by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Chapter 14: Catholicism and Other Religions
In the opening chapter of the document, the council Fathers teach that all people have a single origin and one ultimate end, namely, God himself. His "providence," the "witness of his goodness," and "counsels of his salvation" extend to all human beings. His salvific will is universal (the document refers to a chain of scriptural texts), but this means that he owes it to himself to offer all human beings whatever means are necessary and sufficient to attain salvation.
Does this mean that other world religions should be thought of as such "means of salvation"? The text does not say
so. Scripture speaks of the Noachic covenant, made with all the peoples of the earth. But this is little more than
a promise of God's fidelity to his own created, work. It has no obvious bearing on the providential character of
the ~ particular religious traditions with which the Christian missionary or theologian must deal. These religions
are historical creations With debts to a conditioning society and culture. The Noachic covenant may be illuminating
for Jean Daniélou's "holy pagans" of the Old Testament, but it cannot be taken to legitimize, without more ado, all existing
world religions. Yet it may be relevant to them.
If the same mystery is approached less by way of the material object of faith, and more by way of its subjective condition, a still more generous conclusion is possible. The "intention of faith," in Catholic theology, consists in the good disposition of the person to his or her last (supernatural) end, and, consequently, to the necessary means for attaining that end. Those necessary means are of course the regime of grace, while the subjective disposition required is faith. In the normal scheme of things, it is through the apostolic preaching that this intention of faith encounters the object adequate to it, namely God's redemptive and reconciling work in Jesus Christ and his Spirit. Failing that, at least it finds the "minimum material object," as it were the minimal sacrament of salvation.
A question is raised by Catholic writers in the modern period, conscious, inevitably,
of the massive cultural facts of paganism and atheism of which the Fathers and medievals were either unaware or
which they happily escaped: If the intention of faith does not encounter even this minimum object, and the person
remains invincibly ignorant of God - for many doubt or ignore the existence of a personal absolute - may it not
be said to find an outlet in adhering to some substitute for God, like devotion to a great cause (e.g., justice,
truth, brotherhood peace; one might add, in the postmodernist context, reverencing "other"), treated as though that mighty preoccupation
were an absolute? Objectively, these values could be considered the idols - the alternatives to God - of the contemporary
world. But on the subject level, may they not function instead as so many "species" (really, propriating instruments) whereby, tacitly and unconsciously, human conscience
seeks and honors the true God? Some Catholic theologians would answer, mindful of the Hebrews text already quoted,
no: there must always be explicit knowledge of the object of salvific faith, albeit granted "by God himself or through an angel," as Augustine
puts it, in the moment of death. The pars gravior of Scripture favors this view. In the Bible, whenever the field of salvation is extended
beyond the limits of the people of God (with, say, the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah, or the "queen of the South" in our Lord's reference
in Matthew 12), it presupposes not only explicit faith in the exis~ tence of God but also some reference to the
positive economy of the Judaeo-Christian revelation. Yet there is a second strain as well in Scripture: that catena of
texts which opens up wide possibilities of, at any rate, non-damnation (for some commentators would speak of those
who cannot reach theistic assent as moral infants, destined for. "limbo"), on the principle that God will render to each according to his or her work. For
Paul, persons who, lacking the law of Moses, have for law their own conscience will be assessed on that basis before
the judgment seat of God. Although performing good works for fallen humanity is impossible without the help of
grace and entering into the orbit of the sovereign plan of Christ (cf.
Eph 1:19-23; Col 1:15; 2:9), Paul nonetheless envisages a reward at the
end of time to which no other name than "salvation" seems appropriate for those who, on the basis of conscience, carry out such deeds.
By extension, presumably, for followers of various religions (or anti-religions), bound to travesties of God, the
unum necessarium would be
to maintain such an attitude in their works - humility of heart and openness to the promptings of the light - as
would not deprive God's ultimate plan of efficacy. In such persons of good will, the intention of faith would be
present, though it would only reach its proper term eschatologically.
How, then, does the Catholic Church see other religions? We must begin with Judaism, the Church's own root and mother. Not only does our New Testament still contain a letter to the Hebrews - Hebrew Christians, Jewish Christians - but its whole canon bears witness to the pangs of birth as the Church emerges from Judaism. We may be tempted to think of this as the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, but this would be to ignore the tragic sense of loss, breathed by so many pages of the New Testament, at Israel's failure to recognize the Christ. There is nothing tragic about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar.
It is true that many Christians understand the Old Testament better than some Jews. It is also true that the Church's own understanding, as the englobing subject of revealed faith, surpasses in range what Judaism can say of its own Scriptures. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that there must be a special inwardness or intimacy in the way that Jews live with the Hebrew Bible and the other literature that made, or reflects, the world of the Gospels. No Gentile can, for instance, feel the devotion to the Torah that a Jew feels. No Gentile Christian can grasp the implications of Jesus' identification of himself as the Torah in person in the way that a Jew might. In this perspective it is extremely unfortunate that the church of the Hebrew Christian failed to survive within the Catholica. Had it done so, the universal Church would have included within the unity of the same faith, sacraments, and governance communities especially devoted to the memory and observances of the Jewish ancestors of the Christian way - a living witness not only to non-Christian Jews but to Gentile Catholicism also.
The principal Jewish objection to the Church where doctrine is concerned is her
affirmation of the divinity of Christ. However, it can be noted that in the first centuries of the Christian era,
the same theological principle guided a process of internal clarification among both Jews and Christians: the infinite
qualitative distinction between the uncreated and the created, ruling out as this does any suggestion of intermediate
beings or conditions. Just as Judaism pruned away its more extravagant apocalyptic imagery, and a tendency to angelolatry,
so the Church shunned the homoiousion
("like in being [to the Father]")
of the semi-Arians and clove to the view that either Christ is consubstantial with God or he is of no transcendent
significance whatever. It is possible that it was an initial encounter with an implicitly heretical Christianity
rather than direct confrontation with the orthodox tradition of the Nicene faith that accounts for the vehemence
of rabbinic Judaism's rejection of patristic Christianity.
Judaism's distinctive continuing light can add to the Church an orthopractic concern
with the mitzvoth, the divine
precepts, whose actualization is a sign that makes present the Creator's reign and a celebration of a total liturgy,
referring the creation to the Creator and so consecrating it to God through human agency.
But the declaration also refers to the "many
quarrels and hostilities" between Christians and Muslims in the course
of the centuries. It is natural that there would be some hostility toward a distinct religion originating from
the Abrahamic root at a time when salvation through faith in Christ had already been available to humankind for
six hundred years - a cult, moreover, that proceeded, largely by force of arms, to displace Christianity as the
dominant religion throughout the Near East and much of the Mediterranean world, including the Holy Land itself.
In the last century or so, Catholic scholars have made a great effort of sympathetic understanding in the study
of Islam, but there have been few signs of reciprocation by Muslim scholars. The 1985 invitation from the king
of Morocco, who claims descent from Mohammed and the title "Commander
of the Faithful," to Pope John Paul II to address an audience of young
Muslims from a number of countries was a rare (and eagerly accepted) opportunity for dialogue. Muslims know Jesus
only via polemics, of which, among more gracious materials, the Koran provides the earliest example: the idea that
Jesus is the Son of God appears there as absurd and indeed blasphemous.
Nostra aetate speaks of the way Hindus "contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical enquiry," while also "seeking freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or [through] profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust."  This is, evidently, an attempt to seize what is essential in Hinduism's bewildering variety of forms, while at the same time judging their truth and goodness within a Catholic Christian perspective. The conciliar statement is notable for its restraint, for some Catholic authors have seen in certain features of Hinduism a prefiguration of the Christian revelation. The Hindu worship of a supreme deity, whose nature is described as "being, knowledge, and bliss" (the absolute of the Vedanta), but who is also conceived as having a personal form (manifested as Shiva or Vishnu, Rama or Krishna), can lead to an emphasis on the love of the deity, shown to his worshippers by the bestowal of grace. Further, the notion of the avatara bears a resemblance to that of incarnation, while the final human bliss is sometimes presented as union with God in a total surrender to his goodness. Such intimations are from the Church's standpoint engraced intuitions of true eschatology. Unfortunately, this is by no means the only strand in Hinduism. The mythological world, pullulating with gods, symbols of a divine multiplicity, stands over against the critique of both myth and pantheon by the prophetic spirit of Israel. The non-dualist (advaita) monism of the medieval metaphysicians of India, firmly grounded as it is on a majority of the Upanishadic scriptures of Hinduism, is incompatible with the Creator/creation divide which lies at the root of the attitude of adoration in Judaeo-Christianity. In both of these ways, the experience of the divine presence - at the core of both the cosmos and the human heart - has been, to a Catholic Christian sensibility, misinterpreted by Hindus. Yet there remains, hidden within Hindu asceticism, something that Catholic theology can recognize as an impulse of the Holy Spirit. Long before the Word incarnate appeared on earth, before, indeed, the prophets uttered the word spoken to Israel, many in India had already heard from the Holy Spirit speaking within them the call of a life of complete renunciation of worldly things. The sannyasi, living hermit-like in the forests of India, or wandering from place to place with no fixed abode, can also represent the Spirit's call to the Church to deepen the interior life of Christians, to give contemplation primacy in the Church's common life, to re-examine the mystery of God's presence in the depths of the heart, to become as aware of the cosmos as a manifestation of the glory of God as of history as manifestation of his providence.
If it is encouraging to a Christian observer to see how, in the development of Indian religion, a tendency arises to displace impersonal categories in favor of personal, a similar trend can also be noted in Buddhism.
In the same pre-Christian period to which the personalist elements in the Vedanta
belong, we find the beginnings of devotion in the austere religion of Buddhism. The cultus of the Bodhisattva,
the enlightened one, who in love and compassion for the world refuses to enter Nirvana till all living things have
been delivered, is a kind of premonition of the Savior (to be further ratified in the "Amida Buddhism"
of Japan). Without any direct influence from Christianity (though some Hindu scholars have speculated about possible
Nestorian influence on the rise of devotion to Krishna, frequently portrayed as a babe in his mother's arms), both
Hinduism and Buddhism took a personalist turn on the eve of the incarnation. But the task of Christianity in India
today is to show how Christ, in the fullness of his divine and human natures, comes to answer the problem posed
by the Vedanta itself.
To redeem the world, however, as this study has testified, the All-present himself passed into the closed circle of the human family. Stage by stage he was initiated into it: by birth, by circumcision, by presentation with sacrifice, by instruction, by attendance at the feasts. In the baptism of repentance, he immersed himself in the spiritual reality of our sin and its effects in estrangement from himself. In all this he acted as the new head of the human family. Willingly incorporated into the old Adam for our sake, by the perfection of his obedience he won back all things to what we were meant to be. He reconstituted the whole organism upon himself as the Second Adam - as Irenaeus showed in his great theology of recapitulation. He then offered us a sharing in this humanity, that we might become a new tree from a new stem.
What, in conclusion, is the practical attitude of Catholicism today to other faiths?
It was well expressed at the Assisi "world day of prayer for peace" hosted by Pope John Paul II at the shrine of the peace-lover Francis on 27 October
1986. There, in welcoming "representatives of the Christian Churches
and Ecclesial Communities and World Religions," the Pope drew attention
to the fact that "the form and content of our prayers are very different.
. . and there can be no question of reducing them to a kind of common denominator,"
while also insisting that a "common ground" could be found in the "dimension of prayer,
which in the very real diversity of religions tries to express communication with a Power above all human forces." The structure of this occasion, at which the Pope presided, gave body to this nuanced
position. This took the form of (1) separate prayer, in distinct locations for each religion, (2) common silent
meditation on what had been prayed, and (3) a symbolic corporate self-commitment (to peace). At the same time,
in his sermon the Pope witnessed to the faith of the Church that Jesus Christ is the universal Savior, the sole
It is precisely according to her own revelation that the Church is able to find
nuggets of gold in these other religions. "The Catholic Church rejects
nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and
of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many respects from what she holds and sets forth,
nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men."
Christ is totus Dei, "wholly God," but he is not totum Dei, "the
whole of God." Without the Son we cannot speak of the Father, yet
that speaking is never completely exhausted in history, for the Spirit constantly calls us into a deeper understanding
of God in Christ, not least through the challenges of the other religions. Catholicism itself condemned the (Jansenist)
position that "outside the Church no grace is granted."
Newman was thinking of the Church as pre-existent in that community of faith whose father is Abraham. She had garnered the good wheat of truth from fields set in the wilderness of pagan culture, for the better understanding of her own Christ-centered mission, when once it came. "We are not distressed to be told that the doctrine of the angelic host came from Babylon, while we know that they did sing at the Nativity; nor that the vision of a mediator is in Philo, for in very deed He died for us on Calvary."
In the radiance of the Epiphany-light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of God's people, Israel - the Church can see more, not less, even though the historic revelation is completed and we can expect no fresh truths but only the unveiling of truth's own face in the age to come. The Church, en route between Pentecost and the parousia, can continue to find analogues of her own truth in the cultures of the unbaptized; not merely, indeed, echoes of the truth she knows consciously, but instruments for the fuller appropriation of its inexhaustible richness.
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Ibid., 1.
5. Ibid., 2.
6. J. H. Newman, "Milman's View of Christianity," in Essays Critical and Historical(London, 1890) 2:232.
7. Ibid., 2:233.
Copyright © 1996 by The order of St. Benedict , Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota
Epiphany. A Theological Introduction to Catholicism by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
[This book appears to be now out print. Perhaps you might be able to obtain a copy through this link OUT OF PRINT BOOKS. Mark Alder.]