate (October 28, 1965), §2 [3] Pope Paul VI, Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church” Ad Gentes Divinitus (December 7, 1965), §6 [4] Mark 16:15 [5] Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000, #846. [6] Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate, #4 [7] John 18:37 [8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #847 [9] 1 Peter 3:15-16 [10] Blumberg, Maurice, “What the Catholic Church Teaches on Evangelization,” Catholic Exchange, June 30, 2009, What the Catholic Church Teaches on Evangelization (catholicexchange.com). [11] Hahn, Scott, Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manuel for the New Evangelization, (The St. Paul Center, 2014), 15. [12] Pope Paul VI, Ad Gentes Divinitus, #25 [13] Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate, #2 [14] Bottaro, Gregory, The Mindful Catholic (Wellspring: Palm Beach, Florida, 2018), 4. 16 The Catholic Catechism, #850


Bibliography

Bottaro, Gregory, The Mindful Catholic (Wellspring: Palm Beach, Florida, 2018).

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

Hahn, Scott, Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manuel for the New Evangelization, (The St. Paul Center, 2014).

Pope Paul VI, “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate” (Vatican Press, October 28, 1965).

Pope Paul VI, “Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church Ad Gentes Divinitus” (Vatican Press, December 7, 1965).

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. New York: Collins, 1971.



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