Catholic Education and Interreligious Dialogue

Archbishop Michael Miller’s Perspective on “Nostra Aetate”

ROME, NOV. 27, 2004 ( Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, delivered an address last month on the Second Vatican Council declaration “Nostra Aetate” at the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas. Below is an excerpt.

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Catholic Education and Interreligious Dialogue 40 Years After “Nostra Aetate”

The Lay Center at Foyer Unitas
27 October 2004

At the outset I would like to thank Dr. Donna Orsuto for her very kind invitation which gives us the opportunity to share and discuss with you a topic of vital interest not only to the Church but also to contemporary politics: interreligious dialogue and the reception of “Nostra Aetate” in the world of Catholic education, especially that in institutions of higher learning.

Identity of institutions

I would like to address more explicitly a question that is at the back of many a mind, even if not articulated; that is, how does interreligious dialogue contribute to strengthening the Catholic identity of an academic institution? This question arises because “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” gives great prominence to affirming the university’s Catholic identity, insisting that “everyone in the community helps … towards maintaining and strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the institution” (No. 21; cf. Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, No. 135). It stands to reason, then, that the fostering of interreligious dialogue must spring from “a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive character” (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” 21).

In other words, authentic interreligious dialogue must further, not dilute, the specifically Catholic identity of an institution of higher learning. Some in the Academy, albeit I think a minority, are uncomfortable with the coupling of “Catholic identity” and “interreligious dialogue” and so have done little to implement the teaching of “Nostra Aetate.” For them such an undertaking is taken as “a sign of weakness or even a betrayal of the faith.”1

Despite this objection, however, a very good argument can be made to show that, in point of fact, a university’s Catholic identity is strengthened when it fosters interreligious dialogue, especially by introducing students to knowledge of other religions and encouraging professors to engage in it through their research. Indeed, it is more necessary today than ever for the university community to promote the firm Catholic conviction of the common vocation of humanity and the one divine plan of salvation in Christ who “is united in a certain way with everyone” (“Gaudium et Spes,” 22). …

4 questions

I would suggest to you that even an intermediate judgment on the extent to which the world of Catholic education has “received” Nostra Aetate could well be based on the answers given to how it has implemented the four forms of dialogue frequently mentioned in various magisterial documents: the dialogue of life, of action, of theological exchange and of religious experience.2

Dialogue of life and witness

The “dialogue of life” is an attitude and way of acting, a spirit guiding conduct. It entails what “Nostra Aetate” recommended as the precondition of all dialogue; Christians should carry it out “while witnessing to their own faith and way of life” (No. 2). Within the university, as elsewhere, it implies “concern, respect, and hospitality” toward those of other religions. A Catholic university or school, which receives students of all faiths, should leave room for “the other person’s identity, modes of expression and values” (“Dialogue and Mission,” No. 29). How well is this lived in our Catholic institutions? Are they truly open to others, ready to receive the “other” as a gift?

This dialogue of life also entails that Catholics in our educational institutions should bear witness to others in their daily life of their human and spiritual values and so help non-Christians to live in fidelity to the authentic values which they embrace.

Dialogue of action

A second measure which can be used is the “dialogue of action” or “dialogue of works,” what “Nostra Aetate” referred to as the need to “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (No. 3). This form of dialogue moves from attitude to cooperation, especially in areas of promoting the common good: issues of integral human development, justice, peace, human rights, and so on. “Dialogue and Mission” says that this “level of dialogue is that of deeds and collaboration with others for goals of a humanitarian, social, economic, or political nature which are directed toward the liberation and advancement of mankind” (No. 31).

In his numerous meetings with heads and representatives of other religions and states with strong non-Christian majorities, the Holy Father repeatedly stresses the importance of this dialogue of deeds, convinced as he is that “the various religions, now and in the future, will have a pre-eminent role in preserving peace. Again and again the Holy Father stresses that “when undertaken in a spirit of trust, and with respect and sincerity, interreligious cooperation and dialogue make a real contribution to peace.”3

It is also the responsibility of the Catholic institution of higher learning to apply itself to the search for peace: Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at a national and international level. University research will seek to discover the roots and causes of the serious problems of our time, paying special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” No. 32).

Even if not directly taken up as belonging to interreligious dialogue, the many initiatives, publications, conferences and institutes sponsored by Catholic institutions around the world — schools and universities — are a noteworthy embodiment of the hopes expressed in “Nostra Aetate.” It does seem to me, however, that these noble efforts might more explicitly be linked to interreligious dialogue, since the sure foundation for establishing justice, peace and human dignity must be based on a sincere exchange among believers.

Dialogue among experts

A third form of dialogue is that of experts — when the Council urged Catholics “to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions” (“Nostra Aetate,” No. 2). It enables specialists “to deepen their understanding of their respective heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values” (“Dialogue and Proclamation,” No. 42-c). Catholic universities, in particular, have a special responsibility in this regard since they are open to all human experience and ready to dialogue with and learn from any culture or religion. A Catholic university, “aware that human culture is open to Revelation and transcendence, is also a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture” (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” No. 43) and, I might add, between Christianity and other religions.

On this point we can affirm that Catholic educational institutions have been at the forefront. Not only do they offer courses, even at the very advanced level, on various religious traditions but they encourage their professors to take part in innumerable dialogues. Most importantly, they are training experts in philosophy, comparative religions, the social sciences and, above all, in theology to serve the Church. Were it not for these experts, funded and supported by many institutions, the Catholic Church would be sorely lacking the expertise it has in such matters. Moreover, precisely because Catholic universities are so committed to the dialogue between faith and reason, they are likewise committed to an interreligious dialogue based on “the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God” (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” No. 4). The question to be asked: Do Catholic schools, faculties, seminaries and schools engage in theological dialogue to the extent asked for by the Council?

Dialogue of religious experience

While the “dialogue of religious experience” overlaps with that of experts insofar as it has a theological content, it reaches deeper into the personal experiences of sharing prayer, contemplation, ways of searching for the Absolute and faith. It is that dialogue which “can be a mutual enrichment and fruitful cooperation for promoting and preserving the highest values and spiritual ideals” (“Dialogue and Mission,” No. 35). Theological dialogue is enlivened by exchanges at the level of religious experience, just as such discussions “can enlightened experience and encourage closer contacts” (“Dialogue and Proclamation,” No. 43).

Fostering the dialogue of religious experience can also be a way of strengthening an institution’s Catholic identity. Universities and schools, in particular, should give a practical demonstration of their faith in their daily activity, setting aside times of reflection and of prayer. Not only should Catholics be offered opportunities to celebrate the sacraments, but “when the academic community includes members of other churches, ecclesial communities or religions, their initiatives for reflection and prayer in accordance with their own beliefs are to be respected” (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” No. 39). How well do our educational institutions provide for such occasions? Do they not only respect but encourage others to be faithful to their religious traditions so that both Christians and non-Christians can genuinely grow in mutual esteem?

Summons to peace

By way of conclusion, as I draw this remarks to a close, I would submit to you that the world of Catholic education has taken more than the first steps in “receiving” the call for interreligious dialogue and cooperation so passionately set for by the Council Fathers in “Nostra Aetate.”

Certainly more needs to be done so that Catholic institutions of education at all levels can meet the challenge given to them by Pope John Paul II in “Novo Millennio Ineunte” when he spoke about “the great challenge of interreligious dialogue to which we shall still be committed in the new millennium, in fidelity to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council”: In the years of preparation for the Great Jubilee the Church has sought to build, not least through a series of highly symbolic meetings, a relationship of openness and dialogue with the followers of other religions. This dialogue must continue.

In the climate of increased cultural and religious pluralism which is expected to mark the society of the new millennium, it is obvious that this dialogue will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread specter of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history. The name of the one God must become increasingly what it is: a name of peace and a summons to peace.

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1 Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, “Dialogue and Proclamation” (1991), No. 52.

2 See, for example, Secretariat for Non-Christians, Dialogue and Mission (1984), Nos. 28-35; Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, “Dialogue and Proclamation” (1991), Nos. 42-46; and John Paul II, “Redemptoris Missio,” No. 57.

3 John Paul II, Message for the 1991 World Day of Peace, No. 7.5.

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