When Catholics engage in interreligious dialogue, their aim is not to convert their dialogue partners, but they should not exclude that possibility, say new Vatican guidelines on interreligious dialogue.
The document also cautions Catholics against joining in common prayer with followers of other religions, because of important differences in their understanding of God.
“In encounters with people of other religions and indeed all human beings, Christians must always make Jesus Christ better known, recognized and loved,” say the guidelines published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“Dialogue in Truth and Charity: Pastoral Orientations for Interreligious Dialogue” was published May 19 in conjunction with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the council’s establishment by Pope Paul VI.
“Interreligious dialogue, in itself, does not aim at conversion. Nevertheless, it does not exclude that it might be an occasion of conversion,” the document says.
For a true dialogue to occur, it says, both the Christian and his or her dialogue partner must know and practice their own faith. “With an attitude of respect and friendship,” it says, they share with each other their religion’s teachings and challenge one another to grow deeper in faithfulness and in understanding the truth about God.
“Experience has shown that for the individual firmly rooted in his or her own religion,” the guidelines say, “dialogue can offer a unique occasion to deepen one’s own religious beliefs, thereby facilitating growth and maturity.”
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the council’s 2008 plenary, the guidelines say the Church “encourages Christian partners in dialogue with the followers of other religions to propose, but not impose, faith in Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.”
Catholics engaged in dialogue must be “guided by faith, animated by charity and oriented toward the common good through mutual respect, knowledge and trust,” the document says.
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue included in the guidelines strong cautions about dialogue partners praying together.
“Often in the context of interreligious relationships, there comes a desire to pray together for a particular need of the society,” the guidelines say. “It is important, however, to understand that being able to pray in common requires a shared understanding of who God is. Since religions differ in their understanding of God, ‘interreligious prayer,’ meaning the joining together in common prayer by followers of various religions, is to be avoided.”
On some occasions, the document says, it would be appropriate for believers of different religions to pray in each other’s presence, but it should be clear to all that participants are not praying together.
The document also includes a discussion of “proselytism” and evangelization and how they relate to interreligious dialogue.
“Proselytism in the biblical sense of bringing people to conversion is good,” it says, but in many circles today it is used to refer to efforts to convert another using coercion, psychological pressure, threats, fraud or enticements. “At the table of dialogue, this kind of negative proselytism must be recognized for what it is: an affront to conscience and a transgression of natural law.”
In fact, the document says, promoting respect for freedom of conscience, human dignity and the right of all people to follow a religion, to change religious affiliation or to not believe is something followers of different religions can and should be doing together.
Catholics and members of other religions, it says, must work together “to ensure that governments honor their obligation to protect the rights of individuals as well as communities to choose, profess and practice their religious beliefs privately and publicly,” as long as public order and the rights of others are respected.
Again quoting Pope Benedict, the document says, “Dialogue in truth entails that all believers view dialogue ‘not only as a means of enhancing mutual understanding, but also a way of serving society at large’ by ‘bearing witness to those moral truths which they hold in common with all men and women of goodwill.’”
Catholics, it says, are motivated to engage in dialogue with others because of their belief that all people are brothers and sisters created by God; because God sent Jesus into the world to reconcile humanity to himself; and because the Holy Spirit is at work in the world and in the hearts of men and women, “even beyond her (the church’s) visible boundaries.”
Catholics believe that Jesus and his church are necessary for salvation, the document says, although exactly how that occurs in all situations may not be immediately apparent. “Whoever is saved by God is without doubt linked to, and in relationship with, the church, although at times not in an outwardly apparent manner,” it says.
“A person who does not appreciate the positive elements in other religions — as monuments for the human search for God — is clearly an inappropriate interlocutor for interreligious dialogue,” the guidelines say.
The obstacles to true dialogue listed by the document include: a lack of enthusiasm for witnessing to Christ, which is essential for a Christian; a temptation to think all religions are equally valid; syncretism, or a blending of elements from different religions; ignoring real differences, which in effect downplays the importance of a religion’s teaching; a weak faith or knowledge of one’s own faith; insufficient knowledge or misunderstanding of the beliefs of the dialogue partner; a lack of appreciation for the positive elements in the other’s religion; and using dialogue for personal, political or economic gain.