Nostra Aetate Resource - Bishop Madden

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedThe Church in Relationship with Other Faiths

by Most Reverend Denis J. Madden
Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore

I am most appreciative of this opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on interreligious relations. I have spent a large part of my life participating in very enriching interreligious conversations. I began in earnest during my nine years living in Jerusalem, where I engaged in scholarly dialogues at my residence at Tantur in the morning and practical conversations working in a refugee camp later in the day. I have continued these conversations with interreligious partners up to the present moment.

I thought that I would focus on understanding the process of dialogue with members of other religions and one the most essential elements in dialogue—that is, the importance of listening as an indispensable component of spiritual maturity in interreligious dialogue.

Pope Benedict XVI reflected on his encounter with the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities during his apostolic visit to Lebanon: "It seems to me that the time has come to bear together an honest and decisive witness against division, against violence, against war. . . . Today's world needs clear and strong signs of dialogue and collaboration" (General Audience, September 19, 2012,

The world we live in today and the world we seek to build for the future will only be successfully navigated using the increasingly critical instruments of dialogue and collaboration.

The document entitled Nostra Aetate (NA), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, of the Second Vatican Council led the way for Catholics to foster interreligious dialogue. The bishops at the Council say:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all. (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate], in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996])

From Vatican II on, all Catholics have been exhorted to dialogue and collaboration with people of other faiths or, for that matter, of no faith at all, because we have the whole richness of humanity in common. We are in a common search for meaning.

Christ came to save all people—as Pope Francis famously said, even the atheists! We must not ignore others but rather encounter them and seek truth with them. We cannot just shut ourselves up in our churches.

St. John Paul II, in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, while insisting on the universal presence of the Holy Spirit, held that this does not mean that all religions are equal but that all religions bear the impulse of the Holy Spirit, found most fully in the Catholic tradition. Thus, we are not holding that all religions are the same.

In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue listed four types of dialogue: (1) Dialogue of Life; (2) Dialogue of Action; (3) Dialogue of Theological Exchange; and (4) Dialogue of Religious Experience.

To have a productive conversation at any of these levels, we need certain basic qualities. Pope Paul VI said we need clarity; meekness—not proud nor offensive but honest and charitable, patient and generous; trust; and pedagogical prudence—adapting our presentations to the sensitivities of the hearer so that we can communicate effectively. This brings me to the importance of listening.

Conversation is something we engage in every day, almost without realizing it. But dialogue is more than mere conversation. Dialogue presupposes a keen intentionality in a critical conversation between two or more parties on issues of mutual concern and often disparity, with the hope of arriving to an agreed and amicable resolution or end. Dialogue is an art. And as an art, the first canvas of dialogue is the open space created through the act of genuine listening.

Listening is crucial to our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. The truly contemplative soul is the soul positioned before God in a profound state of listening—and receptivity. Open to the creative activity of grace, contemplative listening is linked to the building of an authentic culture of life, because it provides a sacred space where the grace of God is free to bring about something new, to create and to infuse with life.

The same can be said for our relationships with one another—our deepest communication takes place in a context of listening and receptivity, and it is in this context that the grace of God finds its greatest freedom to act. And these relationships—our relationship with God and our relationships with one another—are intertwined. God is often speaking to us through the other.

Listening to one another can be a complex process. First of all, it requires attention. Yet attention can be hard. In my years as a clinical psychologist, I had to discipline myself to listen and to help my clients overcome their inner and outer distractions so that they might listen to me.

Listening is not just with our ears. It is with our head and our heart. When we encounter one another in dialogue, we need to make a personal investment of our being. A distracted presence will not do. We must, as Pope Francis likes to say, walk with and encounter the other. We must make a commitment to the other and to the relationship.

This requires a level of spiritual maturity. We need to root ourselves in our faith in God and devote ourselves to daily prayer. These are prerequisites to attentive listening to the other. We must ask for divine help to listen and to understand.

My experience of dialogue indicates that listening is part of the "journey of dialogue." At first we just need to pay attention and to show the other that we value what they say. Thus we need to be silent—not answering back with our views but just accepting and focusing "deeply on what the other person is telling you" (see Giovanna Pompele, "Burden Shared, Burden Halved," Living City [January, 2012], p. 30).

Deep Listening Can Lead Us to Deal with Our Obstacles

We may have within us resentments or angers or other things that impede dialogue. These may be personal. Our dialogue partners may have had a bad personal experience with a Catholic person or with the Catholic faith. It may still linger. So the question becomes, "What are we going to do with these differences?"

After a number of conversations and some months or years of walking together, the hurt or injury has an opportunity to surface and to be healed. Healing prepares the way for deeper conversation and more profound relationship.

We are looking for the truth together—sharing our beliefs and deepest understandings with one another. This leads first to mutual understanding and then to mutual appreciation. Sometimes, surprisingly, we can even begin to see commonalities. We also acknowledge our divergences and thus seek to build our dialogue on honesty and truth.

Dialogue Can Also Lead Us to Spiritual and Personal Growth

Genuine dialogue requires us to examine our own faith more intently and to understand it better. Our conversation may even lead us to discover that we have been mistaken in our understanding of Catholic belief. In communicating ourselves to the other, we inevitably learn to better understand ourselves. Self-disclosure often comes with deeper self-awareness.

And how often the example of the other leads us closer to God. When we listen intently to the other in dialogue, we may become aware of the creative action of God's grace and hear God speaking to us through our friend, our colleague. Although we may differ in theology and doctrines, without compromising them, how often contact with our interreligious partners exhort us to a higher moral conversion in our own lives, to a renewed commitment to our own tradition, and to a deeper relationship with God. The good example of the other, their dedication to their prayer and to a life of faith, can be an example for us.

The primary way that the catechist teaches about interreligious relationships is by example. If we engage our neighbors of other faiths as God calls us to, if we invite a friend to come speak to the students about an aspect of their faith, and if we show enough comfort in our own Catholic Christian faith to share it with our non-Christian neighbors, then the students will see that one can engage the neighbor in love and compassion and build mutual understanding.

This art of dialogue begins on the open canvas of mutual listening. Listening is the first and ever-present step in a process that, through God's grace, will take us to recognize the obstacles that separate us, heal old wounds, grow in our understanding of the other, grow in our understanding of self, and create a sacred space in which the genuine bonds of friendship, solidarity, respect, and peace can flourish. Building on our relationship, we can work together to build better communities and a better world.

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, September 19, 2012,copyright © 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.