The Problem of The Relation of Christianity To Other Religions
By Dr. George Khoury
6. Contemporary Catholic Position: The Second Vatican Council (1960-1964)
Since the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic teaching concerning non-Christian religions involved a balance between two basic doctrines: the doctrine of God's universal love and desire to save all peoples, and the doctrine of the necessity of the Church for salvation, according to the theological axiom:"Outside the Church, there is no salvation." However, the discovery of whole new continents with civilized and morally good inhabitants in the 16th century effected a radical change in the way the Church understood the axiom"outside the Church, there is no salvation."
Pope Pius IX explained the meaning of "Outside" in these terms:"... it must equally be held as certain that those who labor under ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not held guilty in this respect in the Lord's eyes. But now, who would be so arrogant so as to lay down the limits of such ignorance, considering the nature and the variety of peoples, religions, intelligence and so many other things?
"This positive attitude toward those "outside" the Church has characterized Roman Catholic theology from the Middle Ages and right into the 20th century. The Second Vatican Council produced the first official declaration on non-Christian religions in the history of the Church of Rome. The "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions" originally dealt only with the Jews. But as a result of the objections of bishops from Africa and Asia, it was expanded to include other world religions. The declaration solemnly affirms that "all peoples comprise a single community" which has its one origin and goal in God, whose saving design extends to all peoples. It also declares that "the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions" and exhorts Catholics, through dialogue and collaboration with the adherents of other religions, to "acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral good" found among them.
The Catholic Church regrets past events which marred Christian-Islamic relations and after explicit mention of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the Declaration concludes with a statement on the Church's common heritage with the Jews, condemning all forms of anti-Semitism. The Council affirmed the universality of grace and salvation, stating that even atheists who follow their conscience are moved by grace and can partake in eternal life. It is worth clarifying that although the Church said some new and positive things about the non-Christian religions, it still maintained that "the Church is necessary for salvation," and that "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be found."
Through this document the Church invites the believers to recognize that there is truth in other religions, though not total truth. .The Church believes that other religions are channels of salvation, including the honest conscience of atheists; the Church bases its faith in God's universal love and his desire to save all people, and affirms the necessity of the Church for salvation. If in past times Christians adopted an exclusivist and absolutist stand vis-a-vis other religions, the Church invites all Catholics to recognize the truth and the moral good in other faiths and work at its preservation and enhancement. However, what is noteworthy about this document is that though the Church does speak of the universality of grace and salvation in and through these religions there is no mention of divine revelation. In other words the Church affirms the fact that there is truth and moral good in these religions but it does not mention the source or the mode of how this truth came to be in these religions.
Do these truths come from a human origin or a divine origin? If they come from a divine origin, does not this put Biblical revelation on equal footing with other religions? And if, on the other hand, the truth by which live millions of people and for which they are willing to die, is purely and merely a human truth, what would these believers say if they were told that the truth-claims of their religion are solely founded on human ground? These and other questions were not asked nor answered explicity by the conciliar document. However, we can infer the answer of the Church to these questions from what was explicitly stated in the conciliar document or from other pronouncements made by the Pope and other bishops, namely, that the Church is and remains necessary for salvation and that "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be found."
In other words, the Church affirms its perennial faith in the finality, uniqueness, centrality, and particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church believes in the universality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and that the uniqueness and the universality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ require the Church to maintain its mission of proclaiming that Gospel, while the awareness of its incompleteness and shortcomings keep it modest, open, and willing to learn from other religions. In his latest book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, tackles the problem of the plurality of religions and sheds some light on the presence of truth in them as he "attempts to show the common fundamental element and the common root of these religions." The Pope goes on and comments on the Vatican's document "Nostra Aetate" and states explicitly:" From the beginning, Christian Revelation has viewed the spiritual history of man as including, in some way, all religions, thereby demonstrating the unity of humankind with regard to the eternal and ultimate destiny of man ... There is only one community and it consists of all peoples. They have only one origin, since God inhabited the entire earth with the whole human race. And they have one ultimate destiny, God, whose providence, goodness, and plan for salvation extend to all."(P. 78)
The precepts and doctrines of these religions "reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men .... The words of the Council recall the conviction, long rooted in the tradition, of the existence of the so-called 'seeds of the Word', present in all religions.... In another passage the Council says that the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible structure of the Church (Cf. Lumen Gentium 13), making use of these seeds of the Word... "(p. 81)
In other words, the Church recognizes that God is the source of much truth that we find in other religions and that the Word of God enlightens everyone in his and her religion. The Holy Spirit not only sanctifies the souls and hearts of believers but equally makes his truth shine in their conscience and faith. But the Church affirms, nonetheless, that God's truth in other religions is only partially perceived and mixed with many elements of untruth and error. Therefore, "the Church proclaims, and is bound to proclaim that Christ is 'the way and the truth and the life (and that) no one comes to the Father except through Him."(Jn 14:6). 7.
In guise of conclusion: I would like to invite Arab Catholics everywhere to focus their attention on the common cultural and civilizational heritage they share with their Muslim brothers in the Arab World. As the Council states very explicitly our relations with Muslim believers have not been always positive and constructive. Many of our views on Islam were and still are based on erroneous judgments, biases, and total ignorance. This did not help matters at all.
Our prejudiced and negative attitude towards Islam had the very forseeable and inevitable result of deepening our common mistrust and animosity. The Church now, through its official teaching, and through the person of the pope himself calls upon us all to shed the ignorance and enmity of the past and turn a new leaf, which means none other than to start educating ourselves more and more about things Islamic. We must begin reevaluating and appreciating those essential elements that constitute the heart of the Islamic faith: the Qura'n, the personality of the prophet Muhammad, his sayings and his achievements, Muslims' unwavering faith in one God and their daily faithfulness to prayer. All of these things beside many others should become the object of our study, respect, and admiration. And in so doing, we necessarily release on the part of Muslims a reciprocal attitude of greater appreciation and understanding of the Christian faith.