Ilaria Morali, Specialist in Theology of Grace
ROME, 14 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)
The idea of dialogue with other religions needs some clarifications,
says theologian Ilaria Morali.
A specialist in the theology of grace, and a lecture in dogmatic
theology at the Gregorian University, Morali teaches courses on
salvation, non-Christian religions, and interreligious dialogue.
In this interview with ZENIT, Morali discusses what the Second Vatican
Council stated about dialogue with other religions, and makes
distinctions between doctrinal documents and pastoral texts.
A lay Catholic, Morali gives particular importance to the declaration "Dominus
Iesus," published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in
2000, to remind mankind that Jesus Christ is the only valid mediator for
Q: The first time the term "dialogue" is found in a document of the
magisterium is on Sept. 19, 1964. Can we say that, from that moment, a
doctrine of dialogue began?
Morali: Paul VI's encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam" was promulgated on Aug. 6,
1964, and was distributed to the Fathers, who participated in the Second
Vatican Council, on Sept. 15.
Note, when we speak today of dialogue we understand it almost
exclusively as interreligious dialogue. But in a more complete and
balanced view, as proposed by Paul VI, it is only one aspect of dialogue
between the Church and the world.
In relation to interreligious dialogue, Paul VI's encyclical came
therefore at a crucial moment between the institution of the Secretariat
for Non-Christians, which took place in May 1964, now known as the
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the promulgation of
"Lumen Gentium," the dogmatic constitution on the Church, on Nov. 21,
This occurred one year before the publication of the "Nostra Aetate"
declaration on Oct. 28, 1965, and the "Ad Gentes" decree of Dec. 7,
1965. "Lumen Gentium" is, therefore, the first magisterial document that
presents a whole number, 16, dedicated to non-Christians.
We can say therefore that a doctrine of dialogue took shape in its
essential principles with "Ecclesiam Suam," promulgated when No. 16 of
"Lumen Gentium" was already in the final phase of its writing. There is,
therefore, a privileged relation between the teaching on dialogue,
proposed by Paul VI, and the doctrine of "Lumen Gentium" on Christians.
To understand the magisterial idea of dialogue in Paul VI, I would
mention, in sum, at least three important points.
In the first place: Paul VI believed that reflection on dialogue must be
preceded by reflection on the conscience of the Church. The faithful
must be conscious of the vocation received at baptism. To forget such
dignity acquired by grace means to lose sight of one's own identity.
In the second place: The paradigm of dialogue that the Church
establishes with the world, and therefore also interreligious dialogue,
is the "colloquium salutis" [dialogue of salvation] established by God
in Christ with humanity. The Church must allow herself to be inspired by
this model in her approach to the world.
In the third place: This interest is translated in apostolic concern and
missionary action. Dialogue is precisely the name that Paul VI
attributed to the impulse of interior charity, which tends to become an
exterior gift of charity. Historically this is the first definition of
dialogue by the magisterium and the Pope presented it immediately after
the quotation of Matthew 28:19 on the missionary mandate.
I think, really, that a "doctrine" of dialogue began to exist 40 years
ago. Doctrine in the sense of a "normative teaching" of the magisterium
that establishes precise limits to the definition and the practice of
dialogue and, if forgotten, runs the risk of entering a view of dialogue
that is different from that of those who introduced it in the ecclesial
Q: What must be recalled of Vatican II in this connection?
Morali: The conciliar reflection 16 of "Lumen Gentium" gravitates around
the affirmation that non-Christians can attain eternal salvation and
that such salvation is realized through grace that operates in persons.
A careful description is given in this number of God's action in the
innermost conscience of men who are ignorant of the Gospel. I would like
to remind that no mention is made of the other religions as mediations
of grace or ways of salvation.
I add that "Lumen Gentium," 16, remained as constant reference in the
writing of the rest of the documents that subsequently would address the
topic of non-Christians: the "Nostra Aetate" declaration and the "Ad
I would like to make one final observation, in relation to the value of
I think it is not an accident that in an official writing on "Nostra
Aetate," Cardinal Augustine Bea [first president of the secretariat for
promoting Christian unity] explained to those who thought of attributing
to "Nostra Aetate" the value of a doctrinal document, that the
declaration only gave guidelines of a practical order on the specific
relationship between the Church and members of other religions.
Thus, "Nostra Aetate" was conceived as a practical appendix to the lines
dictated by "Lumen Gentium" and more generally of conciliar
ecclesiology. Whoever today in the ecclesial and theological realm tends
to forget "Lumen Gentium" and to attribute a doctrinal value to the
"Nostra Aetate" declaration falls, in my understanding, into great
ingenuousness and historical error.
Q: So, then, Vatican II never referred to the other religions as "ways
Morali: In regard to a judgment on the role of religions, the Council
spoke of "evangelical preparations" in relation to "something good and
authentic" that can be found in persons, and at times in religious
initiatives. In no page is explicit mention made of religions as ways of
From the historical-theological point of view, the patristic term of
"evangelical preparations" used by the Council in "Lumen Gentium" and
"Ad Gentes" is imitated by that vein of 20th-century theology that
defined religions as preparations for the Gospel, as opposed to the
thesis of religions as ways of salvation.
In a study that I will publish shortly, I show how, in the light of the
conciliar minutes, it is obvious that the Council in no way wished to
favor this last thesis.
Someone might object that this reading of Vatican II is already
contradicted by the very fact of the institution of the Secretariat for
Q: Yes, that's true. One could argue that with the creation of the
Secretariat for Non-Christians the Church goes beyond this idea of the
Morali: Indeed, many think that with the creation of this institution
the Church would give religions a saving and peer role.
But this is not so, I repeat, recalling a very important historical
detail: on September 29, 1964, hence, a few days after the distribution
of the encyclical to the conciliar Fathers, the latter received an
official Note which explained what the Secretariat for Non-Christians is
not and must not be.
Essentially, this Note stated:
that the secretariat "is not an organ of the Council," given that it
worked in an environment of "non-Christians," namely, of persons who "do
not have valid reasons to justify their presence in the Council."
the secretariat does not tend "to treat doctrinal problems, and much
less so to be concerned with the ministry of preaching and grace, or the
task of missionaries, but to establish contacts with non-Christians, on
questions of a general nature."
Warning was given of "the dangers, if one was not careful, that
threatened the activity of those who worked on the sense of the
Secretariat for Non-Christians": defeatism and indifference.
"By indifference we do not understand the coldness or incredulity of
some in regard to the Christian faith, but the attitude of those who see
all religions as being the same; in each one of them they see ways that
lead to the top of the mountain. Therefore, they say to themselves, that
if the guest arrives at the meeting, we should not be worried about the
path he took.
"In regard to syncretism, suffice it to know something of the religions
of the Far East to realize the force of such a tendency. All the known
beliefs come together and melt into one, so long as they present some
secondary common aspects. The phenomenon is so strong and general that
it has become a principle in the science of comparative religions. We
think it opportune to open wide one's eyes to these dangers." This is
found in the conciliar minutes [AS III/I, 30-35].
Q: Do you mean to say by this that Vatican II's documents are doctrinal
but those of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the
former Secretariat for Non-Christians, are pastoral?
Morali: As we see, this Note explains indirectly the reasons why the
"Nostra Aetate" declaration was not written by the secretariat and it
reminds us implicitly that the documents of the Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue are not of a doctrinal character, but only of a
practical and pastoral nature.
In light of what we have just said, we can affirm, therefore, that, in
the view of Vatican II, interreligious dialogue has an eminently
pastoral and practical role. This is also true for the documents issued
by the pontifical council.
Dialogue is a motion that comes from the Christian's conscience and
stems from the desire to communicate the unexpectedly received gift in
Christ: the gift of having been constituted children of God.
It also has, according to the view of the Church, an exquisitely human
function, of creating premises for an international collaboration
oriented to the overcoming of conflicts and the solution of problems.
[Sunday: Misunderstandings About Interreligious Dialogue (Part 2)]
ROME, 16 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)
Interreligious dialogue does not intend to relativize the truth, says
theologian Ilaria Morali.
In Part 2 of the interview with ZENIT, Morali analyzes the meaning and
nature of interreligious dialogue.
A specialist in the theology of grace, and a lecturer in dogmatic
theology at the Gregorian University, Morali teaches courses on
salvation, non-Christian religions, and interreligious dialogue.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday.
Q: Why can interreligious dialogue not be assimilated to what is
happening in the ecumenical realm?
Morali: The reason is quite simple: ecumenical dialogue takes place in
an intra-Christian context, between believers of different denominations
but united in faith in Jesus Christ. This type of dialogue should aspire
to achieve the reconstitution of the unity of Christians
it still does not exist
in the Catholic unity
it already exists in the Catholic Church.
Interreligious dialogue is a relation that is established between
Catholic Christians and members of other religions. There is no unity of
certain elements of faith as basis for this type of relation. The
superposition between interreligious dialogue and ecumenical dialogue is
a widespread temptation, which depends largely on the lack of clarity of
ideas within our communities.
Nevertheless, there is a common condition for the two forms of dialogue
indicated by Paul VI: awareness of the same identity. If, as Catholics,
we were to ignore the awareness of our identity in face of a Protestant
brother, we would fall into the same error of those faithful who,
because they want to dialogue with Muslims, are prepared to relativize
their own creed.
A Muslim friend recently said to me: "We want to dialogue with true
Catholics, not with half-way Catholics. From my point of view as a
Muslim, a Catholic who rejects some fundamental aspect of his faith in
order to dialogue would be like a bad Muslim who does not observe the
Koran. One dialogues if one has the courage of one's own identity. How
could we really know your faith if you deny, for example, the uniqueness
I think this is a very sensible consideration that would be useful also
to recall within some Catholic movements that say they favor
Q: Would it be better to speak of "colloquy" (as in Latin's
"Colloquium") rather than dialogue?
Morali: The Latin text of the encyclical "Ecclesia Suam" speaks of
"colloquium," term that is translated "dialogue," and was taken up again
by Paul VI in his addresses in Italian. I think that it would have been
more opportune and prudent if the original word had been kept, not only
because the term "dialogue" has known very different and ambiguous
meanings and applications in history, but also because today it is a
word that has been inflated; it is often used in politics, philosophy,
sociology, etc., at times to relativize or deny truth.
It is the opinion of many that there is dialogue because no one can
presume to know the truth. If this reasoning is translated to the
Christian realm, the concrete and tangible risk in many publications and
speeches is to relativize the unique value of the truth of salvation in
Jesus Christ. This is not the teaching of the Magisterium.
Q: Like the declaration "Dominus Iesus," you speak of two levels of
dialogue, the personal and the doctrinal. In what do they consist and
why were they criticized when this declaration was published?
Morali: First of all I would like to state a premise: in the present
moment, there is no Christianity-Non-Christian religions dialogue. There
is no such possibility by the very fact that neither Hinduism, Buddhism
nor Islam constitute in each case a unity presided over by a reference
authority. There are very different Buddhisms, Islams and Hinduisms
among themselves, although united by some distinctive elements.
This diversity, at times radical, would not be taken into account if one
of these religions was considered as an indistinct denomination.
Instead, there is the possibility to dialogue with individuals who
belong to one or another tradition of a specific religion. I don't
believe, therefore, that large-scale interreligious congresses are the
real image of interreligious dialogue.
Q: When does interreligious dialogue take place?
Morali: Dialogue is built in personal contact, in a climate of
friendliness and congeniality, not in an oceanic meeting. This is what I
have learned when meeting with Catholics who work in the area of
dialogue, when I myself have met with believers of other religions.
Having said this, dialogue between Christians and members of other
religions can take place at two levels:
on political and social topics, for example when we are questioned on
the role of religions in the peace process and humanization of the
in topics relating to religious doctrines, for example, the content of
salvation according to the corresponding religious doctrines. In this
connection, the declaration "Dominus Iesus" clarifies that, although on
the level of persons, insofar as persons, those who form part of the
dialogue have the same dignity, the same cannot be said on the level of
doctrines. If we are Catholics, there is a necessary difference between
the Christian message and the non-Christian message.
It might help to give an example. A few years ago I met with some
friends in the home of an elderly Japanese Buddhist. After speaking at
length on the salvation of the Pure Land proposed in Buddhism and that
of Christ, he said: "I am and will continue to be Buddhist, but I must
admit that the content of salvation proposed by Christ is of a
qualitatively superior level to that proposed by my tradition. The
elevation that is proposed to man by the redemption of Christ is very
much above that outlined in Buddhism. Christ poses questions that I can
hardly answer in virtue of my tradition."
In these days, I have heard the testimony of a missionary in Indonesia.
He recalled how Muslim journalists affirmed that the cataclysm of Dec.
26 must be interpreted as a punishment from God.
In the Christian view, God is a merciful Father and natural disasters
are conceived as an expression of a nature that has not yet been totally
mastered by man. The missionary explained how he encouraged this
explanation among some Muslim friends. Once again, the difference is not
based on the level of persons but of doctrines.
The fact that "Dominus Iesus" was badly received in some realms of the
Catholic world should not surprise us. It was a physiological fact:
there would have been no reason to write such a document if large
sectors of present-day Catholicism had not lost sight of the beauty and
fullness of the Christian message.
"Dominus Iesus" takes up again, in a certain sense, the same warning of
Paul VI in "Ecclesiam Suam," when he put the faithful on guard against
the temptation to lose the meaning and value of the gift received with
baptism and the Catholic faith.
Q: Is this why "Dominus Iesus" got bad press?
Morali: Behind the rejection of the content of "Dominus Iesus," is
hidden in general the rejection of the doctrinal authority of the
magisterium, because of the normative value of the tradition, of the
principle of the uniqueness of salvation in Christ. These are the
fundamental points of Catholicism.
Interreligious dialogue cannot be understood as an action with which the
Christian might get to know aspects of revelation or even of other
divine revelations parallel to the Christian. Whoever affirms this, not
only goes beyond the definition of dialogue admirably defined by Paul
VI's magisterium, but also does not recognize in the revelation in
Christ that unique character that is at the very heart of the Christian
From my point of view, with "Dominus Iesus" the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith has made a bold gesture, at the cost of a certain
popularity, again specifying principles that cannot be put to one side.
As a believer, moreover, if I lost sight of who I am and what I have
received through grace, I could promote a thousand initiatives of
dialogue, but none would reflect the Catholic idea.
All this should lead us to acknowledge that, 40 years after the
encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam," the hour has come to recover the first part
of its teaching on awareness of Christian identity. In opening ourselves
to the other, we have lost in part this essential aspect of our lives. I
am convinced that we must re-establish this balance in ourselves and in
our communities to give vigor and meaning to our initiatives and our
"colloquies" with persons of other religions. ZE05011621