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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 156-177

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The Church and Interreligious Dialogue

Francis Cardinal Arinze


We are living in a world in which contacts between peoples, cultures, and religions are happily increasing. The Church lives and operates in this world. Not only are Christians very much a part of the world of today, but the Church herself appreciates more and more the elements of union and communion between peoples. She is moreover growing in her consciousness of her vocation to function as an instrument of unity and bridge-building. In our times, the Catholic Church has shown this particularly in her attitude towards the followers of other religions, especially as articulated in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and lived by the Church these last three decades.

I am therefore happy to put before you some reflections on the Church and interreligious dialogue. After making clear what we mean by interreligious dialogue, I shall spell out reasons why the Church is convinced that she should engage in this apostolate. This will lead to a fuller exposition of how the Church looks at other religions. I will then consider the situation in Africa and in Asia before turning attention to the continents that are traditionally Christian. [End Page 156] The universality of the Church will next engage our attention. We shall close by asking ourselves whether this new insistence on dialogue implies a downplaying of the Church's commitment to proclamation.

Essence of Interreligious Dialogue

What It Is Not

A useful approach to the definition of the essence of a thing is first to exclude what it is not. By interreligious dialogue is certainly not meant parallel or rival statements between believers in differing religions. It is neither mutual information nor an academic study of religions, although these exercises are good. Mutual tolerance or peaceful coexistence between the followers of various religions is good and necessary, but it is not enough and is not yet interreligious dialogue.

Interreligious dialogue is not an effort to unite several religions into one, nor an attempt to hammer out a lowest common denominator acceptable to all. This would lead to the error of syncretism, or religious relativism, or worse still, indifferentism, which most religions reject.

Interreligious dialogue is not the same as the proposal of one's religion to others in the hope that they may accept it. Obviously these two activities are not opposed. But they are distinct. "They should not be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable" (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 55).

The Heart of Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue is a meeting of heart and mind between followers of various religions. It is communication between two believers at the religious level. It is a walking together towards truth and a working together in projects of common concern (cf. Secretariat [End Page 157] for non-Christians: The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of other Religions, June 1984, n. 13). It is a religious partnership without hidden agendas or motives.

Christians who meet the followers of other religions in dialogue do so as Christians. They offer themselves to the service of God Who directs the history of salvation yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They do so as members of the religious community that is the Church, listening to other believers, showing a willingness to learn from them. It is hoped that these believers will reciprocate, listening to Christians witnessing to their faith and showing a readiness to learn from them.

Requirements for Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue, to be fruitful, requires in the participants such mental attitudes as respect, listening, sincerity, openness, and willingness to receive and to work with one another.

On the religious level it demands that each side in the dialogue leaves himself or herself open to the action of God for a deeper conversion of the individual toward the will of God for that person.

In the wider society beyond the participants, this dialogue presumes that freedom of religion exists, so that the individual is free to compare...


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