Man With A Mission |
by Mark Fellows
"According to the Roman Curia's document on missions, which was approved by the Pope, the conversion of non-Catholics is not a principal element of missions, but interreligious dialogue is. "
With all due respect, the equivocation continues with his response to another of his own questions: "Has missionary work among non-Christians been replaced by interreligious dialogue?" On the one hand, the Holy Father is forthright: "salvation comes from Christ and dialogue does not dispense from evangelization." [RM 55] Moreover, "Dialogue should be conducted and implemented with the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation and that she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation." But on the other hand:
"Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission. Understood as a method and means of mutual knowledge and enrichment, dialogue is not in opposition to the mission ad gentes; indeed it has special links with that mission and is one of its expressions . . . In the light of the economy of salvation, the Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in interreligious dialogue . . . " [RM 55]
In fact the Church had seen a conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in what is now called interreligious dialogue. Events like the interreligious prayer meeting hosted by John Paul II at Assisi had been condemned by Pope Pius XI in Mortalium Animos. Pius advised all those outside the Church seeking unity and truth to find it by entering her doors. In Redemptoris Missio, however, Pope John Paul II at times, seemed to be digging for truth outside of the Church, and using dialogue as his shovel. Consider the following passage from RM 56:
"Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity. It is demanded by deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where He wills. Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover the 'seeds of the Word,' a 'ray of that truth which enlightens all people;' these are found in individuals and in the religious traditions of humanity
. . . "
That last sentence is not only debatable, but baldly ignores the manifest errors and snares by which false religions lead their adherents to violate the First Commandment. John Paul, however, sees in mission work primarily "a vast field [that] lies open to dialogue," through which "believers of different religions bear witness before each other in daily life to their own human and spiritual values, and help each other to live according to those values in order to build a more just and fraternal society." [Par. 57] Once upon a time mission work was "a vast field lying open" to conversions. After all, Christ's marching orders were not "Go ye into all the world to dialogue with the impious arid the confused, and learn to appreciate their false religions." Rather, He told the Apostles and disciples to teach and Baptize non-Christians in the true religion, and He emphasized: "He that believeth, and is Baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not, shall be condemned." [Mark 16: 16] Now to be fair, only two paragraphs before Paragraph 57 [just quoted above] the Holy Father was declaring that "salvation comes from Christ," and that interreligious dialogue should be conducted with the "conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation." Within the space of a few paragraphs, however, John Paul morphed into a radically different vision of a "more just and fraternal society" built on the inter-faith sharing of "human and spiritual values," asserting all the while that interreligious dialogue does not conflict with evangelization of non-Catholics.
What's going on? It seems that John Paul, in presenting the contradictory impulses of missionary work and interreligious dialogue as harmonious with each other, is either attempting to weld the tradition of "the other school" onto real Tradition, or is engaging in the slow process of superceding traditional Church teaching. 
10. This is not intended as a moral judgment of John Paul; it is merely the observation of a subtle, very patient tactic used often in the post-conciliar years to circumvent Church teaching.
In either case it is not a snug fit, and Pope St. Pius X expounded at length on the reasons why when he condemned a vision by Marc Sangnier, founder of the Sillon, that was quite similar to the interreligious "just and fraternal society" envisioned by the present Roman Pontiff. "What is to come out of this collaboration?" Pius X asked. His answer is a well-known passage that bears repeating:
"A mere verbal and chimerical construction in which we see, glowing in a jumble, and in seductive confusion, the words of Liberty, Justice, Fraternity, Love, Equality and human exaltation, all resting upon an ill-understood human dignity . . . the end result of this developing promiscuousness . . . will be a religion [for Sillonism, so the leaders have said, is a religion] more universal than the Catholic Church, uniting all men to become brothers and comrades at last in the 'Kingdom of God.' 'We do not work for the Church, we work for mankind.' " 
11. Our Apostolic Mandate, Letter of His Holiness, Pope Pius X to the French Bishops and Archbishops on the 'Sillon,' republished by Instauratio Press, 1990.
Given this incisive condemnation by a sainted Pope, it is not surprising that none of the footnoted text of Redemptoris Missio that praises interreligious dialogue for building "a more just and fraternal society" precedes the Second Vatican Council. In addition to creating a better world, John Paul believes that "Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion which, if pursued with docility to the Holy Spirit, will be spiritually fruitful." Normally one would assume the spiritual fruit of mission work would be conversions of non-Catholics to Catholicism. 
12. This was the assumption of Ad Gentes, a document which, it is interesting to note, did not contain the term "interreligious dialogue."
Yet given the almost studied ambiguity of this assertion, and the Holy Father's significant respect for other religions, perhaps it is not impertinent to ask: Who does the Pope envision being "purified and converted" by interreligious dialogue? Non-Catholics? Catholics? Both? John Paul's language is supple enough to support any of these answers.
"A Catholic Assessment"
It may seem unusual for a papal encyclical on missionary work to non-Catholics to dwell on the possibility that the non-Catholics may not need to convert to be saved, and to promote interreligious dialogue, not as a means of converting non-Catholics, but as an end in itself. But after reading the 50-plus-page chapter containing John Paul's comments about interreligious dialogue and non-Christian religions in John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue, it becomes apparent these are familiar themes for the Pope. Take, for instance, his remarks about Redemptoris Missio in a 1992 address to the Plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue:
"While affirming in this encyclical that proclaiming the Gospel is the permanent priority of mission, I also stated that 'interreligious dialogue is part of the Church's evangelizing mission' . . . genuine dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion, and only such a spiritual renewal will save the world from further widespread sufferings." [pp. 40-41]
Here, as in the encyclical, the Pope gives a nod to traditional teaching, ["proclaiming the Gospel is the permanent priority of mission"] then dwells on what would appear to be its antithesis. After reiterating his conviction that a vague, unspecified conversion experience will result from dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics, the Pope appears to take matters a step further when he states: "Interreligious dialogue at its deepest level is always a dialogue of salvation, because it seeks to discover, clarify and understand better the signs of the age-long dialogue which God maintains with mankind." [p. 40, emphasis in original]
This statement begs for a clarification that never comes. Since the Pope has already specified [at Assisi and in Redemptoris Missio] that the goal of interreligious dialogue is not the conversion of non-Catholics, the most obvious implication of the passage quoted above is that dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics can, in and of itself, be sufficient for salvation. Such an implication is startling, but not inconsistent with the Pope's tacit implications [expressed in Redemptoris Missio and elsewhere] that the Catholic Church is not required for salvation. The immediate objection that the Pope has expressly stated that the Church is "necessary" for salvation is duly noted. These occasional utterances stand in lonely opposition to an avalanche of contradictory utterances about interreligious dialogue. And unlike the occasional------and very welcome------pronouncements of orthodoxy, these contradictory statements have been supported by actions: the yearly interreligious prayer meetings at Assisi, encyclicals like Redemptoris Missio, books like Crossing The Threshold of Hope, and so on.
Confusion over the Pope's position is understandable, however, since studying the Holy Father's writings can at times be like reading a document from Vatican II: occasional orthodox passages are belied by more ambiguous passages,------and it is generally the ambiguous passages that have been quoted and implemented as reforms. To use Redemptoris Missio as an example, no matter how often he asserts it, John Paul just can't have it both ways: It is simply contradictory to assert the necessity of the Church for salvation, then assert that interreligious dialogue not geared to conversion is a "dialogue of salvation." [his emphasis] This contradiction can only be accepted by suspending one's logical faculties. Perhaps it would help to get an expert's opinion.
Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald is the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican. He has written Chapter 13 of Pope John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue, a chapter subtitled "A Catholic Assessment." Not once does he mention the Holy Father's occasional remarks regarding the necessity of the Church for salvation. Instead, he notes that in Redemptoris Missio John Paul revealed a "broader understanding of the concept of mission so as to include interreligious dialogue." [p. 214] This is an acknowledgment that Redemptoris Missio does more than provide continuity with Vatican lI's Ad Gentes, it is a development on it------the development being the elevation of interreligious dialogue to co-equal status with conversion of non-Catholics as the end of mission work.
Bishop Fitzgerald isn't this specific. Instead, he quotes Redemptoris Missio again: "Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements, and dignity." [Par. 56] He then introduces "a document of the Roman Curia approved by the Pope" [p. 214] that enumerates the "principal elements" of missions. The elements are: "presence and witness; liturgical life and prayer; commitment to the service of humankind; interreligious dialogue; proclamation and catechesis." [p. 214]
According to the Roman Curia's document on missions, which was approved by the Pope, the conversion of non-Catholics is not a principal element of missions, but interreligious dialogue is.
Just as Redemptoris Missio was a development on Ad Gentes, so is the curial document a development on Redemptoris Missio. This latest development defines interreligious dialogue as a principal element of missions, and omits even the mention of conversion of non-Catholics. Observes Bishop Fitzgerald:
"These elements are not geared to increasing the number of Catholics. This is not the aim of liturgy, nor of social action; they are not mere means to proclamation, but ways of giving expression to faith and love. Similarly, dialogue with people of other religions is not a means to their conversion, though, as the same document [the curial document] points out, in the course of dialogue 'the decision may be made to leave one's previous spiritual or religious situation in order to direct oneself toward another'." [p. 214]
Note once more the deliberate ambiguity concerning the conversion process that first the Pope, and now the Roman Curia and Bishop Fitzgerald, attribute to interreligious dialogue. Who is converting whom to what? The language appears to intentionally leave open the possibility that Catholics may leave their "spiritual or religious situation" as well. Such an interpretation is not inconsistent with the will of the present Pope, as it has manifested not only at Assisi, but in many other situations, such as an address to Philippine Muslims, wherein the Pope declared:
"I deliberately address you as brothers; that is certainly what we are, because we are members of the same human family . . . But we are especially brothers in God, who created us and whom we are trying to reach, in our own ways, through faith, prayer and worship . . ." [p 217]
In fact, Muslims deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ. So do the Jews, yet John Paul, in his historic visit to the Synagogue in Rome, referred to the Jews as "elder brothers" of Christians. One can shrug this off as the language of interreligious dialogue, but the term "brother" traditionally has meant someone of the same [i.e. Christian] faith. Given the Pope's comments, however, one can argue that he may actually believe Jews and Muslims are theological brothers, and that his use of this term may be deliberate. Or it may be related to what Bishop Fitzgerald believes are Pope John Paul II's "three themes": humanism, the idea of brotherhood, and the role of the Holy Spirit. [p. 215] In explaining this last theme, Fitzgerald quotes the Holy Father stating that the Holy Spirit "is mysteriously present in the heart of every person," and consequently, present in every human religion. [pp. 218-219] Rather than debate this debatable assertion, let it be noted that one who believes the Holy Ghost dwells in everyone and in everyone's religion would have no difficulty concluding that interreligious dialogue really is a "dialogue of salvation."
Next Week: Part Three: "A Jewish Assessment"
EDITOR'S NOTES: We have received the gracious permission of John Vennari, editor of Catholic Family News to reprint various articles he has published in the excellent Roman Catholic monthly publication. This multi-part article is by Mark Fellows, a regular contributor to CFN. Editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis.