This will be the last column of my series covering the historic gathering that I had the privilege to attend this past May at The Catholic University of America. The conference, “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims,” brought together some of the leaders of the world’s major religions. Three of those participants came representing Pope Francis and the Vatican. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Camerlengo of the Roman Church, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, all were in attendance. They each offered keynote addresses over the three day gathering.
I would like to focus on Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. He was involved in addressing Catholic-Muslim dialogue and also presided and spoke at a historical first in the United States, the first Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue with Hindus to take place on our shores.
In his opening address at the conference, Cardinal Tauran said that to better enter into dialogue with Muslims, Christians need to have a deeper understanding of Islam as a religion and a political system. “Despite 50 years of Nostra Aetate, we still don’t know each other well enough,” he said. “Most of the problems we face are problems of ignorance.”
One strength of Nostra Aetate, he added, is that it allows Catholics to recognize and appreciate truths in other religions.
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” he said, quoting Nostra Aetate. “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of acting and of living, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the one she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all.”
On the day the conference ended, some of us were invited to attend the historic gathering of Hindus and Catholics at the Durga Hindu Temple in Fairfax Station. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran presided as the distinguished guest, with leaders and scholars from both faiths reiterating the need for mutual respect not just in India but all around the world. Several speakers mentioned that Hindus and Catholics believe in the same God, with Hindus explaining it is a common misconception that their faith is polytheistic.
Rather, several of the Hindu speakers tried to emphasize that they believe in one Force, one God, who manifests in various avatars. In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of the deity to Earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being. The understanding of this phenomenon is most commonly referred to as “incarnation,” “appearance” or “manifestation.”
In attendance at the Durga Temple event, beside Cardinal Tauran, were Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., Bishop Mitchell T. Rosansky, chair of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde.
Cardinal Tauran closed the gathering with brief remarks on the “groundbreaking” Nostra Aetate, and how it has brought Catholics and Hindus in closer dialogue and understanding. He concluded his remarks by saying he looks forward to future dialogues of “friendship” with Hindus.
The keynote speaker, Jesuit Father Francis Clooney, who specializes in Sanskrit and Hindu India’s Tamil traditions as a professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard University, said, “We Catholics and Hindus are human. We realize we share the same divine mystery.”
The Hindu response was given by Anantannand Rambachan, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Rambachan, said that navigating the relationship between Hindus and Christians is “complex.”
“But we must be sure that our focus is on what is essential is not displaced. To be religious is to think of all dimensions of God…Respect for people of other faiths should not be conditional on their transformation into our likeness…We must not in haste or arrogance denounce other traditions because they differ from our own. No single way of speaking is exhaustive. No single way says everything about God…God is always more than we can understand with our finite minds.”
How true this is. Fascinating gathering!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.