Religious pluralism and the Catholic Church


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WHEN Pope John Paul II on 22 December 1986 recalled the Inter-religious World Day of Prayer for Peace held in Assisi on 27 October 1986, he clearly stated that considering the spirit which guided the whole day through preaching, fasting and walking, the certainty, instilled by the Second Vatican Council, ‘of the unity in the principle and aim of the human family and of the sense and value of the non-Christian religions’ became real ‘without any shade of confusion and syncretism.’ In order to better explicate the meaning of unity, the Pope went further: ‘The order in unity is the one hailed from the creation and the redemption’, so in this way it is ‘divine’. ‘It may be the case that persons are often unaware of this radical unity of their origin and destination, and their place in one and the same divine plan; and when they profess religions which are diverse and mutually incompatible, they can also feel that their divisions are insuperable. Yet, despite this division, they are included in the great and unique design of God, in Jesus Christ, who has "united himself in a certain manner to every man" (GS 22), even if the person in question is not aware of this.’ Moreover, given the aim of the gathering, which was a common prayer for peace, the Pope asserted: ‘Every authentic prayer is under the influence of the Spirit "who intercedes insistently for us... because we do not even know how to pray as we ought" but he prays in us "with unutterable groanings" (Rom 8, 26-27). We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.’1

The topic of religious pluralism within the Catholic Church is challenging and controversial. In a comment to the Allocution of December 22, Jacques Dupuis strongly stressed how the main text of the papal discourse was borrowed from the Conciliar documents, especially from Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) and Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). According to him, the pronouncements of John Paul II from his election up to 1986 echoed the ‘rediscovery of the universal economy of the Holy Spirit made progressively by Vatican II.’2


He detected this imprinting in many other texts, but nonetheless at the end of his comment he highlighted the theme of the prayer: the Pope, in fact, had asked the religious groups to gather in Assisi to pray. He had not asked them to pray together or to share a common prayer for multiple reasons: the meeting was official, the traditions involved were many with very different attitudes to prayer and meditation, and the sensitivities of the people belonging to each tradition were variegated. Even if they prayed differently, Dupuis clearly stated that the guidelines for Inter-religious dialogue issued by the Commission on Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, already allowed common prayer as theologically justified and concretely practicable. Moreover, prayer was considered to be a ‘form of dialogue which [went] to the deepest levels of religious life.’3

Jacques Dupuis was a theologian who lived and taught in India for thirty-six years. He had also been a Professor at the Gregorian University in Rome for nearly fifteen years and served as assistant to the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue from 1985 to 1995. He proposed his idea of religious pluralism through three books, but Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, published in 1997, was brought to the public eye as a groundbreaking work.4 The main question that the book aims to answer is whether theology can confer a positive meaning to the plurality of religious traditions in the framework of God’s design for humanity. Dupuis was trying to extend the exclusivist and inclusivist approaches, without however totally embracing the pluralist paradigm which, he felt, ‘denies the constitutive salvation of Christ.’ He shared along with other theologians the classic typology which is composed by three paradigms – exclusivism or ecclesiocentrism, inclusivism or Christocentrism, and pluralism or teocentrism.


Dupuis significantly helped encourage further debate on the topic by demonstrating that religious pluralism exists de jure in God’s providence, because the ‘Trinitarian, Christological model is capable of holding in creative tension the depth of God’s commitment to humankind in Jesus and the authenticity of other paths in accord with divine providence.’ By the end of 1998, Dupuis was suspended from teaching and the news that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – was investigating his views was all over the newspapers. As Archbishop Henry D’Souza of Calcutta later stated, he could hardly believe the news: the theologian was after all known for his orthodoxy. After thirty-two months, on 24 January 2001, the Congregation published a notification on Fr. Dupuis’ book, ‘intended to safeguard the doctrine of the Catholic faith from errors, ambiguities and harmful interpretations.’


What later came to be called ‘The Dupuis Case’ is not the main focus here. The debate on the querelle and on the topic in general has been wide and theologically robust. In order to understand the positions of the actors involved and the conception of religious pluralism itself, it would be useful to look at some of the documents to which both sides referred to. As John Paul II stated in the allocution recalled earlier, the main themes are (a) the centrality of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965); (b) the concept of unity in creation and redemption, which implies that creatures take part in the same divine design and in Jesus Christ; and (c) the notion of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the religious life of members of other religious traditions. Herein lies the idea that the only choice for dialogue is the reunion of all religious traditions in the main pillar of the Church: Jesus Christ.

No doubt the topic is controversial, but from a historical perspective the focal point here is the recall of the council. The Second Vatican Council was announced on 25 January 1959 and started working on 11 October 1962 after a preparatory period during which a Secretariat for Christian Unity was formed to work on the topic of ecumenism, but which soon also considered the intertwined issues of religious freedom and interreligious dialogue. Within the Secretariat’s activities and analyses, the relation of the Roman Catholic Church with Judaism and Islam received a more articulated evaluation than did other religious traditions for political, historical and theological reasons. The main one was that Jews were the principal others for Christianity; their relationship marked by allegations of common origin and subsequent betrayal. Islam, on the other hand, was the third monotheistic religion of the book and Muslims were expressing a strong disagreement with the Holy See’s recognition of Israel. Finally, the international context: the Bandung Conference was held less than five years before the election of John XXIII and the Cold War blocs had already been clearly defined. Moreover in 1960, the Vietnam war had begun and the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic, while John F. Kennedy had became the first Catholic President of the US.


How could the idea of renewal (aggiornamento) deal with such complex dynamics? Among the documents issued by the Council, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, NA), was proclaimed on 28 October 1965. Two Jesuits, Joseph Neuner and Paul Pfister (both Austrians, the first from Pune, India, and the second from Japan) were brought into the group of experts who wrote the second chapter, which is dedicated to Hinduism and Buddhism. It states: ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’

Moreover, when talking about dialogue, the declaration goes further: ‘The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men’ (NA 2).5

This is not the only document which at that time dealt with the topic of dialogue. For instance, in the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, issued on 6 August 1964, just a few months before the approval of Nostra Aetate, Pope Paul VI talked about ‘dialogue as a method.’ He enlisted the characteristics of dialogue and indicated some of the points which could be the basis for a dialogue with the ‘Worshippers of the One God.’ He recognized that the religious traditions were different and that while the Christian religion was the one and true, dialogue was possible and it could promote and defend ‘common ideals such as religious liberty, human brotherhood, education, culture, social welfare, and civic order’ (ES 108).6


Before Nostra Aetate, the debate was actually focused on the ecclesio-centric view: salvation was neither conceived nor possible out of the Catholic Church.7 But an important fissure had already been opened on 31 December 1952, when Pius XII gave a radio broadcast to the Church in India to celebrate the anniversaries of the supposed arrival of St. Thomas and Francis Xavier. In that address he referred to ‘whatever may be true and good in other religions.’ Even if he spoke of completion in Christ, it was nonetheless a long step after his encyclical Mystici Corporis (29 June 1943), where salvation was indicated as possible only through ‘baptism of desire’ within the Catholic Church. A second and even more striking sign arose during Paul VI’s visit to India on 3 December 1964: in front of the representatives of the various religions of India he quoted from the Upanishads, ‘From the unreal lead me to the real; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to immortality’ (Br [Brihadâranyaka] Up. I, 3, 28).8


Along with the documents just mentioned, the Council produced many other texts on the relationship between the Church and other religions. To look only at the second decade of John Paul II’s papacy we find, on the one hand, documents firmly fixed on normative Christology such as Christianity and the World Religions9 and Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even as the Dupuis case was still ongoing.10 Nonetheless, there are also some other acts or declarations of Pope John Paul II, such as the address given in 1999 after the silent pilgrimage to the Gandhi memorial to the representatives of other religions and Christian confessions. On that occasion, he stated: ‘To choose tolerance, dialogue and cooperation as the path into the future is to preserve what is most precious in the great religious heritage of mankind. It is also to ensure that in the centuries to come the world will not be without that hope which is the life-blood of the human heart. May the Lord of Heaven and Earth grant this now and forever.’11

It is not the task of the historian to define the pertinence or obsolescence of the theological typologies which are more commonly used when studying debates about religious pluralism within the Roman Catholic Church – exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism, ecclesiocentrism/christocentrism/theocentrism, or the more recent replacement/fulfillment/mutuality/ acceptance proposed by Paul Knitter.12 Looking at the historical context, however, it seems possible that the future frontier will be marked by the meaning attributed to the word ‘dialogue’.


It is equally possible that the acceptance of the plurality of religions and of the potential encounter implicit in the recognition of the validity of all of them in interpreting the transcendent absolute might even not be among the objectives considered important by the Catholic Church in the years to come. The long step of the Council was an intuition, the first of many other steps to come. Behind the declaration on non-Christian religions did not lie the long process of doctrinal exploration that had marked other Conciliar decisions, but a primary sense of otherness, which was definitely new and unprecedented. That sense evolved by reflecting on the special relationship between Judaism and Christianity as the key to understanding each and every otherness, without impinging on its religious dignity and within the framework of human freedom. Nostra Aetate opened up and called for dialogue and collaboration with the followers of all other religions (and not just of ‘non-Christian religions’) to promote both spiritual and moral well-being.


The event in Assisi showed that the ‘method of the dialogue’ must take into account what other religions are, with their ways of preaching and meditation. There is now a growing debate over the topic – even if there is no consensus – and a Church which might look more seriously at the Asian Churches through the eyes of its Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, or maybe through the eyes of one of the Pope’s eight counsellors, Oswald Gracias, who is President of the Indian Episcopal Conference, where three rites are represented (Latin, Syro-malabar and Syro-malankara).

Moreover, with the election of a Jesuit to the Papal seat, the floor is open to discussing his ideas and perspectives as well as to a more confident reading of the words of Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the order, who in a recent article clearly stated that the starting point for Ignatian spirituality is the unconditional openness to the other, approached with a pastoral and salvific spirit through the mystery and freedom of God, in a constant and continuing ‘state of discernment’. In his words: ‘When we undertake interreligious dialogue, our aim must be to help one another mutually to combine and direct our energies towards [such] global problems and opportunities, for the benefit of more human, more just, more caring and more merciful world.’13



1. John Paul II, ‘To the Roman Curia at the Exchange of Christmas Wishes’, 22 December 1986.

2. Jacques Dupuis, ‘World Religions in God’s Salvific Design in Pope John Paul II’s Discourse to the Roma Curia (22 December, 1986)’, Seminarium (1-2), 1987, p. 35.

3. Ibid., pp. 39-41.

4. Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1997.

5. Among the documents of the Council, other references to dialogue are given in Gaudium et Spes 92 (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; 7 December 1965), in Lumen Gentium 16-17 (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church; 21 November 1964), in Ad Gentes 11 (The Decree on Missionary Activity of the Church; 7 December 1965).

6. Both of the documents, in their Latin version, make use of the word ‘colloquia’, not ‘dialogos’, which might mean ‘conversation’, not ‘dialogue’.

7. Bernard Sesboüé, Hors de l’église pas de salut. Histoire d’une formule et problèmes d’interprétation. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 2004; Francis A. Sullivan, s.j., Salvation Outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response. Paulist Press, New York-Mahwah (NJ), 1992.

8. Paul VI, Address to Members of the Non-Christian Religions, 3 December 1964.

9. Christianity and the World Religions, Preliminary Note issued by the International Theological Commission in 1997. cristianesimo-religioni_en.html

10. Declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’. On the Unicity and Salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, issued by the Congregation for the doctrine of the faith, 6 August 2000. cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_ en.html

11. John Paul II, Meeting with representatives of other religions and other Christian confessions, Sunday, 7 November 1999, Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi. meeting%20other%20religions_en.html.

12. Paul Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2002.

13. Adolfo Nicolás, ‘Interreligious Dialogue: The Experience of Some Pioneer Jesuits in Asia’, The Way 50, 2011, p. 32.