Master's Program Has Eye on Ecumenism and Dialogue

Interview With Professor Joan Andreu Rocha

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ROME, MAY 26, 2005 ( Before dialoguing with other religions and Christian denominations, it is imperative to know one’s own faith as well as theirs.

This is the idea behind a new master’s degree in “Church, Ecumenism and Religions,” which the School of Theology of at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University will offer starting in October.

ZENIT discussed the program with its director, professor Joan Andreu Rocha Scarpetta, who planned the new master’s with Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of the athenaeum’s School of Theology.

Q: Why is this new master’s being launched when there are already others on ecumenism and dialogue?

Rocha: This master’s is in response to the need to know religions better in the present world context, in which the religious dimension has shown its importance, but in which relativism often arises for lack of criteria.

There are other initiatives of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but we are interested in the level that precedes true dialogue, namely, knowledge of others. Dialogue comes later.

The master’s is designed above all for those people who would like to know and need to know what other Christian confessions, other religions, and alternative religious movements — sects, New Age, etc. — are, and what they believe, and what the Catholic Church says about them.

In this connection, the master’s is completely attuned to the desire of Pope Benedict XVI, who has assumed “as a primary commitment to work tirelessly for the full and visible reconstitution of the unity of all the followers of Christ.”

Q: Is there a danger that the ecumenical effort and interreligious dialogue will damage the impetus of evangelization and the missionary spirit?

Rocha: A distinction must be made: Ecumenism is very different from interreligious dialogue, although the new master’s addresses both aspects.

Ecumenism seeks the unity of Christians, divided for historical and doctrinal reasons, but having Jesus Christ as their point of reference. It is Jesus Christ himself who desires that “they all be one.”

If Christians are not united, it is difficult for them to be credible in the world. Without ecumenism, mission and evangelization are weakened, because one is looking outside without having solved the problem inside. Hence the importance of knowing first the other confessions, churches, and Christian communities before moving toward a dialogue that leads to unity.

Interreligious dialogue is something altogether different. As Catholics, it is a question of understanding the reason for religious diversity, as a historical and cultural fact. Why are there different religions? What is their meaning in the light of Christ’s revelation? To ask these questions, we must first know what the other religions are.

Knowledge and one’s own identity are the foundation for dialogue. There is no sense in dialoguing when one doesn’t know who one is and who the others are.

The mission is based on this knowledge, and dialogue is not its substitute. What is more, as the magisterium has clearly pointed out, true dialogue is an aspect of mission, because it means above all the testimony of one’s faith.

It does not mean the loss of identity but the reaffirmation of religious identities vis-à-vis others, recognizing the other’s otherness, but at the same time the particularity of one’s own faith.

We wish to offer the prior and indispensable elements to establish a fruitful ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, namely, basic knowledge of the other Christian confessions, of the other religions and alternative religious movements, pointing out the similarities and differences with respect to the Catholic faith.

Q: How will this program of knowledge of other confessions and religions be implemented?

Rocha: The objectives of the master’s are to offer the necessary elements to affirm and give consistency to the faith itself in the face of the other confessions and religions, and to know the history, doctrine, characteristics and present importance of the other Christian confessions, religions, and alternative religious movements.

To achieve this, the master’s is divided into two academic years, with courses being held on Wednesday afternoons. The program is divided in four parts that comprise the comparative study of religions, Christian confessions and ecumenism, the great religions of the world and interreligious dialogue, and alternative religious movements.

The methodology will be the presentation of the Christian confessions and the great religions of the world, showing the historical relationships with the latter and studying the magisterial and theological documents that express the norms and orientations of these relationships.

In addition to the classroom lessons, the master’s program also includes the reading of texts available on the Internet, facilitating the classroom work with the reading of documents for further reflection.

The first year includes the presentation of the great themes of religions presented in a comparative manner — first semester — and of the relationships of the Catholic faith with other Christian confessions, as well as the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism — second semester. The master’s begins in October 2005.

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